Professor Janet Gornick addresses poverty, inequality and other painful consequences of American social policy
Excerpt from Dissent Magazine
The following is adapted from a talk delivered at the fiftieth anniversary celebration of Michael Harrington’s The Other America, held on September 10, 2012 at the CUNY Graduate Center, and from a Graduate Center Commencement Address, which was delivered on May 24, 2012.
This event caused me to think back to earlier years. My own education in American social policy began intensively in 1980. That year, three events cemented my interest in American poverty and the U.S. public response to it.
First—if you’ll indulge me in a moment of autobiography—I began a job as a social policy researcher at the Urban Institute, a policy research center in Washington. Second, eight weeks after I arrived in D.C., Ronald Reagan was elected president. Shocking as that moment was—for those of us in D.C., and everyone around the world—we didn’t realize then that he would launch a redefinition of America’s poor and a recasting of anti-poverty policy that would affect the United States for decades. And third, that fall I read The Other America. (That was the same year that Michael Harrington added his second epilogue.)
Like so many, I was electrified by The Other America. I reread it again this past weekend, probably for the fourth time, and I still find it electrifying. That said, I think it’s important to acknowledge that elements of the book are clearly dated.
First of all, the face of poverty has changed markedly, in ways that require us to think about needed social policy reforms somewhat differently than Harrington did in 1962. Probably the most dramatic change since 1962 relates to age. When The Other America was written, relative to the whole population, the elderly were much more likely to be poor and children much less so. Today that pattern has reversed. In 2010, nearly 15 percent of Americans were poor (based on the U.S. definition); that number was 9 percent for the elderly and a stunning 22 percent for children.
That sharp rise in children’s poverty, of course, goes hand in hand with the feminization of poverty, especially among parents raising children without partners. In 1960, less than one-third of poor families were headed by a single parent; today more than two-thirds of poor families are headed by a single parent—and in four out of five of those families, that single parent is a woman.
In addition, the face of poverty has grown more urban, and less rural. Most dramatically, the number and percentage of people living in extremely poor rural pockets (rural counties over 40 percent poor) has declined dramatically.
It’s also the case that our collective understanding of poverty’s roots has matured and clarified. In The Other America, Harrington wrote extensively about “the culture of poverty,” a combination of despair, low aspirations, broken spirits, and the like. And yes, he pointed to a set of problematic behaviors: weak attachment to paid work, drug use, crime.
Of course, that phrase (“the culture of poverty”) became toxic in subsequent years—and, not surprisingly, Harrington did not use it in his later work. When I say that it became toxic, I mean that in recent decades conservatives fueled their calls for social policy cuts by invoking cultural explanations for poverty. Meaning, they argued that poor people are poor because of attitudes and behaviors that characterize them and their communities.
Janet Gornick is a Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the CUNY-Graduate Center.
–Photo: Michael Harrington by Bob Adelman