Commentary: Hearing the outraged voices of the poor

Peter De Vries, who wrote for The New Yorker, said reality is what won't go away no matter how hard you try to make it go away. For Americans in 2012, what won't go away is the growing income disparity between rich and poor and the decline in American social mobility.

In 2012, if you are born poor, you probably will die poor. Europe, to the astonishment of American conservatives, has greater social mobility than the United States, according to academic and government research.

I know conservatives despise the '60s, for them a decade of self-indulgence, narcissism, protest and dope that wounded a great country. But the '60s is the last time Americans had a serious discussion of the poor and social mobility.

That discussion was led by Michael Harrington, whose small book "The Other America," published in 1962, became a best-seller. "The Other America" was read in the White House, Congress, on Wall Street, Main Street and perhaps occasionally on the Bowery, where Harrington had been a member of the Catholic Worker organization, which fed and clothed the poor. And still does today.

As a man with a Christian background, Harrington (1928-1989) was familiar with the Nicene Creed, which refers to God as maker of all that is, seen and unseen. "The Other America" is devoted to making the poor visible to the rest of their countrymen. Harrington believed 40 million or more Americans lived in poverty, 20 percent or more of the population.

"If my interpretation is bleak and grim," Harrington wrote, "and even if it overstates the case slightly, that is intentional. My moral point is a sense of outrage. ..." Harrington was inflamed by the existence of poverty amid post-war abundance -- and by the willful indifference of his fellow Americans. Although he didn't call out Stanford history professor David Potter by name, it's obvious Potter's influential history of the United States, "People of Plenty," made his blood boil.

And so Harrington introduced his fellow Americans to their neighbors, the poor, taking readers through the lives of migrant field hands in California, ghetto dwellers in New York, Chicago and Detroit, farmers in the South, and the elderly poor and poor children from coast to coast. He also invited readers to take a walk down the Bowery, which, he said, for all its squalor was a rough democracy -- the alcoholic poor came from all walks of life.

Harrington provoked so much debate that "The Other America" became a synonym for the poor as Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and the Congress developed health, education and welfare policies that diminished poverty for many Americans.

Harrington, unlike presidents and Congressmen, was never elected to anything.

It's not quite right to say Harrington believed the poor cannot escape poverty without help from the government. Individuals could, he recognized, but when the roster of the poor is tens of millions of names long only government intervention can reduce their numbers. Conservative America has rejected this proposition since the first copy of "The Other America" rolled off the press. The individual must do it and do it on his own, conservatives insist, as if the national anthem is Jimmy Cliff's "You Can Get It If You Really Want."

"We are the 99 percent" is a slogan, and a slogan is never going to have the influence of a book. But today Americans understand something is deeply wrong with their country, and in their search for solutions, they will no doubt turn to history. Harrington is as firmly a part of their history as John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan and the other great one-percenters of yesteryear. His solutions of 50 years ago are not our solutions but his voice -- the voice of outrage at injustice -- is a voice being heard once more.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at mcarey@adn.com.