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The new American poverty.


Twenty-two years and a dozen books after The Other America, Michael Harrington tells us that if the numbers of the poor haven't changed--and they haven't--the nature of poverty has. Unlike its predecssor, The New American Poverty has to deal "not with an ignorant indifference that makes the poor invisible, but with a sophisticated and "scientific' attempt to define them out of existence.'

This time the poignant vignettes of pain, vividly drawn in his earlier book, are mostly gone. But it is disingenuous of Harrington to say that he regrets taking leave of the Other America in order to account for the "macroeconomic structures' that "impair our vision of it.' With a jeweler's eye and a detective's nose, he is as much at home wading through government data as he is wandering through the Appalachian foothills.

After a thiry-year career devoted to social democracy, Harrington has become arguably the most prominent critic of capitalism we now have. Cast in the mold of Norman Thomas and Eugene V. Debs, he evinces a moral outrage that always avoids the high-pitched whine, the ill-tempered screed. His latest revelations will prompt charges of overcount and overkill from, among others, the neoconservatives--Gertrude Himmelfarb, James Q. Wilson, Thomas Sowell-- whom he treats to his velvet-gloved criticism. But the burden of disproving his formidable case falls to them as well as to the blinkered majority of Americans who, after more than two decades, still find it hard to identify, but easy to blame, the victims.

As Harrington sees it, poverty, or rather poverties--the "new structures of misery'--are now more deeply entrenched and hence more difficult to abolish than they were in 1962. Once the poor had been "discovered,' most Americans, enjoying the exceptional prosperity of the 1960s, acquiesced in the government's ballyhooed commitment "to eliminate the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty.' Justice became, for a while, good economics. Conventional welfare programs worked reasonably well then, but as the war on poverty fell hostage to expenditures in Vietnam, there never actually were billions for the poor. This fact, seldom reported in the media, probably would not have been enough to alter the public misperception of coddled, promiscuous Aid to Families with Dependent Children mothers and food stamp cheats, but it might have helped some.

The stagflation of the 1970s destroyed whatever remained of the national mood of magnanimity. Rather suddenly, "meanness was good economics.' As Harrington comments dryly, "It is somewhat more problematic to summon the average American to such a struggle [against poverty] in the midst of declining wages and chronic unemployment.' Little wonder then that Carter's deep recession turned the middle class "savagely against a gigantic antipoverty boondoggle that never took place.'

But attacking Washington's pinchfisted policies of the last decade mistakes symptom for cause. Some of the "newness' of poverty derives from the massive economic and social transformations wrought by America's belated entry into the world economy. Yet though Harrington mentions "global crisis' and the "internationalization of poverty,' he leaves those forces unexplored. Nor are his tales of misfortune in the domestic and world economies clearly enough connected to one another.

When it comes to the technological revolution that has rocked the U.S. occupational structure, however, Harrington portrays the forces at work with precision. As smokestack industries collapse in the heartland, the unemployed look for jobs in the lower reaches of high-tech or in fast-food restaurants --but at half their former wages. The middle class shrinks; markets contract; workers producing for that middle class lose their jobs; the downward spiral persists. Harrington describes a "reserve army of the future poor,' men and women with "good' jobs in the 1960s and 1970s who are most vulnerable to the structural deficiencies of the economy.

Elsewhere, he is encyclopedic in detailing the diverse fates of the poor across the land: the plight of undocumented workers; the vast numbers of mental patients who have been dumped in the streets; the army of impoverished women who are heads of households; the American Indians at the tag end of despair; the homeless, many of them "gentrified' out of their dwellings; the black laborers who are still poor despite their commitment to the work ethic; the inhabitants of Appalachia, whose "old poverty' remains intractable.

There are those who seek to brighten this picture by redefining poverty. In Harrington's felicitous phrase, and in the book's most notable chapter, they are the new Gradgrinds (after Thomas Gradgrind, Dickens's fact-mongering curmudgeon). A few paleoconservative economists in academia have made careers in this numbers racket. All they needed was a government blessing for their labors. For the last three years, the Census Bureau has offered alternative, unofficial estimates of poverty that include the market value of noncash, inkind benefits--food stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies--in the pelf of the poor. In 1983 a family of four was classified as poor if it had a cash income of $10,178. If the statistical legerdemain of the Census Bureau and the Reagan Administration prevails, more than onethird of the officially defined poor will be propelled straight into the middle class.

But why calculate the value of inkind benefits to the entire poverty population when a small fraction--the aging poor--receives a disproportionate share? And why should anyone, especially critics of government waste assume that the transfer of in-kind goods and services is made with a hundred percent efficiency when in fact these benefits are handed over in very leaky buckets? Why don't we perform the same statistical service to the nonpoor by figuring into their incomes the cash value of public schools, employee medical plans and home mortgage deductions?

We know that The Other America was a major stimulus for John F. Kennedy's war on poverty. But Harrington cannot hope to have the same effect this time around. President Reagan, though "perplexed' as he says by the problem of hunger in America, shows every sign of widening his war against the poor. In January his task force, unimpressed by claims of widespread hunger, could not fathom how cutbacks in Federal spending for food assistance harmed the poor. To one of his task farceurs, "the biggest problem among the poor is obesity-- not hunger' and "as we look at the problems of our blacks, all we have to do is look at our sports page to see who are the best nourished in the country.'

As in his Decade of Decision, Harrington uses The New American Poverty to disabuse us of the notion that progress can be achieved without deep structural change. "What is inarguable,' he says, "is that if America accepts an official rate of 6-7 percent unemployment as necessary for the system, the problems of misery and social breakdown will increase in "good' times and become epidemic in bad times.' His bill of particulars includes what are by now staples of the left: national economic planning, plant closing legislation, restrictions on mergers, national health care, redistribution of income. Yet a thoroughly persuasive case for institutional change goes a bit limp when he ends with an attitude of hope founded on good will. It is to the decency and the self-interest of the middle class that he appeals--a carpentered liberal fantasy whose elements are as incompatible as fire and ice. "How is it that justice and self-interest are, in this miraculous case, in harmony with each other? Full employment is good for almost everyone. That is the critical reason.' And that, as they say, remains to be seen. Not since 1969 has the elusive dream of truly full employment been realized, and then only through the nightmare of Vietnam. The full employment lobby and the nation's 40 million to 50 million poor stand to gain much more from the author's considered policy proposals than they do from a misbegotten marriage of altruism and greed.

Are policy changes likely? More to the point, can they eradicate poverties so systemic in nature? Activists like Harrington never despair. Poverty need not be an inevitable personal fate or a permanent societal curse. But it is difficult to come away from his book sharing its end note of hope, for no one writing on the subject has as tellingly described the strength and unrelieved grimness of the forces arrayed against the poor.
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Author:Lewis, J. Patrick
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 20, 1984
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