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The Working Poor: Invisible in America

By David K. Shipler
Alfred K. Knopf, 319 pp. $25 (cloth)

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Reviewed By: BILL O'DRISCOLL

 

For a problem as complex as poverty, there is no simple solution. Not even if that solution is a job. Because as David K. Shipler witnesses in his moving, thorough and quietly passionate new book, to merely be employed doesn't guarantee you anything -- even in the richest country in the world.

 

In fact, Shipler's ambitious journalistic study, The Working Poor: Invisible in America, makes two points that can't be stressed enough for anyone thinking seriously about poverty, hunger and homelessness.

 

The first is that though the American way of life celebrates the twin myths of hard work and class mobility, it depends utterly on the low wages and hard times of those at the bottom of society's pile. From the migrant laborers who pick Pennsylvania apples and Florida oranges to Wal-Mart shelf-stockers and low-paid office clerks, "[t]he country's prosperity relies on badly paid workers," writes Shipler, a former New York Times correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. This is, in Barbara Ehrenreich's words, "the involuntary philanthropy of the working poor."

 

The second theme is that poverty -- which falls disproportionately on women (especially single mothers) -- isn't "a" problem. It's a jigsaw puzzle of causes and effects that might start with fractured families and poor parenting skills and take a turn through crack addiction. But it's also likely to involve bad schools, greedy landlords, obstructionist social-welfare bureaucracies and the brutish indifference of a free-market economy that gives all but the last ounce of advantage to employers (some of whom, as Shipler shows, struggle in their own ways). And that's not including out-and-out predators, such as "rapid-refund" tax-preparers who bilk the working poor out of some of what little relief is available to them through the Earned Income Tax Credit.

 

Accordingly, Shipler -- who spent some five years documenting struggling families and individuals -- structures his book as a mosaic, too. Each chapter illuminates a different facet of the poverty puzzle. A Mexican immigrant named Candalaria takes us into the world of Los Angeles garment-district sweatshops. In Washington, D.C., a support group of street survivors confronts the scariest challenge yet: the gauntlet of "soft skills" -- interviews, punctuality -- demanded by the modern workplace. Shipler shows how the poor struggle with simply thinking they matter enough as people to let them even hold a job. In a chapter about the health effects of poverty, he summarizes new thinking about ways an environment -- even its psychological stresses -- affect the human body and brain, especially the developing physiologies of infants and young children.

 

Shipler is a graceful writer and a patient reporter, sifting through the strands of his subjects' lives but keeping sight of larger issues that define the way Americans think about poverty: as a moral failing, say, rather than as a remediable circumstance. His chapter focusing on the close-knit but hard-luck King family has the ebb and flow of a novel in miniature. But that story, marked by alcoholism, terminal illness and unlikely angels, is no potboiler. Shipler captures the elemental struggles and emotions of the rural New Hampshire family as they experience both incremental victories (a spell off booze) and the little sorrows of missed opportunity (confusion that prevents college financial aid papers from being filed on time).

 

A few points could make their own books, including Shipler's asides about welfare workers discouraging potential clients from getting due benefits. And he barely addresses another huge poverty issue: the nation's highest-in-the-world incarceration rate, which disproportionately affects poor people and blacks.

 

Still, The Working Poor is indispensable. In a chapter titled "Work Works," Shipler tells the story of Leary, a woman who survived childhood sexual abuse, single motherhood, crack addiction and homelessness, yet by dint of some survival instinct -- and a timely job-training program -- righted herself. A very strong and very resilient person, Shipler reports, can begin to escape poverty -- if everything goes just right.

 

So Shipler glimpses hope, but he emphasizes that big if. Being "trapped" in poverty, he demonstrates, is barely a metaphor at all: It's an all-but-physical prison. For the poor suffer most of all, perhaps, from having no room to fail, whether because of a missed day of work, a back injury or a bad math teacher. Shipler ends with a call to political action, by the poor and others of conscience, to seek affordable housing and health care, a higher minimum wage -- anything to weave a safety net, and weave it fast.

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