The Other America Through a Feminist Lens

Michael Harrington’s The Other America (TOA) is rightly given credit for recognizing the poor who were invisible to 1950s affluent society and for spurring LBJ’s War on Poverty. The result was a real and sustained decline in poverty. Among the poor, TOA’s biggest impact was on senior citizens. With the creation of Medicare, members of the over-65 age group (disproportionately female) went from 50% more likely than the rest of the population to be poor to 50% less likely. But despite Harrington’s illumination of the invisible poor, his lamp left a huge shadow that obscured a fundamental characteristic of the poor, both then and now: they are more likely to be women than men.

Throughout TOA, women are almost absent. For example, in Harrington’s lengthy description of the minority–primarily black–poor, the reality of Harlem is “one of streets filled with litter, and men,” and more generally, “the Negro is poor because he is black.” Similarly, in describing the migrant labor force in California, Harrington says, “Once the worker is taken on, he is driven to the field where he will work.” (Emphasis added.)

Now, some might say that the male generic pronoun simply reflects the time in which TOA was written. I think, however, that Harrington’s conception of poverty and its antidotes was rooted more deeply in patriarchal assumptions about how families should be organized than in obsolete linguistic conventions. In fact, late in TOA, Harrington does recognize that women are a growing part of the wage labor work force–but he doesn’t like that outcome. After noting that the percentage of wives in the wage labor force (there is no mention of single women working) went from 15% in 1940 to 30% in 1957, Harrington says, “Yet a tremendous growth in the number of working wives is an expensive way to increase income.” And why is it expensive? Because the price “will be paid for in terms of the impoverishment of home life, of children who receive less care, love and supervision.”  Harrington goes on to emphasize the social costs of mothers working: “It could mean that we have made an improvement in income statistics at the cost of hurting thousands and hundreds of thousands of children.”

Several aspects of this analysis are striking. First is the simple statistical fact that women were a majority of the poor, although they are absent in TOA’s statistical appendix and the body of the book.  Then as today, female-headed families were much more likely to be poor than other families: while 22.6% of the U.S. population was classified as poor in 1960, 49.4% of all female-headed families were poor–and 70.6% of African-American female headed families were poor. Hispanics were not counted separately until 1972, at which time the poverty rate for female-headed Hispanic families was revealed to be double the national average. Harrington saw race but not the intersection of race and gender.

Second, the failure of Harrington to understand the gender of poverty reflected a particular ideological approach, both to the family and to the priorities for social reform. TOA’s emphasis on males and jobs is very much along the lines of “breadwinner” liberalism, the assumption that the political economy should be structured around the need to provide jobs for men and that men are (and should be) the primary or sole providers. Male joblessness threatens both the well being of the larger society and the psychic health of individual males. In this view of society, the family appears as a “haven in a heartless world” as Christopher Lash titled his 1979 book. This approach to social policy had many similarities with that of the Christian Democratic social market policies pursued in Germany, Austria and elsewhere but differs significantly from the citizenship approach to social market policy implemented in the Scandinavian countries that have the highest rate of female wage labor force participation and the lowest level of gender wage inequality.

Finally, Harrington’s approach to gender and poverty is perplexing because, as a socialist, he was undoubtedly aware of the long standing socialist argument that the industrialization, or at least the socialization, of housework and the resulting liberation of women to enter the wage labor force was the route to gender equality. And here we come back to the question of policy and politics.

Just as Harrington saw clearly that social provision of medical care was central to combating poverty among the old, so a–perhaps the–essential policy to combat the gender distribution of poverty is the social provision of day care for preschool children. On this measure the U.S. ranks near the bottom among wealthy countries. With the exceptions of Ireland, Switzerland and Greece, Western European countries have 2/3 or more of their three- to five-year-olds in preschool, while the U.S. has only 55%. Publicly financed preschool allows women, especially women in single-parent households, greater freedom to find living wage work outside the home.

And the restraints on women’s access to such work, reinforced by policies that privilege male access to well paying jobs, leaves the U.S. with a child poverty level over 60% higher than other OECD countries. In fact, children are one of only two categories of the poor whose poverty ratio (percentage of the group in poverty vs. that of the population as a whole) has increased since TOA was published. The other category is also about gender: Hispanic female-headed families.

All this raises the question of whether capitalism requires a low wage force that can be readily identified and reproduced, whether through gender, race or some intersection of the two. But that is a question for another post.

Bill Barclay is on the steering committee of Chicago DSA.

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

June 27, 2017
· 78 rsvps

Join DSA activist Judith Gardiner to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 9 pm ET, 8 pm CT, 7 pm MT, 6 pm PT.

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

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

July 06, 2017
· 22 rsvps

Join Rahel Biru, NYC DSA co-chair, and Joseph Schwartz, DSA Vice-Chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 6 PM MT; 5 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Joseph Schwartz, schwartzjoem@gmail.com.
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt, schmittaj@gmail.com, 608-355-6568.

DSA New Member Orientation Call

July 09, 2017
· 6 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.  9 PM ET; 8 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 6 PM PT.

Running for the National Political Committee

July 11, 2017
· 4 rsvps

Join this call to hear a presentation and ask questions about the role, duties and time commitment of a member of DSA's National Political Committee. In the meantime, check out the information already on our website about the NPC.

Feminist Working Group

July 12, 2017

People of all genders are welcome to join this call to discuss DSA's work on women's issues, especially in light of the new political reality that we face after the elections.  9 pm ET; 8 pm CT; 7 pm MT; 6 pm PT.

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 12 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
· 11 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.