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Cover story

Harrington’s 1962 classic inspired ‘war on poverty’

NCR Staff

Thirty-seven years ago a single book helped jar the nation into political action on behalf of the poor. It was The Other America: Poverty in the United States by Catholic social critic Michael Harrington.

Former Catholic Worker associate editor Harrington packed his 200-page 1962 book with poverty’s facts -- often from firsthand reporting on urban and rural poor, black and white poor, Native American and migrant poor.

The Other America deeply influenced both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Harrington also served as an integral part of the initial working group when Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver launched, at Johnson’s request, the Office of Economic Opportunity, better known as “the war on poverty.”

Harrington twice revised The Other America, each time noting that while there had been some gains, by the 1980s the slippage had begun. The poor are always the same people, he said, “the aged, the migrant workers, the industrial rejects, children, families with a female head, people of low education.”

Something else remains fairly constant, too, he wrote -- American society always prefers to underestimate the numbers in poverty. St.Louis-born Harrington, who was educated at Holy Cross, Yale and the University of Chicago, was chair of the League for Industrial Democracy and a member of the Socialist Party. He died in 1989 at age 61.

National Catholic Reporter, April 30, 1999