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The Other America: Poverty in the United States by Michael Harrington

March 16th, 2012

Review By Barron Laycock

Few works of contemporary non-fiction have had more lasting impact on the social consciousness of the overall society from which it arose than "The Other America: Poverty in the United States", Michael Harrington's now classic tome on the egregious conditions under which what we would now call the "underclass" lived in mid-20th century American society. With an uncommon verve and uncanny precision, Harrington painstakingly detailed the disgusting and shocking realities of life for those many millions of Americans of both color and ethnicity living lives of desperate poverty in the midst of the affluent society. Millions of readers, myself included, were shocked to discover the extent to which this world coexisted with our own, and many of the social action programs that arose in the 1960s and thereafter used this book as a kind of reference guide to the realities of poverty in contemporary society. Indeed, what is most disturbing about anyone re-reading the book is the discovery of how little conditions have changed for those who through the accident of birth, color, and ethnic origin, find themselves inexorably trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty.

Sadly, for all the glad-handing of politicians and the proclamations by global corporations of the new and more widespread prosperity of the 1990s, the sobering truth is that very little progress has been made. Indeed, in more recent books such as William Finnegan's excellent "Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country", Harrington's basic thesis of the co-existence of a starker, poorer, and powerless populace left stranded to live lives of quiet desperation is reconfirmed, putting the lie to the many proclamations of universal opportunity and promise that politicians now ballyhoo. The book, which was first published in the early 1960s, was required reading for most introductory sociology and contemporary history courses, and millions of young academics first learned of the extent of the national problem through a reading of this book. It is, in that sense at least, a modern classic. Harrington's basic thesis is incontrovertible; poverty is extensive and endemic, and is usually hidden from the view of most affluent Americans due to the ways in which the two subcultures coexist in modern society. Through the de-facto residential segregation of the two elements of the society, there is little meaningful contact, and the media tends to ignore the facts of the existence of the underclass, portraying arch-types which conform more to the sensibilities of the more affluent segments of the society that regularly view its programming and enforcing unrealistic images of what exists. As a previous reviewer commented, we no longer habituate the same environments, and we tend to avoid all unnecessary contact with anything to do with this other world of poverty and want. What Harrington originally described in such anguished and inflammatory terms, hoping to purposefully ignite America's slumbering conscience, has instead become a permanent feature of our conscienceless socio-cultural landscape.

It is a sad truth that Harrington's book is as timely and as shocking today as it was some forty years ago. His account of the fate of millions of impoverished people of color and ethnicity remains as cogent and as relevant as it was then. Despite the long and tortured history of the social legislation that attempted to rework this problem in the decades since, the reality of the situation seems to be that nothing much has changed in terms of the life-chances and hopes of the members of the underclass. It remains a mainstay of introductory courses in social stratification, providing an excellent overview of the myriad of the sociological, political, and economic issues surrounding the underclass, and is a wonderful example of just how important one man's vision of the truth can be in orienting others meaningfully toward rectifying a social problem. Poverty may remain, as they say, always with us, but the shocking truths found in this book still sheds the light of day into an unappetizing aspect of contemporary society we all should be aware of.

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“Mike Harrington has made more Americans more uncomfortable for more good reasons than any other person I know. For most people, that would be achievement enough. But for Mike it was only the beginning—because the more he saw that was wrong with America, the harder he fought to make it right.” –Senator Edward Kennedy

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