Changing the Conversation: Making Poverty Visible

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 秘密/Flickr 

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. 

Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"
WHEN: 9PM EST, 6PM PST

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link: https://zoom.us/j/9173276528

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 9 rsvps

 

Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.