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.

Feminist Working Group

December 14, 2016
· 26 rsvps

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

Film Discussion: The Price We Pay

January 30, 2017
· 6 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.

Full film available on Vimeo.