Changing the Conversation: Making Poverty Visible


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.

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