Changing the Conversation: Making Poverty Visible


By Maurice Isserman

Frederick Douglass famously said that without struggle there is no progress. Our activist forebears changed political climates and conversations. In this occasional column, Democratic Left looks at the work of those earlier generations of radicals in the hope that these analyses will spark discussions of how the conversation can be changed again. – Ed.


Fifty years ago, in January of 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty” in his State of the Union address. Eight months later, Congress passed antipoverty legislation launching that effort. Four years earlier, in the presidential election, poverty had not been mentioned as an issue by either John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon. Many Americans assumed that there were no poor people in America, outside, perhaps, of isolated “pockets of poverty” like Appalachia. What changed the conversation?

The short answer is DSA founder Michael Harrington’s book The Other America: Poverty in the United States, published in March 1962 and given a laudatory review by Dwight Macdonald in the January 19, 1963, New Yorker. When the book appeared, Harrington expected it to sell about 2,500 copies. Instead, it sold 70,000 in hardcover within its first year, and more than a million in paperback since. Macdonald’s review presumably brought it to the attention of John F. Kennedy. By February 1964, when Harrington was summoned to Washington by Johnson aide Sargent Shriver to discuss proposed antipoverty legislation, Business Week noted, “The Other America is already regarded as a classic work on poverty.” The book argued that poverty in America was both more extensive and tenacious than most Americans assumed. “That the poor are invisible is one of the most important things about them,” Harrington wrote. “They are not simply neglected and forgotten as in the old rhetoric of reform; what is much worse, they are not seen.”

The Other America had a dramatic impact on public perception and official policy, and the resulting war on poverty, despite a half-century of disparagement by conservatives, had a dramatic impact on the problem of poverty, with the percentage of poor Americans declining from 22.4% in 1960 to 12.1% in 1969 (a number that likely would have fallen even further had not Johnson’s attention, and billions of dollars of federal spending, been diverted to the disaster of the Vietnam War).

But to say that the conversation about poverty changed because Harrington published his book is too short an answer. If the book had appeared five years earlier, as Harrington often observed, it would have had little impact. For by 1962 the conversation was already changing, thanks to the work of poor people, of young people, of labor and civil rights organizers, clergy and laity, artists, and others.

First and foremost among the conversation changers was the civil rights movement—remembered today as a movement devoted to establishing equality before the law and ending racial injustice. But it was also a movement on behalf of poor people. From his seminary days, Martin Luther King, Jr. grappled with the issue of economic injustice, and thought and spoke of himself, at least in small circles of close associates, as a democratic socialist. A. Philip Randolph, labor leader and socialist, led the 1963 March on Washington—a march for “Jobs and Freedom” (emphasis added), which was organized by socialist Bayard Rustin.

Left-wing unions, such as New York’s Local 1199, began in the late 1950s to organize some of the city’s poorest-paid workers, the black and Puerto Rican employees of the big voluntary hospitals, building a powerful and durable movement committed to social change. Left-wing artist Leonard Bernstein, who would march with King on Selma in 1965, drew public attention to the problem of urban poverty through the Tony-Award winning 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story, which was released as a popular movie in 1961.

The conversation of poverty changed in the 1960s because Michael Harrington wrote a book—and because, for at least a half-decade beforehand, Americans were being prepared to hear and respond to its message.

M.ISSERMANAID.png Maurice Isserman, a founding member of DSA, is the author of The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington, and the foreword to the 50th Anniversary edition of The Other America.

This article originally appeared in the summer 2014 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here. 

Film Discussion: The Price We Pay

January 30, 2017
· 44 rsvps
The Price We Pay blows the lid off the dirty world of corporate malfeasance — the dark history and dire present-day reality of big-business tax avoidance, tax havens - and what we need to do to stop this.  DSA member Bill Barclay, who has a cameo role in the film, will facilitate the discussion. Watch the film prior to the discussion.

Full film available on Vimeo.

How to Plug in New Members

February 01, 2017
· 12 rsvps

Is your DSA chapter growing quickly and you're trying desperately to find ways to plug new members into your chapter's work? Never fear! On this conference call an experienced DSA organizer will go over the basics of new member outreach and developing a plan for plugging new members into your chapter's work. Most of the call will be devoted to troubleshooting specific issues you're facing, so please brainstorm some issues beforehand that you want to bring up on the call.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 7 PM PT.

Film Discussion: Salt of the Earth

February 05, 2017
· 8 rsvps

Join DSA members Shelby Murphy and Deborah Rosenfelt in discussing Salt of the Earth, a captivating film made in 1954 by blacklisted writers and actors about a strike at a New Mexico zinc mine. Well before the resurgence of feminism in the 1960s, these filmmakers were exploring gender inequality and solidarity. Available on Netflix.

Shelby Murphy is a Latina from Texas and former Young Democratic Socialists co-chair. Professor Emerita of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland, Deborah Rosenfelt researched the making of the film and its aftermath for the reissued screenplay. Here is her blogpost about the film.


DSA New Member Orientation Call

February 15, 2017
· 61 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 6 PM MT; 5 PM PT.

Film Discussion: Documentaries of People's History in Texas

April 02, 2017
· 3 rsvps

Join DSA members Glenn Scott and Richard Croxdale to discuss videos produced by People’s History in Texas (PHIT), a project that brings to life the stories of ordinary people in significant socio-political movements in Texas. They will discuss The Rag, their newest documentary, which tells the story of an influential underground paper based in Austin, Texas, from 1966-77. Click here to view Part I (the early years as an all-volunteer paper covering the student, anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements), Part II (the impact of Women’s Liberation on the paper) and Part III (building community: covering local politics, nukes, co-ops, feminist institutions). But check out their short the video on the Stand-Ins about a group of university students who led a movement to desegregate Austin’s movie theaters in 1961.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 2 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion.