Six Dollars And Eighty Cents An Hour? Yippee.

David K. Shipler: "Nobody who works hard should be poor in America"
Courtesy of Random House Press
The Working Poor: Invisible in America
David K. Shipler

In 1997, at a time when the country was experiencing unprecedented economic growth, author David K. Shipler set out to answer a difficult question: What causes poverty in America? His approach to the subject was ingenious. Rather than focus on "them"--the most destitute of the nation's poor--he conducted interviews with a broader and more familiar "us": people who lived just below or just above the federal poverty line. This group included working mothers, copy editors, loggers, divorcées, construction workers, cashiers, field hands, bank clerks, tailors. Shipler's research took six years to complete and now, at time when the economy has turned on its tail and nine million people are unemployed, he has published what may be the most comprehensive and engrossing book on the subject since the 1960s: The Working Poor: Invisible in America.

"The term 'working poor' should be an oxymoron," Shipler writes in the book's preface. "Nobody who works hard should be poor in America." But his own study suggests that the myth of the indolent Welfare Queen ought to be put to rest. Many of the poor work hard, putting in long hours at jobs that pay minimum wage or less, jobs that provide no medical benefits and little, if any, hope of advancement. Take the case of Caroline Payne, a woman Shipler met in New Hampshire, where she stocked shelves and rang up purchases for Wal-Mart at $6.80 an hour. Payne regularly pulled night shifts and rarely took sick days. Her own manager described her as "self-driven" and "willing to learn and better herself." In fact, some years earlier, she had gotten herself $17,000 into debt while earning a two-year college degree that she hoped would lift her and her daughter into the middle class.

But at Wal-Mart, and everywhere else, Payne could not get promoted. The reason was fairly straightforward: She had no teeth. As Shipler explains,

When she lived on welfare in Florida, she had them all pulled in a grueling two-hour session that left her looking bruised and beaten. Under the state's Medicare rules as she understood them, a set of dentures would have been covered only if she had been without any teeth at all; while some of them could have been saved, she couldn't afford to do less than everything. In the end, unfortunately, the dentures paid for by Medicaid didn't fit and made her gag, so she couldn't wear them. An adjustment would have cost about $250, money she didn't have.

As a result, when Payne moved to New Hampshire, there was no way she could give customers the beaming white smile her employers wanted, and she had no prospect of ever earning enough money to get the dentures that could have gotten her a promotion. "I want to be average," Payne announces at one point. "I wish for a normal life."

Personal stories like this one form the backbone of Shipler's book. Hardly a page goes by without a quotation from one of his sources. These voices give The Working Poor the kind of novelistic intimacy that shot two other books about poor America--Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family--onto the New York Times bestseller list. But Shipler's book has one advantage over its predecessors. Because the author met with dozens of families from all over the nation, and because he also talked to small-business owners, tax accountants, teachers, job counselors, social workers, and policy makers, his book succeeds at revealing the broader patterns of poverty and the limitations of anti-poverty programs.

What emerges from reading this book is a new vision of poverty's effects and causes. Shipler may anger liberals when he points out how stern parenting can affect earning power. He may anger conservatives when he shows how workfare can cause infant malnutrition. But mostly, he reveals how short-sighted such simple liberal and conservative positions are. Poverty is more than not having a high-paying job. Poverty is more than not having medical insurance. And if we would rid ourselves of it, Shipler's book argues, we'll first need to understand it in all its complexity.

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