Shipler on the poor: the depth, the shame


The Working Poor: Invisible in America, by David K. Shipler. Knopf. 336 pages. $25.

More than 30 million working Americans live in poverty, and, as the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Shipler writes, their plight "test[s] the American doctrine that hard work cures poverty." In this moving and meticulous study, Shipler interviews not only the working poor but also their employers, social workers, and job trainers. He tries to "challenge and undermine assumptions at both ends of the spectrum," from the "American myth ... that any individual from the humblest origins can climb to well-being" to the "American anti-myth, which holds the society largely responsible for the individual's poverty."

Shipler's sympathies certainly lie with the low-wage workers, mostly single mothers, whose struggles he followed for five years or more. Only one thing has to go wrong -- "minor car trouble, a brief illness, disrupted child care" -- to make it impossible for them to keep working and supporting their families. But everything has to go right, on the job and at home, for them to get ahead. Meanwhile, banks, tax preparers and credit-card companies all make sure they have a hard time just getting by.

Unlike other sympathetic chroniclers of the working poor, Shipler doesn't demonize their employers. While Wal-Mart has become the nation's largest employer by holding down wages and benefits and allegedly violating federal overtime laws, Shipler shows how small business people compete in an economic jungle that they did not create.

He explains how small manufacturers such as garment contractors cut costs in order to turn even a small profit. He reports employers' gripes that low-wage workers lack basic skills and often are absent or late (although some of the same employers were late for their interviews with him). Still, it is chilling to read how seemingly decent employers object to paying entry-level workers more than $9 or $10 an hour because it would throw the entire wage structure "out of whack."

Shipler also interviews several counselors and job trainers who help welfare recipients and low-wage workers to find and keep new and better jobs. Having climbed out of poverty themselves, they criticize their clients' spending habits, noting that some have "cable but not milk" in their homes. However, as Shipler notes, asking poor people to pinch pennies contradicts the "American hedonism" that is practiced and promoted by the rest of society.

Shipler himself unduly emphasizes the extent to which working poverty results from personal troubles, such as low skills and lax behavior, rather than structural problems in the economy itself. His emphasis on former welfare recipients, rather than the millions more who have worked hard for low wages all their lives, exaggerates the prevalence of poor work habits among the working poor.

What about capable and conscientious workers who labor for low wages at Wal-Mart, on cleaning crews, or in poultry processing plants, nursing homes and garment shops? To his credit, Shipler asks why employers' policies and pay scales are seen as "untouchable [and] off limits" by charities and government agencies.

Many of Shipler's sentences are gems, such as "Luxury is produced by humble hands." He concludes this study: "It is time to be ashamed." He's right.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and the author of Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties.

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