Social exclusion and The Other America

According to most commentators, it was French politician René Lenoir who coined the term ‘social exclusion’ (l’exclusion sociale). But the idea that there is a disparate group of disadvantaged citizens who are excluded from economic, social and political participation is nothing new. It is one of the major themes of Michael Harrington‘s 1962 book The Other America.

It’s been 50 years since Harrington’s book was first published in the United States. This expose of poverty in America turned Harrington into a celebrity and saw him invited to Washington to help plan Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty.

Harrington argued that the poor had become invisible in America. In the 1930s poverty was too widespread to ignore and workers could be politically organised. But as 1960s began, the poor faded from view. They were a disparate group that included the old, the mentally ill, agricultural workers, blacks, homeless alcoholics and penniless bohemians. Aside from low incomes, all they really had in common was that they were excluded from the mainstream of society and immune to the benefits of economic progress.

While alcoholics and poor bohemians could come from any class, the majority of the poor came from the bottom strata of society. For many, it was low levels of education that cut them off from decent job opportunities. But added to this was a way of adapting to a life of low opportunity. Harrington wrote:

Poverty should be defined psychologically in terms of those whose place in the society is such that they are internal exiles who, almost inevitably, develop attitudes of defeat and pessimism and who are therefore excluded from taking advantage of new opportunities.

The poor were also excluded from many of the benefits of the American welfare state — benefits such as unemployment insurance. As a result, their pessimism wasn’t entirely irrational. Harrington argued that there was little they could do to improve their situation. Only the larger society could break the vicious cycle. "Yet those who could make the difference too often refuse to act because of their ignorant, smug moralisms", wrote Harrington. "They view the effects of poverty—above all, the warping of the will and spirit that is a consequence of being poor—as choices."

Harrington didn’t have a detailed plan for fighting poverty. But he was convinced it needed to deal with the pessimism and hopelessness of the poor. "In part, this can be done by offering real opportunities to these people by changing the social reality that gives rise to their sense of hopelessness" he wrote. And it also needed the active involvement of the non-poor: "there should be a spirit, an elan, that communicates itself to the entire society."

Harrington was also convinced that creating economic opportunity wouldn’t be cheap. He had in mind a program that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Called into Washington to speak to Sargent Shriver who President Johnson had appointed to lead the war on poverty, Harrington insisted that poverty would not be defeated by spending "nickels and dimes". As his biographer Maurice Isserman writes, Shriver replied: "Oh really, Mr. Harrington … I don’t know about you, but this is the first time I’ve spent a billion dollars."

According to Isserman, Shriver’s deputy, Adam Yarmolinsky said that Harrington and his fellow radical Paul Jacobs didn’t have much to contribute to the anti-poverty drive. "They’d tell us over and over again what the problems were, but we said, `what do you do about them? What kinds of legislation?’ And it wasn’t their bag."

Now Harrington is under attack again. According to Barbara Ehrenreich, he "fatally botched the ‘discovery’ of poverty" by linking it to the idea of a "culture of poverty" that makes the poor accomplices in their own disadvantage. Poverty "is not, after all, a cultural aberration or a character flaw", says Ehrenreich. "Poverty is a shortage of money."

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10 years ago

They’re probably both true.

Nicholas Gruen
10 years ago

Funny how we end back at a set of slogans – and pretty useless too.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
10 years ago

If you believe the world runs mostly on luck and fate, i.e., cause and effect are not connected, then good and bad occur without any input or control from you.

Losses and windfalls are both fate-determined and in good times you will do all right (though you will spend your money quickly before fate takes it from you). Since incentive has no meaning and there is no point in studying, so it is more likely you will be poor. You will accept this poverty as the natural state of things because it is caused by fate and thus, rationally, there is nothing you can do about it.

Not all poor will have this fatalist view and some fatalists will not be poor but overall there will be a high correlation between poverty and fatalism.

Calling it a character flaw is to trivialise it. To perturb the situation surely does require “the active involvement of the non-poor” – people like Barbara Ehrenreich. Their appropriate strategy would be to teach such people that they do have some control over outcomes.

That will be difficult for people raised in insecure circumstances, where broken promises and disappointment were the norm.

10 years ago

Poverty isn’t even a lack of money nowadays, only a lack relative to other people.