© 2004 David Shipler
The United States is simultaneously one of the richest and poorest countries in the world, a land marked by both obscene waste and desperate poverty. Explanations vary as to the cause of the widening income gap; some blame a deteriorating culture, others globalized free trade, and still others maintain it's a classic case of exploitation. Poverty may be endemic to economics, but the great tragedy is tragedy's juxtaposition with the American dream of success: work hard and you will prosper. Reality is more complicated than that. In The Working Poor: Invisible in America, David Shipler shares the lives of people who, despite long shifts, can't get ahead. They are black, white, Hispanic and Asian; some have lived here for generations, others are newly arrived immigrants. The reasons for their quicksand desperation are complex and varied: although many mire themselves in self-destructive cycles of behaviors, others are truly and continually ensnared by cycles of poverty -- poor housing that leads to bad health that leads to spotty employment and debt that lead to poor housing. It's not as if they don't try, but the odds are against them: even a small hiccup, an unexpected dilemma, can completely derail hopes of progress.
Shipler's work doesn't propose any grand national agenda like the War on Poverty, and his account demonstrates how problematic proposed solutions have been so far. Welfare offers intrusive, obtrusive bureaucracy and distorted incentives; public education for impoverished areas is largely a failure, and while there are a great many incompetent teachers, whose talent is less about communicating with children and more memorizing what Has to be Taught, the reality of poverty is that it isn't just material. There's a greater cultural poverty present that Shipler details as well: a loss of hope, of ambition. Some of the stories here are outright depressing in demonstrating how failure can run in a family, with unparented children growing up to have babies who grow up likewise unparented. They lack not just the data accumulated in twelve years of schooling, but ordinary life skills. There are also hopeful stories, like the single parent who embraced poverty of the material kind by refusing to work two jobs, deciding that devoting time to her children, giving them the attention and instruction they need, was more important than a financial cushion. Though raising two children on a single wage was hard, her children were success stories who later escaped poverty.
The Working Poor is a valuable book, demonstrating that there is more to financial security than simply working hard -- and more to insecurity than bad personal choices. Although Shipler is probably more sympathetic to the progressive, he's by no means convinced that government can be a decisive solution here. His work illustrates how complex the problem of poverty is, communicating to the reader that it would take more than a money dump in one program or another. The problems of poverty -- dismal education, the costs of healthcare and housing, access to transportation, availability of jobs, the shattered status of a family life -- are all connected, and there is no Gordian solution. As grim as it can be, the book is girded with hopeful stories of struggle and resilience. Based on extensive interviews and Shipler's own research (including time spent observing schoolrooms), it's as close to a comprehensive understanding of working class poverty as one will find without living it.
- Nickle and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenrich. This is the author's account of attempting to live on minimum wage in three different states, with little success. Her experience demonstrated many of the problems here (the costs of housing and expense of transportation, especially) though family life was not an issue and she never had to deal with state welfare offices.
- Reefer Madness, Eric Schlosser, which also shone a light into the dirty business of migrant agricultural labor.