What I’m Reading – “The Working Poor” by David K. Shipler

“Nobody who works hard should be poor in America.”

I was connected to this book, first published in 2004, by a course in poverty my son was taking and a poverty workshop the professor hosts each year. Pulitzer Prize winning author David K. Shipler came to the workshop and talked for 2 hours and signed a copy of his book for me.

Shipler based the main thrust of his “The Working Poor, Invisible in America” not on statistics and think tank papers but on the personal stories of numerous individuals and families he interviewed and got to know, following their struggles over the course of several years – letting their stories speak for themselves.  He was able to continue to update their stories in subsequent paperback printings.

The first takeaway from all of the stories of what it’s like to be part of the working poor in America is that being poor in itself is a job. The labyrinth of bureaucratic hoops to jump through to get education, job training, job counseling, a job or essential assistance with food, housing, healthcare, are all complex and disconnected. The various band aids we create as a society to make us feel better about leaving the less fortunate on their own are generally underfunded, not well thought out or coordinated. They’re also uniformly mean, seemingly more focused on preventing the cheating of the system than the utilization of it. Countless times we see situations where a person is just keeping their head above water with aid, as they try to better themselves (often with a family they’re responsible for). When they succeed and get a (low paying) job, with which money they could finally dream of getting a little bit ahead, relieving the struggle a smidgen, they find their aid is cut so they are forced to continue to tread water and are now struggling to make ends meet just as much as before, only now with the a job and a separate set of challenges.

Second, it struck me that the lives so many people living in our society, right under our noses, the challenges and degradations they suffer each day, are really quite unimaginable for most middle class Americans.  The stories of rampant physical, mental and sexual abuse.  Sexual abuse so common that a young girl could ask her case worker how many times she’d been raped, because in her neighborhood, in her family, in her life, rape is just a thing that happens.  Rape happens to everyone.  

Also, the shocking lack of parenting skills that polite society so takes for granted that it’s a given that it’s an insult to people to question them. Not questioning someones parenting is almost as sacrosanct as the second amendment in this country. But Oh My God there are people who have children who cannot relate to them in the most basic ways. Never mind communication skills or ability to teach fundamentals of reading and writing or citizenship, these people cannot even do simple play with their children, because nobody did it with them. They’re so caught up in a dog eat dog world that they even see their own children as competitors to beat rather than progeny to raise – and the cycle continues. These are the stories that are most heartwrenching.

Shipler’s final takeaway is the question of whether the failures are a matter of lacking the skill to solve issues of poverty or lacking the will to solve them.  Some problems we know how to deal with, we have the skill, but the will do do it nationwide, to the extent necessary to make a difference, is lacking. For other issues, we still struggle with developing a comprehensive strategy, so the skill isn’t there. 

The greatest problem of will is caused by a political system that creates those band aids and has no appetite for anything more.  And this is not a partisan issue, it’s bipartisan because neither party really considers the working poor their constituency because the poor in America DO NOT VOTE. Which is a huge shame because they have the numbers to make politicians pay attention to them if they registered and voted. Even then there would of course be no guarantees that issues of poverty would be addressed because the poor don’t always vote in line with their class interests when they do vote. Especially the rural poor, who if they voted and voted consciously could make a real difference in State Houses and the Congress.  But they don’t vote, and often when they do vote it’s in line with the upper classes of their state that keep politicians in charge with no will to create change that would benefit the working poor. 

It takes a willing government to make the comprehensive changes necessary to effect progress on these issues, from healthcare to education to job training.  We have in America an essential antipathy towards government that goes back to Tom Paine in Common Sense: “Society in every state is a blessing, but Government even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”  That sentiment has been resurgent in modern politics as espoused by the movement conservatives of the last 30 years and their extremely narrow view of government responsibility (in regards to the poor and middle class in any case) typified by the Federalist Society cant that “The state exists to preserve freedom.”  This narrow view of government is most often interpreted as a ringing endorsement of government’s responsibility for protecting the homeland, but little else.  As Shipler says,

“It is a ringing truth but a stingy statement.  The state exists not just to preserve freedom. It exists also to protect the weak. It exists to strengthen the vulnerable, to empower the powerless.to promote justice. It exists to facilitate the ‘pursuit of happiness.'”

Amen.  And further, if one considers the words of FDR’s unfulfilled Second Bill of Rights seriously, it is not just a liberal value to strengthen the weakest link in society, it’s likewise a conservative value to give that hand up that creates more freedom and economic power. 

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

Unfortunately, necessitous men also make cheap labor. And that conflict between the words of FDR, Jesus and true conservatism on the one hand, and short sighted business interests that rely on cheap labor on the other, are the real crux of our American crisis of conscience: the skill and resources are largely there to solve hunger and poverty in this country, but the will to bring the invisible into the light and lift them up to full citizenship is not there.  

3 thoughts on “What I’m Reading – “The Working Poor” by David K. Shipler

  1. To be sure, government can and should do more. But a hard truth is that the economy has evolved in ways that make upward mobility far more difficult. The middle class expanded when we had hard core manufacturing in the USA– auto, steel, appliances , etc. It’s all gone. Excerbating the problem is that other types of business — e.g, banking , retail, insurance– become more automated and efficient every year. The net is many fewer decent paying jobs for less educated people — or even educated people for that matter. Many of the available jobs cannot justify higher wages from an economic perspective e.g.,fast food or retail. One thing government should do to a greater degree is create substantial incentives for creating jobs and substantial penalties for destroying them. In areas that have drawn major manufacturing , you can see ripple effects throughout the population.

  2. The entire service sector including banks, brokerages, insurance have become a much larger part of the economy. The minimum wage never kept up. Unions declined.

    Labor leaders and leftist politicians in the 50s warned against automation and outsourcing and they were ignored. Politicians on the right, believing that the Chamber of Commerce and business interests would do what is best for their business and that is what’s appropriate, did nothing. Politicians in the middle believing that American businessmen would do what is right for their country (or they just said that as they cashed the checks), did nothing. So Detroit and Cleveland and the rest of the rust belt died as the unions diminished. While good paying jobs disappeared, the right and middle claimed that any interference in that process, without any irony, would cost jobs.

    This was all avoidable. It didn’t just happen like a natural disaster. It was due to economic policies supported by our elected officials that bled the middle class and fed the 1%. It didn’t happen in Germany. Largely because their constitution provides that companies have to have labor representation on their boards. That would be considered radical here. And what we’re most afraid of is anything called “radical”. Even after the financial meltdown we can’t break up banks or even re-regulate them meaningfully. So nothing really gets done.

    I read a very provocative piece in the Nation that I am going to post about. http://www.thenation.com/article/174476/letter-nation-young-radical

  3. Yes, the reduced power of unions played a role, but it is also true that their corruption contributed to their fate. Yes, raising the minimum wage is a good thing, but it is a minor thing. Those who do minimum wage jobs will never be comfortable and never be upwardly mobile as a general rule. The laws of economics do limit what those jobs can pay. As I said in my last, more powerful tools reside in the power to create incentives for creating jobs and penalties for destroying them . We’ve never really tried that at the federal level.States have tried incentives, and they plainly work. You could , for example, have corporate tax rates rise or fall with the number of jobs a biz creates. Another important factor in the limits of upward mobility is the assault on public education. Our parents’ generation and even ours could get ahead via the public education . Really difficult to do that today, except in the best neighborhoods . Inner city schools are , as a general rule, hopelessly behind.

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