Life on the Edge

More than four decades ago,

More than four decades ago, Michael Harrington held a mirror up to America’s self-image of affluence with his searing picture of poverty, The Other America. Harrington’s book was read widely—by President John Kennedy, among others—and fueled the moral and intellectual resolve behind the 1960s "war on poverty."

After two decades of a mean-spirited "war on the poor," followed by invisibility and neglect, it’s hard to imagine a book about poverty commanding the same attention today. But Barbara Ehrenreich’s compelling personal narrative Nickel and Dimed has remained on best-seller lists for more than two years. Those who admired Nickel and Dimed will find that David K. Shipler’s The Working Poor: Invisible in America takes the narrative to new heights.

The Working Poor is a compassionate and no-nonsense look into the lives of America’s working poor. Shipler is a gifted journalist who’s known for tackling tough topics, including in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land. He brings his talents to dramatizing the invisible experiences of the estimated 35 million Americans who live in poverty.

Shipler doesn’t try to shoehorn his narratives into an established framework about poverty. His profiles capture the complex interaction of personal and economic structural forces that contribute to poverty. He spent years getting to know some of his subjects and their circumstances, taking us beyond glib and sweeping theories as their lives and voices speak for themselves. The Working Poor works with an ambitious canvas that includes North Carolina migrant worker camps, big city job-training programs, and Los Angeles garment sweatshops.

Shipler’s multidimensional writing takes us into the lives of women like Leary Brock, who moves from a crack-ravaged life on the streets of Washington, D.C., to drug treatment, to a tough-love job-training program and a job with mobility at Xerox. But we also encounter economically precarious sweatshop owners, restaurant managers, social workers, and farmers who are only one rung up the economic ladder from the low-wage workers they employ or counsel.

Some of these portraits are incredibly moving, such as Shipler’s description of the King family, a working poor family with abundant spirit from Claremont, New Hampshire. Shipler writes, "The fragile life of Tom and Kara King fell apart piece by piece until nothing was left but love and loyalty." With little financial reserves, the Kings and their three children hit bottom when Kara was diagnosed with cancer. Kinship, Shipler observes, "can blunt the edge of economic adversity. When a grandmother takes the children after school, when a friend lends a car, when a church provides day care and a sense of community, a parent can work and survive and combat loneliness." But even with the King family’s strong bonds, when their "reverses piled up one after another, they had no defense."

A conservative reader might find that The Working Poor validates an "individual responsibility" perspective on the causes of poverty, for Shipler’s narratives include examples of the ways in which teens having babies out of wedlock, poor parenting, and drug and alcohol abuse contribute to poverty. But Shipler avoids a simple blaming-the-individual framework. Rather he shows how individual circumstances and choices interact with larger social forces to keep people poor. As he writes early in the book, for practically every family "the ingredients of poverty are part financial and part psychological, part personal and part societal, part past and part present. Every problem magnifies the impact of the others, and all are so tightly interlocked that one reversal can produce a chain reaction with results far distant from the original cause. A run-down apartment can exacerbate a child’s asthma, which leads to a call for an ambulance, which generates a medical bill that cannot be paid, which ruins a credit record, which hikes the interest rate on an auto loan, which forces the purchase of an unreliable used car, which jeopardizes a mother’s punctuality at work, which limits her promotions and earning capacity, which confines her to poor housing."

For a reader looking for theoretical analysis or a comprehensive program to eliminate poverty, The Working Poor will be unsatisfying. Shipler could have done more to put today’s poverty in the context of growing wage and wealth disparities, deepening our understanding of the structural economic changes impacting workers at the bottom. A worker trying to rise out of poverty in today’s economy faces different challenges than a worker in 1955 when advanced training was not required to land good-paying jobs in U.S. manufacturing. Nor in his brief discussion of solutions does Shipler hint that labor unions and improved labor laws might play a role in enforcing a social contract and raising wage standards.

These significant omissions tend to bias the conclusions toward "fixing the individual" rather than working for an economy that works for everyone, not just the very wealthy. But the strength of The Working Poor is that it has the poetry and power to move us, to deepen our individual and national resolve to change the untenable and unjust conditions that many of our neighbors endure.

Chuck Collins is co-founder of United for Fair Economy and the co-author, with Bill Gates Sr., of Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes.

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