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Shedding light on an unseen plight

Special to The Times

The Working Poor

Invisible in America

David K. Shipler

Alfred A. Knopf: 322 pp., $25

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“Workers at the edge of poverty are essential to America’s prosperity,” David K. Shipler observes at the end of his powerful new book, “but their well-being is not treated as an integral part of the whole. Instead the forgotten wage a daily struggle to keep themselves from falling over the cliff. It is time to be ashamed.”

In “The Working Poor: Invisible in America,” the former New York Times reporter and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Arab and Jew” takes a look at a few of the millions of Americans -- maybe 35 million to 42 million, Shipler says -- who work and try to work and just can’t make it.

“While the United States has enjoyed unprecedented affluence,” he writes, “low-wage employees have been testing the American doctrine that hard work cures poverty. Some have found that work works. Others have learned that it doesn’t.”

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The working poor, Shipler writes, are people who move “in and out of jobs that demand much and pay little,” people skating just above the poverty line, a crisis away from destitution. “An inconvenience to an affluent family -- minor car trouble, brief illness, disrupted child care -- is a crisis to them, for it can threaten their ability to stay employed.”

Such people must spend everything they earn to keep a roof overhead, feed and clothe their families and get to work. With nothing to save, they have minuscule bank accounts -- or none at all -- and end up paying larger fees and higher interest rates than better-off Americans.

Even in good times, Shipler writes, “Many wander through a borderland of struggle, never getting very far from where they started. When the economy weakens, they slip back toward the precipice.”

Ann Brash is a case in point. Married, she was firmly in the middle class. Divorced, she fell fast. Her daughter was attending Dartmouth; to keep afloat, she used four credit cards, paying interest of nearly 24%. With a job that paid $23,000 a year, she couldn’t juggle the rent on her shabby apartment with car repairs, payments on utilities and credit cards, let alone buy a few clothes and celebrate Christmas. So, to her personal disgust, she declared bankruptcy, which cost her $900. Brash was caught in what Shipler calls “the interlocking deficits of poverty, one reinforcing the other until an entire structure of want has been built.”

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Another example is Caroline. Because she had lost her teeth, employers would not hire her. “Caroline’s face was the face of the working poor, marked by a poverty-generated handicap more obvious than most deficiencies are, but no different, really, from the less visible effects that reflect and reinforce destitution,” he writes. “If she had not been poor, she would not have lost her teeth, and if she had not lost her teeth, perhaps she would not have remained poor.” There is good reason for Shipler to focus on women, because, he says, half the working poor are single mothers.

In the hands of another writer, his book might be a call for the United States to transform its society, to make it into a European-style social democracy, providing universal health care, solid pensions for old age and government-run retraining for those crippled by the system through no fault of their own.

Shipler does not go that far; in fact, he praises free enterprise, which he believes “thrives on difference -- the difference between the owner and the worker, the educated and the uneducated, the skilled and the less skilled, the adventurous and the timid, and ultimately the rich and the poor. That differentiation, particularly the freedom to hire labor at relatively low cost, has fueled the entrepreneurial risk- taking so essential to a robust, decentralized economy.”

The U.S. economy has regulations that are intended to prevent “abuse” he says, and these are held in check by the constant American debate over their potential for suffocating private business.

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In the end, Shipler’s prescription comes down to this: He would not change the system in any radical way, but would tinker with it, hoping that the burdens the economy creates for millions of people would somehow be alleviated.

Some may find in his eye-opening book reason to demand change. Others, with regret perhaps, will see it as an accurate description of the inevitable costs of free market capitalism.


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