The Other America and our America

When Michael Harrington wrote The Other America, the classic 1962 book about poverty in the United States, he defined the problem as the inability of certain groups – inner-city black people, migrant farm workers, Appalachian mountaineers, elderly people on fixed incomes and so on – to share in the expanding prosperity of the nation as a whole.

His book inspired Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, which sought to bring members of poor and disadvantaged groups into the mainstream of the U.S. economy.  Those goals have been the goals of most self-identified liberals ever since.

Whatever good this approach may have done, it has reached a dead end.  It was workable only in a growing economy where a new benefit for one group did not leave anyone else worse off.  We do not have such an economy.  The vast majority of Americans, not just those in pockets of poverty, are affected by the decline of American manufacturing industry, the erosion of good jobs, the stagnation of wages and the growing debt burden

Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty did not try to change the distribution of wealth and power within American society, but rather to improve the competitive position of poor people and disadvantaged groups relative to other groups

Head Start, Upward Bound, the Job Corps, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, and federal aid to education were all aimed at fixing what was wrong with poor people, not in changing society as a whole. Medicare was limited to us older people and Medicaid was limited to poor people; there was no universal health care system.

All of these programs, except for Medicare, proved unpopular among the segments of the population that did not benefit from them.  My recollection of those times is that the War on Poverty was more unpopular among middle-class white Americans than the Vietnam conflict, and this is why the majority of American voters in 1968 turned to George Wallace and Richard Nixon.

I don’t deny the good that was accomplished by Head Start and some of the other programs.  I am thankful for the Medicare program. But this approach has been divisive.  Many Medicare beneficiaries oppose a universal health care system because they fear their own benefits will be diluted. Many white people oppose affirmative action programs for black people, while many black people oppose the broadening of affirmative action to include other groups.  Our politics is to a large degree a competition among claimants.

The main thing that President Obama has to offer the unemployed, like President Clinton before him, is more job training and increased access to education.  This is part of the heritage of the Great Society – assuming that the problem is what individuals lack rather than how the economy is structured.

In and of themselves, education and training are good things, not bad things. It is better to be literate than illiterate, and it is better to be a college graduate than a high school dropout. The nation as a whole benefits if fewer citizens are illiterate and more of them are college graduates. However, putting more people through college will not, in and of itself, generate jobs or increase wages. It may only increase the percentage of mail carriers or school bus drivers with advanced degrees.

Click on this to see how wages have failed to keep up with increasing productivity.

Click on this to see the upward redistribution of income in the United States during the past 30 years.

Click on this for a chart showing how profits from the financial sector have outstripped profits from the “real” economy.

Click on this to see how far short U.S. industry falls in working up to capacity.

Click on this to see how wage-earners without college educations are falling behind.

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