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The Myth of the Working Poor

Steven Malanga

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Forty years ago a young, radical journalist helped ignite the War on Poverty with his pioneering book "The Other America." In its pages, Michael Harrington warned that the recently proclaimed age of affluence was a mirage, that beneath the surface of U.S. prosperity lay tens of millions of people stuck in hopeless poverty that only massive government intervention could help.

Today, a new generation of journalists is straining to duplicate Harrington's feat--to convince contemporary America that its economic system doesn't work for millions and that only government can lift them out of poverty. These new journalists face a tougher task than Harrington's, though, because all levels of government have spent about $10 trillion on poverty programs since his book appeared, with disappointing, even counterproductive, results. And over the last four decades, millions of poor people, immigrants and native-born alike, have risen from poverty, without recourse to the government programs that Harrington inspired.

But brushing aside the War on Poverty's failure and the success of so many in climbing America's economic ladder, this generation of authors dusts off the old argument for a new era. Books like Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed" and David Shipler's "The Working Poor" tell us that the poor are doing exactly what America expects of them--finding jobs, rising early to get to work every day, chasing the American dream--but that our system of "carnivorous capitalism" is so heavily arrayed against them that they can't rise out of poverty or live a decent life. These new anthems of despair paint their subjects as forced off welfare by uncompassionate conservatives and trapped in low-wage jobs that lead nowhere. They claim, too, that the good life that the country's expanding middle class enjoys rests on the backs of these working poor and their inexpensive labor, so that prosperous Americans owe them more tax-funded help.

Read the entire article on the City Journal website.

Posted: 11/23/04



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