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Did The New Yorker Really Spark the War on Poverty?

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Yesterday, American Prospect blogger Ezra Klein wrote about VP-Elect Joe Biden’s fondness for railway systems and, more grandly, the happenstance origins of major programs in our country: since Biden likes trains, we might see more train funding, goes the thought. Klein made the following comparison:
For instance, John F. Kennedy’s interest in poverty, which laid the groundwork for the War on Poverty, came because he read Dwight MacDonald’s long essay on Michael Harrington’s book The Other America. And thus a national crusade was born. If he’d missed that issue of The New Yorker, the path of American social policy might have proven quite different.
Now that got my attention. I’d never heard of this. Is it really true? Did JFK really move to reduce poverty because of MacDonald’s New Yorker article? MacDonald’s review, titled “The Invisible Poor,” appeared in the January 19, 1963, issue. The full article can be read on the New Yorker website (Digital Edition link here).

If you search on “harrington macdonald kennedy” on Google, it quickly becomes evident that the story is an accepted piece of Kennedy administration lore. I’m guessing that this was a fairly celebrated incident at the time.

Here’s Jon Meacham in the Washington Monthly in 1993:
President Kennedy read this in the January 19, 1963, New Yorker, in a long review by the critic Dwight Macdonald of Michael Harrington’s book The Other America. The book and the review together forced a sea change in American attitudes toward the poor. Just five years earlier, in 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith had declared poverty no longer “a massive affliction [but] more nearly an afterthought,” and nobody thought to contradict him until Harrington, a socialist journalist, came along.
The Harrington/Macdonald case convinced Kennedy, who had first witnessed large scale poverty in Appalachia during his 1960 West Virginia primary campaign. An antipoverty program was being drafted when the president was murdered, and Lyndon Johnson quickly picked up the standard.
Astonishing. I honestly didn’t know that the War on Poverty started with JFK. I thought it was all Johnson, using the memory of JFK as means to his own ends rather than completing his predecessor’s project. I mean, I’d heard that sort of language used to describe it, but I had dismissed it as sentimentality, I guess. But Kennedy really did start it.

To my eyes, MacDonald’s review does not particularly read like an article that would launch $6.6 trillion of government spending (as George Will, a critic of the effort, reckons it). It is possible that we are more aware of poverty, relative to MacDonald’s audience, or just more accustomed to strong advocacy. MacDonald spends a lot of time carping about the poor writing and evidentiary standards of Harrington’s competitors but duly wades through the statistical evidence with a hardheaded refusal to accept the conclusions of others.

But then, right when the argument is at its most abstruse, out pops clarity. These words sound intended to reverberate in the Oval Office itself:
They [the authors of another book under review] claim that 77,000,000 Americans, or almost half the population, live in poverty or deprivation. One recalls the furor Roosevelt aroused with his “one-third of a nation—ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” But the political climate was different then.
Different, eh? Kennedy apparently decided that maybe he could prove MacDonald wrong.

I don’t have much more to add. Were Emdashes readers aware of the significance of MacDonald’s review? I’d love to hear more about it.


For what it’s worth, that this is well-known to people interested in Michael Harrington or Dwight Macdonald. It’s covered in the biographies by (respectively) Maurice Isserman and Michael Wreszin. And Harrington also mentions it in his autobiography Fragments of the Century, as I recall.

Yes, judging from the Google search I undertook, it’s pretty generally known. I just didn’t know.

I think my fascination with the incident has two parts, inception and reception. I’m trying to imagine writing an article with that sort of impact, in 2008, or 2005, or 1997, or some year I know about. I can’t imagine it—I suppose there have been comparable articles recently, but I can’t think of any; perhaps Sy Hersh wrote some of them. I think of perhaps the work Ron Suskind has done since Bush has been president. But there’s not a lot.

But then the re-ception side! You’re president of the United States and you don’t find out about the true state of poverty from an accredited government report; you get it from The New Yorker. It’s weird, to me. Why is the president getting any of his information from general-interest magazines? I guess they do offer some kinds of value that nothing else does; a sweet thought in this tough climate for magazines!

The review was an important moment, but Kennedy had already talked about wiping out poverty during the 1960 campaign and had passed limited legislation dealing with some of the structural poverty in the U.S. by that point. But the review did increase his interest in doing something bigger. I’m currently finishing a book on RFK and poverty that delves into this in some depth.

Ed Schmitt

Kennedy actually first made mention of a ‘war on poverty’ in 1960 on the campaign trail. This mention can be read in:
“The Speeches of Senator John F. Kennedy, Presidential Campaign of 1960” 87th Congr., 1st Sess., S. Rept. 994, Part I (Washington: government Printing Office, 1961), p.18

I discovered this by reading:

Levitan, Sar A. (1967) “The Design of Federal Antipoverty Strategy” from the series, Policy Papers in Human Resources and Industrial Relations, put out by The Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations through the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.

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