“Nobody who works hard should be poor in America,” writes Pulitzer Prize winner David Shipler. Clear-headed, rigorous, and compassionate, he journeys deeply into the lives of individual store clerks and factory workers, farm laborers and sweat-shop seamstresses, illegal immigrants in menial jobs and Americans saddled with immense student loans and paltry wages. They are known as the working poor.
They perform labor essential to America’s comfort. They are white and black, Latino and Asian–men and women in small towns and city slums trapped near the poverty line, where the margins are so tight that even minor setbacks can cause devastating chain reactions. Shipler shows how liberals and conservatives are both partly right–that practically every life story contains failure by both the society and the individual. Braced by hard fact and personal testimony, he unravels the forces that confine people in the quagmire of low wages. And unlike most works on poverty, this book also offers compelling portraits of employers struggling against razor-thin profits and competition from abroad. With pointed recommendations for change that challenge Republicans and Democrats alike, The Working Poor stands to make a difference.
Can’t Win for Losing
By Ron Suskind
THE phrase ”working poor” doesn’t carry much weight in this fractious political season. It slips by in a campaign speech, with nothing much to grab onto as it passes. It suffers from a kind of blunt-edged simplicity — a collision of enormous, rounded terms that, by the lights of American exceptionalism, should not be joined. Both political parties quietly agree that it is an ugly, unsettling combination — that any American who works steadily should not have to suffer the barbed indignities of poverty. But Americans do — millions of them. There are 35 million people in the country living in poverty. Most of the adults in that group work nowadays; many of them work full time. And while there are heavy concentrations of African-Americans and white single women in the mix, the group is every bit as diverse, and diffuse, as the nation is.
Which presents a central problem for David Shipler in his powerful new book, ”The Working Poor: Invisible in America”: how do you write a treatise on something as vast and many-hued as an ocean, a forest, the sky? Shipler knows this and, somehow, proceeds undaunted. A former New York Times reporter, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his book ”Arab and Jew,” and then managed to wrap his arms around the classically obstreperous topic of race in America with ”A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America.” This is what he’s become known for: tackling the unwieldy.
Of course, Shipler has plenty of company in writing about fault-line issues of the American experiment, like race, class and the nature of opportunity. But it is an area populated in the past decade or two by writers — like Alex Kotlowitz in ”There Are No Children Here” or, more recently, Barbara Ehrenreich, who chronicled her personal journey as a low-wage worker in ”Nickel and Dimed” — who incline toward the power of personal narrative. In the first few chapters of ”The+Working+Poor,” Shipler shows, inadvertently, why so many journalists have made that choice. He lunges forward at the book’s start with some sweeping judgments, like ”the rising and falling fortunes of the nation’s economy have not had much impact on these folks” and ”the skills for surviving in poverty have largely been lost in America” — both debatable issues — and introduces a racially+diverse, thinly+connected army of poor workers, some appearing for just a paragraph or two. Parts of an early chapter titled ”Importing the Third World” read like a dissertation on sweatshop cash flows.
I suggest that readers — and this is clearly one of those seminal books that every American should read and read now — stick with it. Shipler, like the man who pays to wrestle a behemoth at the county fair, is just trying to get leverage on an indomitable opponent. By the fourth chapter, just a third of the way, his strategy takes shape: he’s wearing down the giant. Shipler’s subjects, many of whom he spent nearly seven years following with meticulous empathy, begin to reappear in the text. Their stories start to deepen, mixed with complex insights that Shipler interweaves judiciously. In the chapter ”Harvest of Shame,” he deftly shows how government crackdown on illegal immigrants creates ”migration within the migration,” as an army of immigrant workers races from strict-enforcement states like Ohio to more lenient ones like North Carolina, and notes that ”when a migrant stops moving . . . he starts to enter America.” There are employers like Jimmy Burch — a North Carolina farm owner — who co-signs loans for new trailers for his workers. He has an interest. His workers do, too. He says he’s ”never been burned” with a default — not yet. Shipler never shies away from noting the employer’s power, but by embracing complexity, and trusting the reader to be up to the task, he burns off the easy illusions of hero versus villain that so often addle journalism.
