Ellen Herman

Department of History, University of Oregon


Reading and Discussion Questions
Michael Harrington, The Other America

Chapter 1
1. Why do you think Harrington begins his book about poverty in the 1960s by mentioning that the United States was so often called “the affluent society” in the 1950s?

2. What reasons does he offer for the invisibility of poverty?

3. What crucial difference does Harrington believe there is between poverty in the 1930s and poverty in the 1960s?

4. Harrington writes that “the poor live in a culture of poverty” and that poverty is “a whole way of life.” What does he mean? Why does this matter?

5. Poor people obviously have little or no money, but Harrington offers several other examples of how poverty makes people different than other Americans. List a few.

6. According to Harrington, the poor “need an American Dickens.” Why?

7. How would you describe Harrington’s tone? What do you think motivated him to write this book?

Chapter 2
1. Why are poor Americans “rejects”?

2. In addition to extremely low wages, what characterizes the position of the poor in the U.S. economy?

3. “The welfare state benefits least those who need help most.” Explain.

4 Does poverty have a psychology as well as a culture? If so, what kind?

5. If Congress and agencies of the federal government have studied and documented poverty so carefully, why does it remain out of sight?

Chapter 3
1. What developments does Harrington write about in relation to changes in rural poverty? How are poor people in rural areas like and unlike poor people in urban areas?

2. Farmers who own property can still be very poor. Explain.

3. What particular problems face migrant agricultural workers?

4. Harrington thinks that the U.S. knows plenty about poverty and also about what to do about alleviating it. So why hasn’t anything been done?

5. What institutions in the U.S. are potential allies of the poor?

Chapter 4
1. What makes the social circumstances of the “Negro” poor distinctive?

2. What difference will the end of legal segregation make to impoverished African-Americans?

3. How does Harrington describe Harlem?

4. When Harrington writes that “Harlem’s economy is white,” what does he mean? Does this make Harlem like or unlike other urban ghettos in which racial and ethnic minority communities are concentrated?

5. Why does Harrington dwell on “Negro” undertakers and churches?

6. How have black Muslims responded to poverty? What does Harrington think about their approach?

7. Who was Adam Clayton Powell?

8. Harrington thinks that liberalism has actually been an obstacle to helping African-Americans in poverty. Why?

9. What exactly would be required in order to put a meaningful dent into African-American poverty?

Chapter 5
1. The poverty in which bohemians, alcoholics, and rural migrants to cities live is in a category of its own. Why?

2. Harrington comments at several points in the book on the sexual and family lives of poor Americans. What does he say?

Chapter 6
1. What does the “golden years” in this chapter’s title refer to?

2. Social workers make several appearances in this book, including in this chapter. What role do they play?

3. What public facilities do or do not exist to take care of the elderly who are poor and/or sick? What does Harrington think of them?

4. What would be required in order to seriously tackle the problem of poor citizens who are old?

5. What position does Harrington take on charitable giving and private pensions?

6. Public opinion about poverty is a significant issue. What does Harrington think it is? What does he say Americans who aren’t poor think about those who are?

Chapter 7
1. In the years after 1945, there was a great deal of commentary about psychological anxiety and maladjustment in the United States. What does Harrington think these commentators got totally wrong?

2. The concept of “mental health risk” is something that Harrington considers important. Why?

3. Do you think that associating poverty with mental illness might be equally or even more damaging than associating poverty with immunity from psychological distress and disturbance? How would Harrington respond to an argument like that?

4. In light of the statistics compiled and stories told by Harrington, why do you think Americans persisted in the belief that they lived in a classless society? What impact did this have on people in poverty?

Chapter 8
1. How does housing factor into the picture of poverty?

2. “A slum is not merely an area of decrepit buildings. It is a social fact.” Explain.

3. What is the difference between poor urban neighborhoods that are slums and those that are not?

4. Violence and juvenile crime are endemic features of public housing. Why? What solutions does Harrington offer?

5. Only one institution in the country has the potential to solve the problem of poverty. What is it?

Chapter 9
1. What is Harrington’s response to those who consider the poor lazy people who would rather depend on meager public benefits than work to survive? Do you think his narrative about how poor people live challenged that view or reinforced it?

2. What obligation does Harrington think Americans who aren’t poor have to those who are? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?

3. What specific proposals does Harrington make for reducing poverty? What are the obstacles to progress?

General questions
1. Did anything about this book surprise you?

2. Think about your own experiences and observations about poverty. How is your image of poor people like and unlike the image in this book? What do you think has changed since the 1960s?

3. Have you thought about ways of reducing poverty in this country? If so, how are your approaches like and unlike the ones that Harrington favors?