Fearful Symmetries

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30 May, 2010

The Working Poor by David K. Shipler

Shortly after I wrote "Madison: Sourdough and Poverty", I picked up a copy of David K. Shipler's The Working Poor: Invisible in America. These are people who work but remain at the edge of poverty, in Shipler's words. He is careful at the outset to note that the people about whom he writes have the riches of Croesus in contrast to the poorest of people in the Third World. Despite this, it is more appropriate to compare the working poor in America with other Americans. Also from the get-go, Shipler inveighs against the American idea that, if you just work hard enough, you'll get ahead and have that house with the white picket fence. Rags to riches stories are nice, but as we find out in the book, moving into the middle class requires more than hard work.

Over the course of the book, Shipler devotes each chapter to a particular aspect of poverty and profiles different people to illustrate each. We learn about their pasts, present hardships, and their hopes for the future. The stories here are often times heartbreaking but there are success stories as well. These are hard-working people who have dreams which have been deferred for a number of reasons. They want the best for their children but find that giving that to be extremely difficult.

The people portrayed in the book live a tremulous existence. They're a bit like dominoes in that something, which would be a minor annoyance for someone of middle class means, becomes a big deal for those in poverty. Take Christie from Akron, Ohio. Her two children were in day care and her mother picked the kids up on Fridays. When the mom forgot that day care let out early one Friday, fees started to rack up. Being an hour late meant a fine of $80 per child, an exorbitant sum for someone who has about $6/month in discretionary spending. As a result, the children had to be pulled from day care. Shipler was careful to note here that, when the fees started to rack up, the day care center made no attempt to contact Christie. Because a large number of the poor are single mothers, daycare is especially important.

Many times over the course of the book, Shipler describes poverty as a confluence of events – personal circumstances and failings, the actions of employers, obstinate landlords, a maze of government assistance, etc.

The people Shipler followed had a hard time maintaining employment. Periods of work were followed by stints on welfare. It wasn't that they didn't want to have a job but there were a multitude of obstacles in finding and keeping one. Take Caroline. She found factory work but the rotating shifts meant that there would be times when there was no one to take care of her daughter Amber. Caroline pleaded with her employer but was "brushed off". It looked as if she was going to have to quit her job and return to the welfare rolls. You can't pay for daycare without a job and you can't have a job without daycare. It's one of many vicious cycles that the poor face.

In addition to describing poverty as a confluence of many things, Shipler makes it clear that addressing poverty will take the combined efforts of people on all fronts. Of Caroline's case he writes, "nobody in the helping profession thought to pick up the phone and appeal to the factory manager or the foreman or anybody else in authority at her workplace." Indeed, he notes that the "solemn regard for the employer" is "untouchable, off limits, beyond the realm of persuasion unless in violation of the law". Too often employers neglect taking a role in helping the poor.

One thing the book makes very clear is how incredibly handy lawyers can be. Many in poverty live in sub-standard housing and, for some, things such as mold have an effect on their children. If they are severe enough, the children will miss school which requires the parent to take time off from work or, in some cases, quit their job. Readers are given examples of some groups out there to help that do have lawyers on staff. It is amazing how, when a tenant complains, many a landlord out there ignores the complaint. But when a lawyer calls, things tend to get done.

While the government is there to help, case workers at many welfare agencies often fail to do so or don't provide assistance as much as they can. Shipler describes being able to navigate the labyrinthine systems of public assistance as a skill. Examples abound of people being denied help either because of welfare agencies not following the law or not even knowing all of the services they offer. Again, having a lawyer proves helpful.

One mother went to a welfare agency seeking help because her apartment was so horrid that it severely aggravated her child's asthma. She was turned down for housing assistance until a lawyer called the department up and explained how they had broken the law. Unfortunately, by the time the agency had been corrected, the woman had moved out of state. Shipler concludes, "Blessed are the poor who have lawyers on their side."

Shipler makes an argument that, in addition to being a description of financial health or lack thereof, poverty is also a state of mind, at least to an extent. Even the hardest working people can have mental and physical problems which make moving up in the world difficult. For instance, one person explained why the poor will often not show up for work, not call their employer to tell them they can't make it to work, and quit. In many cases, poor people have such low self-esteem that they just assume they aren't really wanted by their employer and won't be missed if they don't show up for work. There's a touching story in this section about one employer who tried to address this by telling his workers that they were wanted and are part of team that cannot function without them.

Another telling instance was of a woman who had had a child as a teenager. She came from an abusive home and kept the child because it was her way of saying to her parents that she was beyond their control. Sexual abuse and drugs are also factors in poverty. For people of means, therapists and treatment are options while for the poor they generally are not. Shipler also addresses malnutrition. Research has shown that poor diet can stunt the mental growth of children. In one section he notes, "Some slumlords won't replace malfunctioning refrigerators" and that "some families are crammed into shared apartments where the single fridge is rifled by residents who steal others' food." I have to admit that, upon reading this, I immediately thought of Michael Pollan and his hordes of sycophants who assume that anyone who is poor just has to use their food stamps at a farmers market to eat like the great foodie middle class. And, as testimony from social workers in the book makes clear, there are a lot of poor people who can't cook. One woman is described as not even able to peel a potato.

The weakest part of The Working Poor is the chapter "Harvest of Shame" in which Shipler discusses immigrant labor. Taking the title from the Edward R. Murrow documentary of the same name, he looks at Mexicans who come to America and work in our fields. An important topic especially now with Arizona's new laws intending to weed out illegal immigrants. We learn about how some of them risk life and limb to come to this country illegally and how they end up securing jobs picking produce. Shipler visits the squalid barracks provided by one employer and describes the hard work for low pay. My gripe is that that Shipler tries to get one guy to agree with his assessment that the Mexican man is being exploited. This is arguably so but, seemingly going against his stated notion in the preface that poverty is relative, Shipler doesn't quite come to terms with the fact that, although the field laborer's pay is paltry by American standards, it's quite a lot by the standards of his home country. He may be among the American working poor, but the guy's pay goes a lot further back at home.

Despite this, The Working Poor is an engaging and enlightening book. It is also a bit depressing. Because poverty has such a multitude of factors, it requires an array of solutions by people on all fronts. Money is necessary but not sufficient. I don't think we'll ever eliminate poverty but it can certainly be reduced. One woman whose chosen alias was "Peaches" was abused as a child and homeless as an adult. But she lifted herself out of poverty with the assistance of a job-training program and her own determination and skill. So, while things may look bleak, there is always hope. All we need now is the will.
|| Palmer, 2:26 PM


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