How We Cured “The Culture of Poverty,” Not Poverty Itself
Mother Jones (This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.)
Word version How We Cured the Culture of Poverty
It’s been exactly 50 years since Americans, or at least the non-poor among them, “discovered” poverty, thanks to Michael Harrington’s engaging book The Other America . If this discovery now seems a little overstated, like Columbus’s “discovery” of America, it was because the poor, according to Harrington, were so “hidden” and “invisible” that it took a crusading left-wing journalist to ferret them out.
Harrington’s book jolted a nation that then prided itself on its classlessness and even fretted about the spirit-sapping effects of “too much affluence.” He estimated that one quarter of the population lived in poverty—inner-city blacks, Appalachian whites, farm workers, and elderly Americans among them. We could no longer boast, as President Nixon had done in his “kitchen debate”  with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow just three years earlier, about the splendors of American capitalism.
At the same time that it delivered its gut punch, The Other America also offered a view of poverty that seemed designed to comfort the already comfortable. The poor were different from the rest of us, it argued, radically different, and not just in the sense that they were deprived, disadvantaged, poorly housed, or poorly fed. They felt different, too, thought differently, and pursued lifestyles characterized by shortsightedness and intemperance. As Harrington wrote, “There is… a language of the poor, a psychology of the poor, a worldview of the poor. To be impoverished is to be an internal alien, to grow up in a culture that is radically different from the one that dominates the society.”
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Fifty years later, a new discovery of poverty is long overdue. This time, we’ll have to take account not only of stereotypical Skid Row residents and Appalachians, but of foreclosed-upon suburbanites, laid-off tech workers, and America’s ever-growing army of the “working poor.” And if we look closely enough, we’ll have to conclude that poverty is not, after all, a cultural aberration or a character flaw. Poverty is a shortage of money.