How a New Yorker Article Launched the First Shot in the War Against Poverty

When a powerful 1963 piece laid out the stark poverty in America, the White House took action

Illustration by Colin Johnson

On January 19, 1963, the New Yorker published a 13,000-word essay, “Our Invisible Poor,” the longest book review the magazine had ever run. No piece of prose did more to make plain the atrocity of poverty in an age of affluence.

Ostensibly a review of Michael Harrington’s book The Other America, which had all but disappeared since its publication in 1962, “Our Invisible Poor” took in a slew of other titles, along with a series of dreary economic reports, to demonstrate these facts: The poor are sicker than everyone else, but they have less health insurance; they have less money, but they pay more taxes; and they live where people with money seldom go.

What Dwight Macdonald explained was how a rising American middle class could have failed even to see poverty. “There is a monotony about the injustices suffered by the poor that perhaps accounts for the lack of interest the rest of society shows in them,” Macdonald wrote. “Everything seems to go wrong with them. They never win. It’s just boring.”

“Our Invisible Poor” is not boring. It is frank. “The poor are even fatter than the rich.” It is courageous. “The federal government is the only purposeful force,” he insisted, “that can reduce the number of the poor and make their lives more bearable.” And it is smart. What Macdonald did, in a way that few people do anymore, was to digest a complex and specialized field of academic scholarship for a popular audience. He cared about facts and evidence. He just didn’t like the way academics wrote: without force, without passion and without, apparently, the ability to tell the difference between an important finding and a mind-bogglingly obvious one. “Although it is impossible to write seriously about poverty without a copious use of statistics,” Macdonald insisted, “it is possible to bring thought and feeling to bear on such raw material.” He knew how to sting.

The Other America sold 70,000 copies the year after Macdonald’s essay was published (the book has since sold more than a million copies). “Our Invisible Poor” was one of the most widely read essays of its day. Walter Heller, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, gave John F. Kennedy a copy. The president charged Heller with launching a legislative assault on poverty. After Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson took up that charge, waging a war on poverty. He lost that war.

In the years since, with the rise of a conservative movement opposed to the basic tenets of Macdonald’s interpretation and Johnson’s agenda, the terms of the debate have changed. Government, Macdonald believed, was the solution. No, Ronald Reagan argued, citing the failures of Johnson’s War on Poverty, government is the problem.

“The worst part of being old and poor in this country,” Macdonald wrote, “is the loneliness.” Something, he knew, had to be done. He wanted everyone who read “Our Invisible Poor” to see that, too. The problem is, we’ve never been able to agree about who ought to do it.

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