THERE IS TALK this year that the Democratic party has, as one television commentator recently put it, “learned the lessons of the ’70s.” Walter Mondale himself may have sparked this speculation when, upon accepting his party’s nomination, he addressed himself to legions of voters who rejected the Democrats in 1980. “I heard you,” he said. “And our party heard you.” After the loss in 1980, he said, “we began asking you what our mistakes had been.” Anyone could have told him. Americans, according to the popular wisdom, are fed up with taxation, especially when it funds an ever-expanding array of programs for the lower class. Handouts to the poor may be well-intentioned, but they don’t do the poor any good; it only makes them dependent on the government. The ’70s taught us that familiar Democratic talk of taxing and spending will leave voters unimpressed. For there are new ideas for the ’80s. Ronald Reagan and his supply-ciders intend to create a bustling, productive economy with low inflation and jobs for the poor so they can help themselves. Taxes can be cut, and the new economic boom will result in enough extra revenue to make up the loss. All of this is so accessible, understood by most of those who have been paying attention to politics in the last few years, and by even more of those who have not. After all, we have a recovery, don’t we? It seems the Democrats must have been doing something wrong, and the Republicans something right. Many voters will not take Walter Mondale’s assurance that his party has learned the lessons of the ’70s and will, instead, shuffle into the voting booth this November to register approval for the group that taught the lessons in the first place: the Republicans. But before they do, they ought to turn their attention to two books published in recent months: The New American Poverty, by Michael Harrington, and The New Politics of Inequality, by Thomas Byrne Edsall. The lessons of the ’70s, according to these two books, are not the simple lessons popularized by Ronald Reagan and seemingly validated by the economic recovery. Edsall’s book is a powerhouse work. With an impressive mastery of specifics, the author a reporter for the Washington Post makes a clearheaded case that there has been a “major shift in the balance of power in the United States over the past decade.” The book stands far apart from the prevalent Republican version of our recent history and also far apart from the mild and often confused Democratic response. THE NEW AMERICAN POVERTY By Michael Harrington Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984 271 pp., $17.95. THE NEW POLITICS OF INEQUALITY By Thomas Byrne Edsall W. W. Norton & Co., 1984 287 pp., $15.95 Without dwelling on Ronald Reagan, and hardly even mentioning Walter Mondale, Edsall’s book probably does more to illuminate the current election than all the television and newspaper campaign coverage lumped together. But we turn first to Michael Harrington’s The New American Poverty. It is a more difficult book, partly because it tries for more analysis than reporting, and partly, one suspects, because Harrington stands farther to the left than Edsall and so seems more disoriented by the current political climate. HE NEW American Poverty prob ably would not get the attention it has if it were not for Harrington’s famous The Other Amer ica, published in 1962. The book, as Harrington puts it, was “struck by lightning .’ in 1963 when the New Yorker ran a long review of it. John F. Kennedy was said to be impressed by it, and The Other America is thought to have played a role in the new poverty consciousness of the early sixties which led to Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. In The Other America, Harrington reported that between 40 and 50 million people lived in poverty in the United States. He explained who they were and what kept them in poverty. He explained that since the Great Depression, enough people had improved their lot that there was no longer a widely shared sympathy for the poor, or even an ability to see them, as more and more people moved to the suburbs and left the poor to themselves. His arguments, really, were arguments against ignorance. He explained the mechanics of racism and patiently took up such questions as “Why can’t the poor pull themselves up like the rest of us?” Harrington argued that “there must be a passion to end poverty., for nothing less than that will do.” After one reads the facts, “either there is anger or shame or there is not. . . . If this anger and shame are not forthcoming, someone can write a book about the other America a generation from now and it will be the same, or worse. Harrington is back with his book. And he tells us things are worse. Harrington’s book will not get “struck by lightning” this time. The message of his book is the same as that of The Other America that society could choose to abolish poverty. His numbers are even the same: 40 to 50 million Americans living in poverty, which he says represents an “exceedingly modest” decline in the percentage of the poor, given the rise in population. But, although he didn’t know it when he wrote The Other America, forces were coming together that would create a public willingness to fight poverty. Harrington’s “passion to end poverty” is quite out of style now, and it takes a wild stretch of the imagination to see an imminent comeback. Besides that, the problem has become more complex than it used to be, Harrington says. No longer will a simple expose on Appalachian life, coupled with a neat moral argument, suffice. The new poverty is “so much more systemic and structured than the poverty of twenty years ago. Indeed, the words “structure” and “complexities” appear over and over throughout the book. Great changes have taken place in the American economic structure, brought on by the emergence of strong foreign economic competitors and by the Ameri BOOKS AND THE CULTURE New Poverty, New Inequality By Dave Denison 42 OCTOBER 12, 1984
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