Doing+that frees the writer to ask a set of questions off+limits to many practitioners of what is called ”poverty literature.” Kevin Fields, a beefy 280-pound African-American man, with a shaved head, gold earring and a felony conviction for effectively fighting off a street gang, is virtually unemployable. Men with a similar arrest record, but different profiles, have less difficulty. ”Violence,” Shipler points out, ”has a longstanding place in many whites’ images of blacks. So, if you are black, if you are a man, if you are large and strong, or if you have a prison record, you are likely to be perceived as a person with a temper, a vein of rage.”
Half of all poor families are headed by single women, and, in a chapter titled ”Sins of the Fathers,” Shipler doesn’t flinch from delving into how many struggling women were sexually abused as children. The evolving estimates show the outlines of an epidemic. Kara King, a white New Hampshire mother, was molested by her father, who told her ”that’s the way a father and a daughter are.” The effects — ”a paralyzing powerlessness” that ”mixes corrosively with other adversities that deprive those in or near poverty of the ability to effect change” — are visible each time Kara and her family appear in the book.
The same goes for other subjects whose jumbled lives serve to illuminate various elements of this enormous topic. The reader learns the issues; knows the aching heart. What takes shape is an ensemble play that weaves together traditional feature reporting, digressions about ”best evidence” and a few passionate expository arias to display ”the constellation of difficulties,” as Shipler puts it, that defines working poverty. It defines the lives of millions of Americans.
Toward the book’s finish, Shipler tries to harness the outrage provoked by his characters’ stories to examine the question of what can be done. He shifts his focus to programs for job training, early childhood care and remedial education (that alone meriting a domestic Marshall Plan, considering that 14+percent of American adults can’t find an intersection on a map, total a deposit slip or determine the correct dose of a medication). The author’s efforts, here, are uneven. Programmatic solutions, after all, are the hard, ungainly work of hours and inches. Shipler’s frustration seems to get the best of him when he is talking about unenthusiastic students, bad teaching and the way dreams of future success are little more than ”a notion carried on a breeze of impulse.”
But alongside these broad, imperfect efforts, Shipler threads a glowing filament: the telling acts of kindness, so often just small offerings, that lift both giver and receiver. It’s the little traps and trips that foil those at the bottom. When you have no bank account, no car, no health insurance, it inverts the slogan of that best-selling self-help book: You have to sweat the small stuff. A modest mishap to someone who can land on a cushion of nominal security can land a poor person on the pavement, often literally. Caroline Payne, with a two-year associate’s degree and no teeth, can’t afford dentures. No one wants to hire her. When she finally gets a job in a Procter & Gamble factory, all is almost lost when the plant’s rotating shift policy leaves her unable to care for her daughter one week every month. A friend steps up; her job is saved. In the book’s last section, Kara King is fighting cancer. Her husband, Tom, has no car to the drive the two hours to a Boston hospital for visits. It’s crushing to read. When a local car dealer gives him a loaner it feels like the healing of the world. The working poor — that enormous cohort — are easily outnumbered by America’s broad middle class. Most experts agree: lifting a poor worker to the uplands of self-sufficiency takes a concerted, many-pronged effort. In that mix, invariably, must be someone willing to lend a hand, to make even a little sacrifice.
Shipler’s underlying mission, no doubt, is identical to that of the narrative stylists who toil among America’s underclass: to press readers beyond appraising poverty’s causes and effects, so often inventoried for swift, harsh judgment, to the deeper understanding that the working poor are really us. ”I hope this book,” Shipler writes, ”will help them to be seen.” In short, he wants to give readers something to hold onto.
Then, the questions tend to be about the ”hows” — how we, as a country, might now act. Readers, by the last page, can scarcely avoid that question, or the larger algorithm that Shipler offers: ”To appraise a society, examine its ability to be self-correcting. When grievous wrongs are done or endemic suffering exposed, when injustice is discovered or opportunity denied, watch the institutions of government and business and charity. Their response is an index of a nation’s health and of a people’s strength.”
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