"The Other America" Today

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 Americaasks 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.”

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Maurice Isserman
7 years 10 months ago
Having great admiration for Fr. Schroth's long-standing commitment to social justice, I am honored he took notice of my article in The Nation about Michael Harrington of the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Other America.  For those who haven't read Harrington's book, may I recommend the new edition, just released from Scribner's.  And, for an update on the Other America today, read Peter Edelman's So Rich, So Poor, just published.
JR Cosgrove
7 years 10 months ago
There are definitely two America's today but I do not think they are the ones that Fr. Schroth means.  Charles Murray has laid out in gruesome detail the differences between those at the top of the economic scale and those at the bottom.  He does it with white America only so as to not get into debates on minorities or other issues.

It is not pretty and we are probably past the point of no return.  It is not economic poverty but spiritual poverty that is the problem.  Rather than get into most of the details, read the book.  The situation is not going away and has nothing to do with the recent and current economic crisis but is going to dominate the future like nothing else.  The current economic problems just added a layer on top of an already bad situation in large parts of the country.  Want to know where the disappearing job force went to?  Murray will tell you and it just didn't happen recently.  Here is a long review of Murray's book.


It has nothing to do with socialism, capitalism, civility etc.  But it may be the result of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty but there are other causes as well.
7 years 10 months ago
"It is not economic poverty but spiritual poverty that is the problem." I am reminded of Brecht: "First grub, then morality."

Harrington moved JFK and LBJ, and we got, for awhile, a "war on poverty." The conservatives of the day said it would not work. What is different today - maybe as item 4 on Fr. Schroth's list - is that conservatives can feel comfortable now saying it should not work. (The undeserving poorm, and all that. Ask Alfred P. Doolittle. Or, for that matter, Charles Murray.)
Rick Malloy
7 years 10 months ago
What moves in our hearts and minds when we hear these words of Jesus in Matt 25 and then ponder the economic realities of our age?
 On Oct 16 2011, Nick Kristof reported in the New York Times that:
* The 400 wealthiest Americans have a greater combined net worth than the bottom 150 million Americans.
* The top 1 percent of Americans possess more wealth than the entire bottom 90 percent.
 * In the Bush expansion from 2002 to 2007, 65 percent of economic gains went to the richest 1 percent.
Here are some other facts
* 22% of children in America live in poverty.
* 15.1% of Americans live in poverty. That’s 46.2 million people.
* According to the U.S. Government, the poverty line is $22,314 for a family of four.
* Business Week noted: “The Pew Research Center said its recent polling shows that a majority of Americans - for the first time in 15 years of being surveyed on the question - oppose more government spending to help the poor. The deep budget cuts by the U.S. House earlier this year included programs that helped the poor.”
* Globally, 80% of Planet earth lives on less than $10 a day.
* Across our planet, 21,000 children die each day from preventable causes
“There also exist sinful inequalities that affect millions of men and women. These are in open contradiction of the Gospel” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1938).
“The equal dignity of human persons requires the effort to reduce excessive social and economic inequalities” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1947).
“The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich; the rights of workers over the maximization of profits; the preservation of the environment over uncontrolled industrial expansion; the production to meet social needs over production for military purposes” (Economic Justice for All, #94)
“The way society responds to the needs of the poor through its public policies is the litmus test of its justice or injustice” (Economic Justice for All, #123).
“Those who are more influential because they have greater share of goods and services should feel responsible for the weaker and be ready to share with them all they possess... the church feels called to take her stand beside the poor, to discern the justice of their requests and to help satisfy them, without losing sight of the good of groups in the context of the common good” (On Social Concern, #39).
We need to be as concerned, publicly, about these economic injustices as we are about the pelvic issues.  When the bishops critique Ryan's budget, there is little attention to what they say.  Bashing LCWR doesn't further the cause.
Amy Ho-Ohn
7 years 10 months ago
I agree that it is unconscionable that any American citizen should not have food, clean water, shelter, heat in winter, or basic education. (Health care is harder.)

But I do not understand what the combined net worth of the top 400 or the top economic gains to the top 1% have to do with it. I believe it is a well-established fact of economics that wealth does not cause poverty. Preventing people from becoming rich can not prevent other people from becoming poor.

This is one reason there still are poor people in America: the upper-middle (professional) class would rather have them as a pretext to bash "the rich" than fork over more taxes to provide them with the basic necessities of a human life.

No progress will be made as long as people in the 95th percentile insist on running around waving signs that say "We're the 99%."
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 10 months ago
"Preventing people from becoming rich can not prevent other people from becoming poor."

I think you're right, Amy, in the way that you phrase that.  But it skirts the issue.

There is a relationship between the effort to become better off and the well-being of all of us (poor included).  I think that the key word is BETTER.  Becoming rich means that you are better off than others.  The whole idea of becoming rich is to have an advantage over others.   Peter Maurin says it best:

... when everyone tries
to become better off
nobody is better off....

