Still “Other,” Still Invisible: American Poverty Fifty Years On

July 17, 2012

In his groundbreaking book The Other America, Michael Harrington shone a light on a problem that until then was largely invisible: the striking fact that 25 percent of people in the richest country in the world were living in poverty.  

Fifty years later, the U.S. has a well-developed anti-poverty field and billions in federal dollars aimed at mitigating the deleterious impacts of poverty and helping families rise above its grasp and into self-sufficiency.

Inspired by the 50th anniversary of Harrington’s book, more than 200 poverty advocates and experts gathered in Washington, DC, on July 10 for 50 Years Since The Other America, a conference to discuss poverty in the 21st century. The conference was a joint project of Demos, The American Prospect, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy.

It’s no surprise to learn, especially in today’s economy, that our so-called “safety net” has big holes and millions of poor are slipping through them every day. The depth of the problems still facing our country should give us pause.  

Yet, America’s poor are still largely invisible.

This may be because it is not easy to talk about poverty. There are several ways to measure it, and the numbers can be confusing. And it’s not just about income or joblessness. Poverty is complex condition. It’s about equality, access to supports like child care and health care; it’s about well-being and housing stability, and hunger. It’s about the economy, demographics and access to opportunities. It’s a discussion that spans many topics and can quickly get abstract.

The conference challenged advocates to do more to talk about poverty in America, and talk about it in a way that leads to action.

What Do We Know Now?

When Harrington wrote his exposé, there were not yet official poverty measurements taken by the government—a quasi-official poverty line was established in 1965. (Here’s what researchers used before then.)  

The Census Bureau recently reported that 1 in 5 kids U.S. kids are growing up in poverty. 

So what have we learned about poverty in the past 50 years? At first glance, the raw numbers suggest we are doing better. Still not great, but better. Where The Other America reported 25 percent of Americans living in poverty in 1962, today’s Census numbers put us at 15.2 percent. However, the poverty rate for adults without a high school diploma increased by 8 percent.

Of course, the debates about how we calculate poverty in the United States mean these numbers alone don’t tell the full story. (For more on the complexity, check out the University of Madison-Wisconsin’s reader-friendly overview of how poverty is measured in the U.S., and how it’s changing.)

One thing we do know for sure: the poorest segment of our population is now children. One in every five American children—and 1 in every 3 black children—is growing up in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s September 2011 report.

One startling statistic that could rival any of Harrington’s stunners: Kathryn Edin of Harvard University asserted that 2.8 million U.S. kids today are living in families that provide less than $2 per day per person.

Plenty of evidence shows the negative impact poverty can have on early development and in later life—from graduation rates to postsecondary access and success, and job security. 

Acknowledging What Works

Panelists on both sides of the partisan divide underscored that social programs—including social security, food stamps, Medicaid and CHIP—are a major reason the numbers aren’t worse. Without these programs, an estimated 40 million more people would be in poverty, according to Peter Edelman, Professor of Law and co-director of the Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy at Georgetown University.  

Ron Haskins, Senior Fellow of Economic Studies and Co-Director of the Center on Children and Families, Budgeting for National Priorities at the Brookings Institution, added that if not for public policy and the tax system, the bottom 40 percent of those in poverty would have seen their incomes decline since the 1960s.

Demos, a multi-issue national organization that headed the conference, has an interactive Tracking Poverty and Policy Tool that has more info on this poverty-policy connection.

Creating a New Narrative

“We need a new narrative about the future, and that narrative has to be about children.” –Angela Blackwell of PolicyLink

Perhaps the biggest lesson we’ve learned since The Other America is that there is no easy answer to poverty. Poverty cannot be blamed on any single factor; it is one of the most complex, deeply ingrained, and pernicious issues that our country faces. 

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to find clear, accessible ways to talk about it. The conference challenged advocates and the media to do a better job communicating about poverty and its real-life impacts.

First, we can’t start a powerful conversation or advocate for improved policies or systems using just numbers. Panelist Sarit Gupta, Executive Director of Jobs with Justice, blew the whistle on the poverty field as a whole, reminding everyone that one huge missing piece of the poverty debate is heart. “These are peoples’ lives we’re talking about,” she said passionately.

A healthy poverty debate needs both numbers and real stories. It is our job as advocates to provide these things to those who are shielded from the reality of the American poor. 

Angela Blackwell, founder and Chief Executive Officer of Policylink, speaking about the importance of quality education and opportunities, especially for low-income children, called on advocates and researchers to keep their eyes on kids. “We need a new narrative about the future, and that narrative has to be about the children.”

Second, we have to drive a dialogue that reaches to the top levels of American political power. Our elected officials get to the issues of poverty in roundabout—and politically savvy—ways. They rarely use the “p” word. But whether or not either candidate says the word, we need a better discussion about the reality.

Do our governors, Members of Congress, and Presidential candidates understand the reality? If they know that 1 in 5 U.S. kids are growing up in poverty, what do they plan to do about it. The numbers are a shameful reality for any country, let alone such a wealthy nation, and they aren’t going away on their own. We have 50 years of evidence to support that. So let’s start talking about what we’re going to do.

More resources:



Alison Beth Waldman is Editorial Assistant at SparkAction.  Contact her at alison[at] 


Alison Beth Waldman

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Thank you for this write-up and thoughtful conversation starter. The links are really helpful, too. We have a lot more advocacy to do; the divide is deepening.

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