“The Other America” Is “Coming Apart”
by Eric Shansberg, Ph.D.
Published 50 years ago, Michael Harrington’s The Other America provided a sweeping description of poverty in the United States. His book is given credit for awakening the nation to the plight of the poor and forwarding the idea that the federal government should become heavily involved in trying to help. It is routinely hailed as one of the most influential books of the 20th century.
Even so, the author embraces facile policy prescriptions: welfare, minimum wage, and government job training. The book is socially conservative in its worldview, overtly hostile to multiculturalism (especially to African-Americans), and condescending toward the poor. His paternalistic outlook encouraged policymakers and bureaucrats to control the lives of the poor.
Harrington briefly references what were then relatively mild troubles with family structure among the poor: “There are more homes without a father, there are less marriages, more early pregnancy… As a result of this, to take but one consequence of the fact, hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, of children in the other America never know stability and ‘normal’ affection.”
Family structure has deteriorated markedly over the past 50 years, especially among the poor and lower-middle class. What would Harrington say today? At least in part, we can look to Charles Murray’s recent book, Coming Apart, for the answer. Like Harrington, Murray approaches the subject from economic and sociological angles, brings relevant data to the table, and is unafraid to tackle sensitive topics.
In Losing Ground — the book on welfare from the 1980s — Murray described how welfare changed the “rules of the game” for the poor, encouraging them to make decisions that were detrimental in the long-term. The book was highly controversial. But within a decade, it had become conventional wisdom—and welfare programs were overhauled in 1996. In Losing Ground, Murray focused on African-Americans, given limits in the data, and received spurious criticisms for his approach. In Coming Apart, he avoids this problem by focusing on whites only.
Looking back on poverty before the War on Poverty began, Murray notes that measured poverty had fallen dramatically over the previous 15 years — from 41% to 20%. “Poverty had been dropping so rapidly for so many years that Americans thought things were going well … 95% of the respondents [to a Gallup poll] said they were working class or middle class … America didn’t have classes, or, to the extent that it did, [we acted] as if we didn’t.” So, Murray engages Harrington’s thesis, but largely rejects it for the 1960s.
But one might say that Murray is applying Harrington’s thesis to today. Murray believes that American culture, society, and economy have evolved into three wildly different classes, with vast and growing differences between the lowest and highest classes. Movement between the classes is still available, but less prevalent.
Murray compares and contrasts the top 20% and the bottom 30% over the past 40 years. “The other America” has reduced their labor force participation and employment — and measured “disability” has increased markedly. They have much less emphasis on marriage; they are more likely to remain single and to get divorced. As a result, there is a large and growing proportion of “non-marital births” and relatively few children raised in two-parent homes.
The academic literature on children who are born and raised in these settings is sobering and unsurprising. Moreover, the effects are inter-generational: parents often pass along their success or failure to their children. Murray warns that the implosion of marriage and two-parent families “calls into question the viability of white working-class communities as a place for socializing the next generation.”
Murray bemoans our loss of community and believes this is especially devastating for those who struggle with a lack of non-material resources. He is pessimistic about the future, but holds out hope that an awakening can occur. He also overlooks the strongest reason for optimism. By generalizing the two groups under study, he largely ignores the solid members of both the top 20% and the bottom 30%. And he omits the vast middle half of the population: plenty of good, hard-working folk, the bread-and-butter of American society.
Harrington’s book is a “classic”. But Murray’s book is a must-read if one is living in poverty or inequality in American society. Those who understand the limits of public policy, the importance of community, the sanctity of the individual, and the dignity of the human person can hope that many in “the other America” will find a way to escape dysfunction — and that a solid middle class will carry the day.
Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., has served as professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, Indiana since 1992, and is a member of the Bluegrass Institute Board of Scholars. Reach him at DSchansb@ius.edu.