Everybody would be rich
if nobody tried
to become richer.

And nobody would be poor
if everybody tried
to be the poorest
Stanley Kopacz
7 years 10 months ago
As a happily unmarried professional wage earner, I am in a priveleged economic zone.  I identify with the 99%, the whole spectrum.  Indeed, to achieve a better society, it means that I and my percentile will have to pay more in taxes.  That is fine with me.  My main problem isn't with the rich being rich but the mischief they cause politically and socially with their vast reservoir of disposable income.  That is the main reason to limit wealth.  At a certain point, wealth makes wealth without any addition of value to society and starts to control that society.   And I really don't think Bill Gates is a billionaire based on the value of his mediocre software.  Jobs was a maker of flashy toys.  Gog and Magog Koch made their billions with destructive, polluting industries and will make more with the poisonous fracking technique.  Making them all poorer will make society better in general.  And yes, you can make me poorer, tax me to Swedish levels, if it makes a society where we can all breathe gain.
Carlos Orozco
7 years 10 months ago
I just can't imagine President Obama as a defender of social justice. Surely, too-big-to-fail banks are sure to be the back-to-back top contributors to the Obama reelection campaign. We better start studying Catholic social justice doctrine because there is nothing worth watching in the coming Presidential reality show, to be starred by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Mike Evans
7 years 10 months ago
It is hard, very hard, to accept in conscience all the defenders of the status quo who prefer to blame the victims and exonerate the blessed. I don't think Matthew 25 allows that kind of wiggle room. Besides which, it would only take chump change to finance decent food, education, health care, shelter and life dignity compared to the umpteen billions we waste on so much else, especially our military adventures. Jesus would certainly not be amused.
Michael Appleton
7 years 10 months ago
"The Other America" was one of the first books I read as a college freshman in 1965.  With all due respect to Mr. Cosgrove, Charles Murray's credibility began and ended with "The Bell Curve."  Harrington was right, and his understanding of human nature, and human weakness, is unassailable.
JR Cosgrove
7 years 10 months ago
''With all due respect to Mr. Cosgrove, Charles Murray's credibility began and ended with ''The Bell Curve.''  ''

That is an amazing statement and I love the ''all due respect''.  There is absolutely no respect in that statement which seems closed minded at best.  Murray presents statistics, published by the government and major sociiological research organizations.  He limiited his analysis to whites so to avoid the nonsense comments like the one above.  No one has faulted his statistics yet.  I suggest you read the book before casting aspersions.  For those interested, there is about a 50 minute video interview with Murray in five parts.   Here is a link to a video he made with people from Stanford






It is 5 parts about 8-15 minutes each
JR Cosgrove
7 years 10 months ago
An additional comment about Charles Murray and Coming Apart.  In the links to the videos above, if anyone looks at anything, look at the last one.  It is about 15 minutes long.  In it he describes why the welfare state or as Fr. Schroth likes to refer to it as Western European Socialism, is what is bankrupting the people not economically but spiritually. 

Communism did it on steroids killing tens of millions relatively quickly, the more gentler, kinder form of socialism does it slowly but just as surely.  In either case the outcome is the same.  Maybe we could have a fruitful discussion on Murray's thesis.  We could ask whether ''Social Justice'' when practiced by government causes spiritual poverty?
Vince Killoran
7 years 10 months ago
America's war on poverty: declared but never fought. GOP advances in '66 and Vietnam cut the effort short.
Michael Appleton
7 years 10 months ago
Mr. Cosgrove, I have read Murray.  And your statement that he limited his analysis to "whites" and that "no one has faulted his statistics" is so laughably false that I'm surprised you even said it.
JR Cosgrove
7 years 10 months ago
''And your statement that he limited his analysis to ''whites'' and that ''no one has faulted his statistics'' is so laughably false that I'm surprised you even said it.''

The full title of the book is '' Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 '' so I have no idea on what the basis you make your comment.  It is a book about white America.  There are dozens of charts taken from government or other traditional sources for sociological data.  They are charts on whites only.  If that is laughable then so be it but it is not false.

I suggest that those interested, read the book.  If you have a kindle, nook or IPad it could be downloaded in less than 5 minutes.  Though the charts are hard to read on these devices.  The change in white America since 1960 has been dramatic but especially amongst the lower class.  For example, in 1960, 80% of white adults 30-49 were married.  Today that it is about 50%.  At the same time children born to unwed mothers in white America went from 3% in 1960 to about 30% today.  The percentage of children born to unwed mothers in white women with a college degree is now about 6% which means that the percentage is much higher amongst those with less education.  So education as well as income play a major role.  But it is not just children and marriage that has changed.
Michael Appleton
7 years 10 months ago
The book I identified in my first post is "The Bell Curve," published in 1994.


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