I live in what is one of the more wealthy neighborhoods in the world. By wealth I don’t necessarily mean the income of the rich persons who live in the all the local apartment houses which block out our sky, but the New York institutions clustered here that pull together a steady traffic of the movers and shakers of our economy and cultural life.
On one early-morning walk I can stride past the skyscraper housing a once mighty law firm, which recently notified its partners to look for jobs somewhere else, because, according to the New York Times, they had been over-paying their top dogs enough to destabilize everyone else. Then Carnegie Hall, the Russian Tea Room, the Ziegfeld Theater, Radio City, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Lincoln Center, the Plaza Hotel and Steve Jobs’s glittering cube over its Apple super-store, and Central Park are only minutes apart.
I can also encounter, within a minute of our front door, three beggars squatting against a building wall or near a restaurant doorway saying, “Good morning” and “How are you?” and/or displaying signs telling us that they are homeless, unemployed, veterans, etc. On virtually every subway ride, though the practice is against the law, men announce to the car that they are collecting funds for the homeless, or tell their life stories and take up a collection. In one day’s walk I might pass a dozen men: curled up and squeezed into a doorway, sprawled out on the sidewalk, stretched unconscious across several seats on a subway platform, or on a Central Park bench, head covered by a pulled-up sweater or jacket, apparently still asleep from the previous night. I pause and check to see if he is still breathing. One morning I passed a corpse on the lawn, covered by a sheet, and roped off by yellow tape, and never learned whether he had just died or was killed the night before.
This bothers me not just because something is obviously wrong with a society where the rich are so obviously indifferent to the gap between the rich and the poor, but also because this year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Michael Harrington’s classic analysis of poverty, The Other America (1962, republished in 1971 and 1981), credited with inspiring Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Harrington coined the term, “the invisible poor,” meaning both that because of the social class structures that isolated them and because of the blindness of the affluent majority to the inequitable distribution of wealth, it was as if the poor were not there.
Harrington, who died of cancer in 1989 and would be 84 today, said he was a product of middle-class Irish ghettos in St. Louis and Holy Cross College, where the intellectual decadence of rationalistic neo-Thomism, he said, drove him out of the Catholic Church. Yet Holy Cross gave him an honorary degree in 1971, and he has always attributed his social consciousness to his years living at the Catholic Worker where I heard him speak. Though an atheist, he found the principles of the Western European branch of socialism in tune with Catholic teaching on social justice. We met several times over the years, and he told me, shortly before he died, that his commentaries on National Public Radio seemed to have had more impact than his writing.
In the chapter on Harrington in my book Dante to Dead Men Walking, One Reader’s Journey through the Christian Classics (2001), I recounted an unnerving incident where a man in rags and bandages and on crutches banged through the doors between the subway cars and told us he is homeless, sick and asked for money. Then I asked myself: What would Michael Harrington do?
In The Nation, Maurice Isserman, Harrington’s biographer and editor of the 50th anniversary edition of The Other America asks a similar question and offers some possible answers as to what Harrington might think about today’s society. First he consulted Harrington’s two sons, Alec a theater director and Ted a lawyer. Here are a few samples:
(1) He would have certainly welcomed Communism’s demise, but be disappointed when conservatives pretended that communism and Western European socialism were the same thing and attacked Obama as if he were importing “European socialism”—which really means a regulated market economy and basic economic security—as if it were a form of totalitarianism.
(2) Harrington was a coalition builder who enjoyed live civil debates with William F. Buckley. He would have been appalled at the incivility that dominates political life today. A close friend of Martin Luther King Jr., Harrington would rejoice in Obama’s election, but would not be pleased with Obama’s willingness to cut Social Security and Medicare as a gesture toward bipartisanship.
(3) He would be dismayed to discover that 46 million Americans, nearly one in six, are still living in poverty today, virtually unchanged since The Other America was published. But, an optimist, he would quote Dr. King: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”