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« Class Matters, by The New York Times | Main | An Inconvenient Truth, by Al Gore »


The Working Poor, by David Shipler

By an everyday book reader
March 1, 2007

The Working Poor examines the "forgotten America" where "millions live in the shadow of prosperity, in the twilight between poverty and well-being." These are citizens for whom the American Dream is out of reach despite their willingness to work hard. Struggling to simply survive, they live so close to the edge of poverty that a minor obstacle, such as a car breakdown or a temporary illness, can lead to a downward financial spiral that can prove impossible to reverse.

David Shipler interviewed many such working people for this book and his profiles offer an intimate look at what it is like to be trapped in a cycle of dead-end jobs without benefits or opportunities for advancement. He shows how some proudly refuse any sort of government assistance, even to their detriment. Still others have no idea that help is available at all.

The Working Poor: Invisible in America
by David K. ShiplerBook Picture

Softcover: 352 pages
Vintage, Reprint Edition
January 2005
ISBN: 9780375708213, 0375708219

"Through a combination of hard facts and moving accounts of hardships endured by individuals, David Shipler's new book fills in the gaps and denounces the many myths of the politically drawn caricatures and stereotypes of workers who live in poverty in America. His call to action powerfully argues that we must simultaneously address the full range of interrelated problems that confront the poor instead of tackling one issue at a time. It is a compelling book that will shift the terms of and reinvigorate the debate about social justice in America." -- Bill Bradley

As David K. Shipler makes clear in this powerful, humane study, the invisible poor are engaged in the activity most respected in American ideology - hard, honest work. But their version of the American Dream is a nightmare: low-paying, dead-end jobs; the profound failure of government to improve upon decaying housing, health care, and education; the failure of families to break the patterns of child abuse and substance abuse. Shipler exposes the interlocking problems by taking us into the sorrowful, infuriating, courageous lives of the poor - white and black, Asian and Latino, citizens and immigrants. We encounter them every day, for they do jobs essential to the American economy.

We meet drifting farmworkers in North Carolina, exploited garment workers in New Hampshire, illegal immigrants trapped in the steaming kitchens of Los Angeles restaurants, addicts who struggle into productive work from the cruel streets of the nation's capital - each life another aspect of a confounding, far-reaching urgent national crisis. And unlike most works on poverty, this one delves into the calculations of some employers as well - their razor-thin profits, their anxieties about competition from abroad, their frustrations in finding qualified workers.

This impassioned book not only dissects the problems, but makes pointed, informed recommendations for change. It is a book that stands to make a difference.

"As a culture, the United States is not quite sure about the causes of poverty, and is therefore uncertain about the solutions," he writes. Though he details many ways in which current assistance programs could be more effective and rational, he does not believe that government alone, nor any other single variable, can solve the problem.

Instead, a combination of things are required, beginning with the political will needed to create a relief system "that recognizes both the society's obligation through government and business, and the individual's obligation through labor and family."

The book does propose some specific steps in the right direction such as altering the current wage structure, creating more vocational programs (in both the public and private sectors), developing a fairer way to distribute school funding, and implementing basic national health care.

Prepare to have any preconceived notions about those living in poverty in America challenged by this affecting book.

"The 'working poor' ought to be an oxymoron, because no one who works should be impoverished. In this thoughtful assessment of poverty in twenty-first century America, David Shipler shows why so many working Americans remain poor, and offers a powerful guide for how to resuscitate the American dream. A tour de force of a forgotten land." - Robert B. Reich, University Professor, Brandeis University, and former U.S. Secretary of Labor

"This guided and very personal tour through the lives of the working poor shatters the myth that America is a country in which prosperity and security are the inevitable rewards of gainful employment. Armed with an encyclopedic collection of artfully deployed statistics and individual stories, Shipler, former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer winner for Arab and Jew, identifies and describes the interconnecting obstacles that keep poor workers and those trying to enter the work force after a lifetime on welfare from achieving economic stability. This America is populated by people of all races and ethnicities, whose lives, Shipler effectively shows, are Sisyphean, and that includes the teachers and other professionals who deal with the realities facing the working poor. Dr. Barry Zuckerman, a Boston pediatrician, discovers that landlords do nothing when he calls to tell them that unsafe housing is a factor in his young patients' illnesses; he adds lawyers to his staff, and they get a better response. In seeking out those who employ subsistence wage earners, such as garment-industry shop owners and farmers, Shipler identifies the holes in the social safety net. 'The system needs to be straightened out,' says one worker who, in 1999, was making $6.80 an hour80 cents more than when she started factory work in 1970. 'They need more resources to be able to help these people who are trying to help themselves.' Attention needs to be paid, because Shipler's subjects are too busy working for substandard wages to call attention to themselves. They do not, he writes, 'have the luxury of rage.'" - from Publishers Weekly

"Even those who lack pity and compassion should be concerned about what is now happening to the poor. One of the great achievements of postwar America was the creation of a stable middle-class society. That achievement is unraveling. At the moment, the dispossessed are politically apathetic, distracted by video games and cable television, the modern equivalent of bread and circuses. Yet throughout our history, poverty and great inequalities of wealth have led to political extremism and social unrest. The Working Poor and Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, a book that eloquently covers some of the same ground, should be required reading not just for every member of Congress, but for every eligible voter. Now that this invisible world has been so powerfully brought to light, its consequences can no longer be ignored or denied." - by Eric Schlosser for the Washington Post

"'Nobody who works hard should be poor in America,' writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Shipler. Few would disagree with that statement, yet even fewer would agree on how to reduce the factors that cause poverty in America. Presenting individual case studies, Shipler exposes the vicious social and economic injustices that define the working poor. (How can you buy false teeth if you don't have a job? But how can you get a job without teeth?) At times, he lets his frustration get the better of him, and makes sweeping judgments about single mothers, divorce, and race--even though the racially diverse cast we'd expect is largely absent. And since his reforms are convincing but uncontroversial, we're not left with much but despair. But if Working Poor lacks some long-range vision, it "begs our attention. Read it and be ashamed". - San Diego Union-Tribune

David K. Shipler worked for the New York Times from 1966 to 1988, reporting from New York, Saigon, Moscow, and Jerusalem before serving as chief diplomatic correspondent in Washington, D.C. He has also written for The New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of three other books - Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams; the Pulitzer Prize - winning Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land; and A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America. Mr. Shipler, who has been a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has taught at Princeton University, at American University in Washington, D.C., and at Dartmouth College. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

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