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review: The Working Poor, by David K. Shipler

WARNING: LONG (rambling?) POST!

I finally finished reading The Working Poor by David K. Shipler. Let me start of by saying that this is an awesome, excellent book. You should read it. You should especially read it if you think a) the government gives too many handouts to the poor or b) poor people should just work harder and they'd be fine. But you should also read it if you just want your eyes to be opened even wider to what it means to be part of the so-called "working poor." I feel like I could write several posts about this book, but I'll try and spare you and condense my thoughts.

Shipler spent years researching the people whose stories he follows in this book - he knows them and their struggles over a period of time that gives him some real perspective. He divides his work into chapters that deal with aspects of poverty: immigrants, education, family ties, etc. - but his focus is on the people who are poor, and their stories. I think he strikes a good balance - he doesn't paint poor people as saints - he's fair, I think, about emphasizing community and individual responsibility for poverty. But he's clear in showing how the system - government, culture, society, communities - has failed people who are poor.

One of Shipler's primary goals is to debunk the myth that if poor people got jobs they would no longer be poor. In the chapter "Work Doesn't Work," he talks about Christie, a woman, who, for example, took a special training course so she could do more at her job and get a raise - a 10 cents/hour raise. With her raise, her food stamps were dropped by $10/month. The net result of her training? An extra $6 a month. (pg. 41) Talk about motivation! Christie also had her children in a Boys and Girls Club after-school program. (Childcare expenses are a huge issue for families with financial struggles) She was late to pick them up one day - having forgotten that Friday had an early pick up day. The club has a rule that they fine parents up to $10/per child/per 5 minutes for late pick-ups. Christie, an hour late, had a fine of $80/PER CHILD for being late. She couldn't pay, so she could no longer send them to this program. (pg. 45)

"Importing the Third World" talks about our reliance, our American need for undocumented workers in order for our economy to function, and the following chapter, "Harvest of Shame," talks specifically about migrant workers. While in college, I had the opportunity to visit homes of migrant workers my freshman year, and was appalled at the living conditions I saw. This chapter, for you United Methodist readers, also follows the Mt. Olive Pickle boycott - which is interesting to read from a non-UMC perspective. A fact: about 52% of the nation's farmworkers are here in the US without permission.

"The Daunting Workplace" talks about the skills people need to get jobs that they don't have - not skills like typing and computers (though those are of course needed) but 'soft skills' like attire and punctuality, hygiene, etc. And Shipley concludes the chapter saying, "it's as if education were like capital; the more you have, the more you get," when pointing out the jobs-skills programs tend to work best for those who already have the most education. (pg. 140)

"Sins of the fathers" looks at abuse, sexual and otherwise, and its impact on people and poverty. "Kinship" was the chapter that spoke to me most personally. The chapter looks at how people with ties - of family and friends - can manage in and sometimes through poverty in a way that those without ties cannot. My own family struggled a lot when I was a child. My father had been an air-traffic controller and went on strike when I was two. President Reagan fired all of them who didn't return to work, and said they could never be hired by the government again, which was where the vast majority of air-traffic controlling jobs were. We struggled - me, my parents, and my three siblings. We went on food stamps. We got behind on bills. We were recipients of my church's Thanksgiving food baskets. We had our heat and power turned off. One Christmas we opened presents with our winter jackets on, and then went by sled (no gas in the car) around the corner to my grandparent' house. I had an umbrella open in my bedroom over my Cabbage Patch kids, to guard them from the plaster that occasionally fell from my ceiling. But I remember being happy and loved, and part of a tight-knit extended family. We struggled, but never fell through the cracks. With the support of family and benefits of education, we struggled out of poverty into middle class. That's what "kinship" is about, and the family profiled in this chapter moved me to tears.

"Body and Mind" talks about health care, nutrition, food, housing. The basics. The best part was one individual who goes above and beyond the usual, really doing something to help. A doctor Barry Zuckerman is profiled. He doesn't just provide health care. He started giving books to his child-patients, which turned into the program Reach out and Read. He's hired lawyers (his fastest growing division, he says) to pursue things like landlords who won't keep their housing up to condition, which in turns causes asthma or infections in children. (pg. 225-226) Inspiring efforts of one individual.

"Dreams" talks about young people, education, parenting. Inequality in education, struggles of teachers and parents are highlighted. Some of the examples of sub-par education are horrifying.

"Work works" follows the stories we like to hear about : people who made it out. Who went through the system and have become "upstanding members of society," who have jobs and are viable and stable. The stories here are great.

In "Skill and Will," Shipler brings it home, asking, "what can be done?"
He argues that poverty has many related issues, and we can't focus on just one aspect of poverty - like housing - or things won't get better. He says we must have skill and will. What problems do we have the skills to solve? Sometimes, he'll admit, we don't have the skills. But he argues that more often, we never come close to exhausting our skills because we exhaust our apparent will to exercise those skills. (pg. 286) "Holistic remedies are vital," he says, but we must be willing to have some - those with the most to give - be willing to make some sacrifice to alleviate hardship for those with the least. He especially urges for changes in wage structure, education funding (Head Start's funding equaled at the time of writing the price of 1.5 new air craft carriers, pg. 298), and health care (the federal budget for child health care equals the price of a new air craft carrier, pg. 295).

Finally, in an epilogue, Shipler gives us a "where are they now" follow up to some of his primary sources. Some are making it. Some are still in the same cycle of poverty.

Read it!


St. Casserole said…
Thanks! I might have missed this book without your comments. I'll be looking for it.
Anonymous said…
Thank you so much for your insight. It is very moving and appreciated.

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