Journeying the Sixties: A Counterculture Tarot     index     <prev     next>


"The United States in the sixties contains an affluent society within its borders, millions and tens of millions enjoy the highest standard of life the world has ever known . . . At the same time, the United States contains an under-developed nation, a culture of poverty. Its inhabitants do not suffer the extreme privation of the peasants of Asia or the Tribesmen of Africa, yet the mechanism of the misery is similar. They are beyond history, beyond progress, sunk in a paralyzing, maiming routine."

--Michael Harrington from "The Other America: Poverty in the United States," 1962

If the Five of Pentacles is the beggar's card, then the Six is its appropriate response. Coins are offered to the outstretched hand. Compassion directs with charitable intent the insurgent flow of commerce. Money buys protection for no other reason than its existing need. As the San Francisco Mime Troupe finishes a performance in 1968 a woman performer asks for help and coins drop into her tambourine. In many mythologies charity is a woman ("charis"), offering her love to man ("phil" anthropy). In this case, the offered coins support the Mime Troupe's revolutionary theater and the idea that a little from many can support a lot, another version of charity imbued here with ardent political intent. In 1955, American philanthropy from individuals, foundations, and corporations totaled $7.7 billion. The nation had about 50,000 charitable organizations. Twenty years later total donations had increased to more than $40 billion and the number of charitable agencies had increased to nearly 300,000. It was a surge of generosity conflated with the largest tide of economic growth in human history. It was also linked to a gathering awareness that, despite America's growing wealth, nearly a quarter of its citizens still lived in poverty.

In 1962 just prior to publication of Harrington's best-selling book, President Kennedy sent Congress a message on public welfare, the first ever by a president that focused entirely on poor Americans. Harrington's socialism was very much to the left of Kennedy's progressive liberalism, but the president, himself a scion of wealth, thought an affluent American society should not have as many as 23 percent of its citizens struggling to survive. These included children, working families, and aging adults of all races and ethnicities, though many more blacks (especially those living in the rural south) suffered poverty. Other Western nations, including Great Britain and France, had governments accustomed to providing social services in ways that protected its poorest citizens. But when Kennedy in July signed the Public Welfare Amendments to the Social Security Act his modest federal program of job training and public assistance was the most far-reaching social welfare change in a generation.

Following Kennedy's assassination, it was left to his successor, Lyndon Johnson, to declare "war on poverty" and-manipulating the national unity inspired by Kennedy's death-to push through Congress the 1964 Civil Rights Act and an Economic Opportunity Act that mimicked European social welfare policies with a myriad of unprecedented services. These included Headstart, a free preschool program for poor children; a Job Corps for school drop-outs; a domestic Peace Corps; a tutoring and scholarship program to send bright poor students to college; and food stamps that could be used to purchase groceries at deep discounts. Eventually, Medicare-a program of limited medical benefits for the indigent and elderly-was added to the mix. Johnson's policies included personal incentives that were intended to keep the programs from being called "hand-outs." But conservatives still referred to Johnson's War on Poverty as a boondoggle, even though it worked. Within a decade poverty rates in America dropped from 23 percent to 11 percent, only to begin a slow rise at the end of the century as conservatives seized control of government and attempted to limit and dismantle social services.

"In the sixties we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won," Ronald Reagan said during his second term as president. He was lying, of course. The percentage of poor Americans decreased substantially during the Sixties but that fact did not support the conservative backlash against the era's progressive agenda. And as Reagan did with all facts that did not support his views, he spun it out of existence. Reagan in America, and Margaret Thatcher in England, led robust crackdowns on the generosity of their governments during the 1980s and tried hard to restrict revenues spent on social welfare. Yet Reagan was still able to run up the largest national debt in American history, even as greater concentrations of wealth began to flow toward an ever-shrinking ruling class.