War on Poverty: Initiated by Socialist Michael Harrington

Duane Campbell

harrington.jpgIt was good to read this week the many news reports and  articles recording the 50th. anniversary of the War on Poverty, and several even recognized the important role played by Michael Harrington with his best seller book- The Other America : Poverty in the United States (1962). However, they failed to report that Harrington was a leading socialist of his era.

Publishing  The  Other America was a seminal event  leading meetings with  President John F. Kennedy and Sargent Shriver’s  work with the administration.  The book helped to shape President Johnson’s plans for  a War on Poverty.  

Harrington became a widely read intellectual and political writer on poverty and programs that could overthrow poverty.  He continued for decades to critique programs that responded to poverty half-heartedly rather than organizing  an effective political project for a more equal and prosperous society.

In the 1970’s Harrington went on to organize  and found the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).   DSA has attracted intellectually powerful, committed intellectual activists like Cornel West, Frances Piven, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Gloria Steinem;  labor union leaders; and young people, among others who align themselves with DSA.  He was also the founding editor of the Democratic Left magazine, the parent of this blog.

Poverty today is everyone’s problem: It affects not only some invisible “them,” but touches all of us directly or indirectly. And, the nature of poverty in the U.S. has changed in the last 50 years. No longer are there isolated pockets of extreme poverty. Today, it is widespread and many people are but one lost job away from falling into poverty.

 More than 30 years of neoliberal capitalist policies of deregulation, gutting labor rights, corporate outsourcing, regressive tax cuts, and defunding basic social services has spread poverty to every corner of our  society. With de-unionization and the decline of workers’ bargaining power, having a full-time job no longer guarantees an escape from poverty. Today over half of the families in the United States who live in poverty have at least one family member who is a full-time employee.  Meanwhile, politicians, mostly (but not exclusively) in the Republican Party, slash unemployment benefits, cut public school and social service budgets, eliminate jobs programs and attack public sector unions.

Unfortunately many of the problems described by Harrington in 1962 remain with us today.  Several of the root causes of poverty are inherent in capitalism.  We in  DSA seek  to counter a dominant, racially charged conservative narrative that blames the poor and working people for their plight rather than the structural economic changes enacted by governing elites who do not care for the good of all, much less recognize the causes of these problems and of possible solutions.

For more on the life of Michael Harrington see The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (Public Affairs, 2000).


IMG_1261c.jpegDuane Campbell is a professor emeritus of bilingual multicultural education at California State University Sacramento, a union activist for over 40 years, and chair of Sacramento DSA. He blogs on politics, education and labor at www.choosingdemocracy.blogspot.com and www.talkingunion.wordpress.com.



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