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.

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followed this page 2013-03-06 14:45:59 -0500
commented 2013-02-28 16:18:19 -0500 · Flag
I think this may be the first comment to a blog post on great new DSA web-site. So hope this is in the proper fraternal and sororal tone that posts should follow. — Joseph M. Schwartz, Philadelphia DSA, DSA National Political Committee

I agree with much of Bill Barclay’s blog post on gender and The Other America; but I think it’s important to put Harrington’s “gender blind spot” in historical perspective. In 1960, a male industrial worker brought home a family wage (and benefits) that took a two-parent, two-child family into the near-middle class. Thus, female labor market participation rates were only 30% of adult females versus nearly 70% today (and that held for upper-working class women as well. But Harrington certainly overlooks the huge number of women – mostly African-American at that time – doing low-paid domestic care work.

We should remember that when Harrington wrote the book in 1962, it was a decade before forty years of steady deindustrialization would lead to the of literally millions of good jobs for many African-American and Latino men who had just gained access to unionized industrial jobs in the post-WWIII era (and, less so, women)

This trend is the major cause of the radical drop in two-parent families among all of the working class and poor (particularly, but less-and-less exclusively) among Blacks and Latinos. .

In fact, in 1962, the percentage of female headed-households among African-Americans was less than 25% versus over 65% today! In 1962, marriage rates among Blacks were just a tad below those of whites in 1962 (whereas they are 50% lower today!)

Why the radical shift in nature of Black family since 1960?

Because of the radical drop in employment rates for younger African-American non-colleege graduates from 1970 through today. As William Julius Wilson’s work shows, once unemployment and incarceration rates soar among lower-income marriageable-age men of color (particularly as compared to lower income women of color) it made less and less rational sense for lower income women to marry. In fact, over the past ten years, the percentage of white lower income women raising children on their own has skyrocketed for the same reason – the loss of steady, decently-paid employment among younger non-college educated men of all races.

But in 1960, it paid for lower income women to get married, as even just one employed worker in the household did get you out of poverty, whereas today half of poor families have a full-time worker in the household. That’s because the real wage of non-college educated workers has declined precipitiously over the past 40 years (dropping in real terms by 10% or more since 1979, even as the GDP doubled in real terms!).

So Harrington’s patriarchal assumptions had a real material basis…if a family had a head-of-household who was fully employed, they would escape poverty (even without second parent working, even part-time).

So even a large number of “upper working class” women with employed male partners worked full-time in family care, but did not enter the paid labor market until their children were at least of school age, and even often out of the house.

What Harrington failed to discuss was the large number of women from “lower working class” families who did work full time in the labor market, often as exploited domestic workers. And what he certainly didn’t see was the future transformation of the labor market.

But by the late 1970s and onwards (and in his later work on poverty) he recognized “the feminization” of low-income families of the 1970s and onwards.

Understanding the material basis for Harrington’s “blind spot” on gender doesn’t excuse it, but it does put it into historical context.

What we do know about the social realities of today is that major form of reproduction of middle-class (and college educated children) is whether or not there are 2 wage earning parents in household.

That’s the status that defines whether your family is a mmber of an (increasingly less secure) middle class and crucially influences the chances of your kids going to college and reproducing that middle class social status.

Not that I’m into patriarchal, heterosexual family structure…but having two income earning parents (whether of same or opposite sex) does make the life opportunities for one’s children more favorable.

So a particular contemporary tragedy is that there aren’t many lower income men with stable jobs out there (and women and those men who do have them are terribly exploited). Thus, the future of a decent society in the US heavily depends on lower income workers organizing for power – a daunting challenge for the entire left given how repressive the state is in regards to labor rights and rights for the undocumented.

In fact, ethnographic work shows that non-college educated men are much more likely to have stable lives (e.g., avoid alchoholism, drug use, long-term unemployment) if they marry and stick with a female partner who is better educated than them and makes more money.

That is, proto-feminist working class men of all races fare better than macho working class and lower income men! That’s something that no one writing in the early 1960s would have imagined, certainly not Mike Harrington.

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