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on February 4, 2001
Few works of contemporary non-fiction have had more lasting impact on the social consciousness of the overall society from which it arose than "The Other America", Michael Harrington's now classic tome on the egregious conditions under which what we would now call the "underclass" lived in mid-20th century American society. With an uncommon verve and uncanny precision, Harrington painstakingly detailed the disgusting and shocking realities of life for those many millions of Americans of both color and ethnicity living lives of desperate poverty in the midst of the affluent society. Millions of readers, myself included, were shocked to discover the extent to which this world coexisted with our own, and many of the social action programs that arose in the 1960s and thereafter used this book as a kind of reference guide to the realities of poverty in contemporary society. Indeed, what is most disturbing about anyone re-reading the book is the discovery of how little conditions have changed for those who through the accident of birth, color, and ethnic origin, find themselves inexorably trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty.
Sadly, for all the glad-handing of politicians and the proclamations by global corporations of the new and more widespread prosperity of the 1990s, the sobering truth is that very little progress has been made. Indeed, in more recent books such as William Finnegan's excellent "Cold New World", Harrington's basic thesis of the co-existence of a starker, poorer, and powerless populace left stranded to live lives of quiet desperation is reconfirmed, putting the lie to the many proclamations of universal opportunity and promise that politicians now ballyhoo. The book, which was first published in the early 1960s, was required reading for most introductory sociology and contemporary history courses, and millions of young academics first learned of the extent of the national problem through a reading of this book. It is, in that sense at least, a modern classic. Harrington's basic thesis is incontrovertible; poverty is extensive and endemic, and is usually hidden from the view of most affluent Americans due to the ways in which the two subcultures coexist in modern society. Through the de-facto residential segregation of the two elements of the society, there is little meaningful contact, and the media tends to ignore the facts of the existence of the underclass, portraying arch-types which conform more to the sensibilities of the more affluent segments of the society that regularly view its programming and enforcing unrealistic images of what exists. As a previous reviewer commented, we no longer habituate the same environments, and we tend to avoid all unnecessary contact with anything to do with this other world of poverty and want. What Harrington originally described in such anguished and inflammatory terms, hoping to purposefully ignite America's slumbering conscience, has instead become a permanent feature of our conscienceless socio-cultural landscape.
It is a sad truth that Harrington's book is as timely and as shocking today as it was some forty years ago. His account of the fate of millions of impoverished people of color and ethnicity remains as cogent and as relevant as it was then. Despite the long and tortured history of the social legislation that attempted to rework this problem in the decades since, the reality of the situation seems to be that nothing much has changed in terms of the life-chances and hopes of the members of the underclass. It remains a mainstay of introductory courses in social stratification, providing an excellent overview of the myriad of the sociological, political, and economic issues surrounding the underclass, and is a wonderful example of just how important one man's vision of the truth can be in orienting others meaningfully toward rectifying a social problem. Poverty may remain, as they say, always with us, but the shocking truths found in this book still sheds the light of day into an unappetizing aspect of contemporary society we all should be aware of.
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on April 29, 2000
The Other America was first published in 1962, before Johnson's "Great Society" and "War on Poverty," before Vietnam, before the urban riots of the late 60s, before the Civil Rights legislation, and before the formation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. As such, it may well seem a dinosaur to apply the revelations and ideas proposed by author Michael Harrington to a society that has advanced so far. Or has it? Harrington develops his thesis on the central premise that poverty in America is both there and widespread. More importantly, however, is the fact that it is hidden. People no longer have day-to-day contact with the urban poor. Before the mass exodus of the middle class, the majority of Americans lived in or near areas inhabited by the poor. Even if they did not, they walked through or drove through the rows of tenements on their way to work downtown. They saw the conditions the poor lived in and saw the faces of the poor. When Harrington wrote, as is true today, the "ghetto" is a place to avoid. We have successfully severed all economic use of the poor from our daily lives and are able to drive into downtown from the suburban fringe without even having to stop to see the lives of the poor. Even today's trend toward reconstructing highways below-grade so as to have less impact on the poor neighborhoods they divide further removes the lives of the poor from our daily routine-we don't even have to see the buildings pass by anymore. They are safely beyond the highway wall. Harrington differentiates between the poverty existing today and that of previous urban centers. The old ethnic ghettos were indeed permeated by poverty, had miserable living conditions, and were centers of disease and urban mischief. They did have one thing, however, that is lacking in today's ghettos: aspiration. The ghettos of yesterday melded the old world with the new, and served as stepping-stones toward the American dream. Those who form today's ghettos, primarily African-Americans, do not have an "old world." They come from within our society but are not part of it. Generations of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination, and despair have disenchanted many, so much so that most of America is foreign to them and they are said to have a "twisted spirit." Harrington discusses the various classes of poverty, ranging from that of blacks to the elderly to the rural farmer and many in between. Curiously, however, he only mentions poverty of children, a major issue of modern times, in passing. Public housing is discussed in some detail, and looking back from the failures we have witnessed in public housing projects, much could have been avoided had we paid attention to Harrington's thoughts. He condemns the towering projects as instant ghettos, providing poverty with a simple facelift, detached from surrounding neighborhoods. As early as 1962, an argument was being made against the demolition and removal of entire neighborhoods for the construction of high-rise towers and in favor of dispersed public housing. Only recently have HUD programs such as Section 8 vouchers and HOPE VI project grants implemented this ideology. Overall, Harrington's account of poverty in America has, unfortunately, remained a very viable account. Even after Johnson's "War on Poverty," the civil rights legislation, urban riots, and the longest peacetime economic expansion ever, Harrington's book might as well have been written today. It provides a good summary of the sociological and economic issues concerning poverty, and would be a good introductory book before expanding on specific aspects of poverty by contemporary sociologists such as William Julius Wilson. A reader today may question his persistent call for a federal solution, given the miserable track record of federal programs and the increasing focus on local solutions. Harrington does, however, shed light and provide a realistic picture of a large portion of American's that most never see.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon August 9, 2002
This is the seminal work on the poor in America, analyzed within the context of government proffered, anti-poverty programs. It is a scathing critique and analysis of the war on poverty, where bold rhetoric and political grandstanding have often supplanted action. The author in his analysis categorizes poverty as a cultural and often institutional way of life that would require radical innovations, social planning, and long term financial investment, were the government really serious about eradicating poverty in America. What is amazing is that the arguments made by the author, when he wrote this book forty years ago, are still sound today.
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White poor, black poor, urban poor, rural poor are included. This book was one of the driving forces behind the "War on Poverty" of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Now conservatives more than liberals see that we have a culture of poverty with generations of welfare families. Help is needed, but it has to be a workable solution. Liberals, conservatives and radicals seem not to really understand this culture. Perhaps help will come from a revived labor movement.
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on June 19, 2001
This is a classic for sure but a classic of what? Most of the people Harrington writes about have created their own worlds and then populated them. Yes, we do feel sorry for the underprivileged but most people in America have the privilege of a free education, free libraries and free charity. If they fail, whose fault is it?
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on February 28, 2001
I was bored. I want real stories and examples. I read "There are no Children here" and loved it!!! I read somewhere that the author was inspired by this book, so I couldn't wait to get it. My guess is this author is a liberal, and not objective. The information was boring and one sided. I would have probably liked it more if the time frame was more current. I want to know more about today, not the 60's.
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