The Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources marked the 25th anniversary of Michael Harrington's landmark book, "The Other America," with a hearing last week on poverty and policy in the 1980s and beyond. Harrington, a professor of political science at the City University of New York, is cochairman of Democratic Socialists of America. The following excerpt is from his prepared remarks.
In August, the Census Bureau told us that the share of household income of the poorest fifth of the American people declined from 4.1 percent in 1970 to 3.8 percent in 1986, while the portion of the richest fifth rose from 43.3 percent to 46.1 percent. And the middle class slid from 52.7 percent to 50.2 percent of household income in the same period.
This means that after four full years of "recovery," at the end of 1986, "good times" had seen the gap between the best- and the worst-off Americans increase to the highest level since we began keeping records of this data in 1947.
Put another way, we took $6 billion in income away from the most desperate people in the land between 1980 and 1985 simply by reducing their utterly unfair share of our economic well-being.
But numbers are only numbers, cold and impersonal. Translate them into just a few of their human consequences. They mean that people are not homeless simply because that have severe mental and emotional problems -- only a third of those on the streets fit into that category -- but because they cannot pay for shelter in a society which reduces their income at the same time as it fails to build affordable housing, not only for the poor, but for the young families of the middle class as well.
We prefer to see spaced-out "bums" sleeping on the grates of our winter streets. We cannot stand to look the children of homeless families in the face, for if we did, we might have to commit resources to housing instead of just sympathizing with odd people.
Those census numbers also suggest that the very nature of economic growth has changed, that the croissant sector can prosper even as the hungry must seek their daily bread in soup kitchens . . . .
Many of the members of this committee know much, much more than I, about how to make the necessary legislative concessions in order to make real-world gains for the poor. I respect that talent deeply for it is critical in a democratic society which will always fall short of utopia.
. . . The present proposals for welfare reform may indeed lead to some day care and health insurance for the working poor -- which is the group that has borne the overwhelming brunt of the qualitative leap in the poverty rate since 1979 -- and that is very much to the good. But there is no cheap "workfare" way to deal with fundamental structures of inequality and misery. We have to ask, is our aim to move welfare mothers off the public rolls into poverty jobs -- or is it to abolish poverty?
. . . To begin with, it is well to remember that only one-third of the poor are on welfare (defined as Aid to Families With Dependent Children). So even if one were to totally eliminate the poverty of this group, that would not begin to end poverty in America.
Secondly, we now know -- and the General Accounting Office usefully summarized the evidence earlier this year -- that between two-thirds and three-fourths of the welfare mothers want to work, indeed that half of them leave the system voluntarily in less than two years by taking a job or getting married. They have no need of compulsion. If there were jobs plus medical care plus day care they would enter the paid labor force on their own motion. But those three preconditions all require considerable sums of money. Under present circumstances I expect neither. Poverty's future is assured for a while at least.
Thirdly, there is a somewhat confusing statistical anomaly which tells us that the plight of a minority of welfare recipients who are not prepared to go into the paid labor market will not yield to coercion. Imagine a hospital ward with 10 beds. Nine of them are filled with chronic, year-round, patients. The other bed is successively occupied by 52 individuals who stay a week each. Eighty-five percent of the people in the ward -- 52 out of 61 -- are transient; only 15 percent are chronic. But the cost of the 15 percent is greater than that of the 85 percent.
So with the welfare mothers. It would be relatively easy -- and require no compulsion whatsover -- to move the overwhelming majority of them into jobs if, but only if, the conditions I specified are met. But it will be hard -- and take time and money and not just a kick in the pants -- to deal with the problems of the majority, many of whom have been totally marginalized in an economic sense.
Finally, it is clear that simple economic mechanisms will not do the work of the social imagination under present conditions. That is, even in those states with relatively low rates of joblessness, wages have not risen as the standard economic theories of the past say they should. It is no longer -- if it ever was -- sufficient to simply generate jobs. We have to generate jobs which liberate people from poverty -- and raising the minimum wage back to its 1981 real value is a first step in that direction -- and which utilize America's most precious resource, its educational and skill potential, in a world economy in which we cannot afford to win a competition to see what nation can treat its workers most miserably.
. . . The problem of poverty is just one symptom of an American economy struggling, thus far not too well, to deal with a new economic world. I therefore do not simply propose that we do justice to the poor. I say that, in order to do that, we have to do justice to all of America, that the poor are but the first and most vulnerable victims of a transformation which will afflict us all if we do not act . . . .