The Working Poor: Invisible in America
by David K. Shipler
Knopf. 322 pp. $25.00

When welfare reform passed in 1996, critics insisted that the law’s sunny assumptions could not survive the next economic downturn: the poor would be thrown into the streets, and public-assistance rolls would shoot upward. But that has not happened. To the contrary, even with the recession and slow recovery of the past three years, the number of people receiving such aid has continued to decline (if at a slower rate). Half as many families are now on welfare as when the law was enacted.

Yet, far from producing a sense of satisfaction with welfare reform, this accomplishment has led to new criticisms by those who were cool to the policy in the first place. They argue, with some justice, that we still have not figured out how to address the deep-seated problems, like substance abuse and mental illness, that leave many families unable to support themselves. More fundamentally, they insist that most of those exiting the welfare rolls are not, in fact, better off: they have just wound up taking dead-end jobs that keep them in poverty and do nothing to reduce their economic vulnerability.

David K. Shipler’s The Working Poor does not focus on former welfare recipients, but it does lend support to this view of today’s labor market. Through a series of sensitive, sometimes heart-rending portraits, Shipler (a former New York Times reporter and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize) brings to life the men and women in the U.S. who work hard in low-paying jobs. To his mind, holes in our social “safety net” are a major element in the difficulties faced by these “invisible” Americans; whether his own account bears this out is another matter.

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Drawing on years of reporting and research, Shipler details the variety of ways in which the working poor fall on hard times. Some make unwise financial choices, winding up saddled with payments that consume their meager incomes, or they are taken advantage of by employers or unscrupulous lenders. Others work in parts of the economy where hours are long and erratic, layoffs commonplace, and competition keen—factors that put a damper on wages and on benefits like health insurance. Shipler’s account of Caroline Payne, a New Hampshire woman who went through a dizzying array of jobs for 25 years, with her earnings rising only from $6 to $6.80 an hour, shows not just the challenges the working poor face in getting ahead but also their admirable willingness to keep trying.

The workplace itself presents another set of obstacles. Whether through a lack of skills or of habits like punctuality and diligence, or because of problems created by their financially precarious existence, the working poor have a difficult time getting and keeping jobs. Their bleak prospects improve only when the economy is growing and employers are hiring in greater numbers.

Immigrants, who now make up half of the growth in the labor force, are a sizable component of the “invisible” poor. For anyone who might have thought sweatshops belonged to a bygone era, Shipler offers a tour of the Los Angeles garment industry, where newcomers from Latin America and Asia earn a pittance for long days stitching designer clothing. Their situation does not seem bad, however, compared to that of the farm workers whom Shipler finds in North Carolina, most of them illegal immigrants. Crowded into dilapidated quarters, traveling frequently to keep up with the growing season, paid only for what they can pick or pack, they live with the threat and constant uncertainty posed by bad harvests and the prospect of deportation.

As for the children of the working poor, they suffer a range of problems. They are more likely to be victims of sexual abuse, Shipler reports, which makes it harder for them to establish families of their own and also induces a sense of helplessness in other aspects of their lives. Because of poor nutrition, they are more likely to grow up with mental and physical disabilities. On top of all this, they generally attend schools that are underfinanced and poorly staffed, plagued by what Shipler calls “corrosive relationships” between parents and teachers.

To Shipler’s credit, he does not use poverty as an all-purpose explanation for the fate of these families. He understands that the people whose lives he chronicles have choices and often use them badly. Still, he is convinced that the key fact about the working poor is their lack of income, which gives them and their children less room for error in everything they do. “Without the buffers of family affluence, achievement, and ambition,” he writes, “a child is dangerously exposed.”

Shipler looks to government for help in reducing, if not eliminating, this risk. Public policy could help the working poor in a variety of ways, he believes, if only the country were to become less “ambivalent” about meeting their needs. Increases in the minimum wage, a more generous Earned Income Tax Credit, improved food, housing, and medical benefits—all are planks in his platform. Spending more on schools and creating better vocational training programs also win his endorsement, as do more “comprehensive” and “professional” services to assist parents in raising their children.

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The trouble with these programs is not just that they have problems of their own—corruption, perverse incentives, job destruction—to which Shipler pays scant attention. Rather, it is that, by his own account, programs focused on improving the material circumstances of the working poor do not appear to be a crucial factor in the lives of those people who do manage to work their way out of poverty.

Shipler writes, for instance, about Leary Brock, a rape victim, drug addict, high-school dropout, and single parent who seemed destined for a lifetime of poverty. Following an arrest, however, she was given the chance to participate in a job-training program instead of going to jail. Run by a Washington, D.C. charity founded by a Catholic priest, the program emphasized not just skills but attitudes and habits; it was a serious initiation into the cultural demands of the American workplace. In due course, Brock became a successful employee at a Fortune 500 company, earning a respectable wage and winning recognition for her accomplishments.

Dealing with adversity was also much easier for those of Shipler’s subjects who could turn to strong families. Indeed, it is hard to imagine coping with more travails than those of Tom and Kara King, whose lives were saddled by alcoholism, epilepsy, injuries, failed prior marriages, unemployment, low wages, and, ultimately, cancer that claimed Kara’s life at thirty-three. Yet, through it all, they stayed together, eventually earning a decent income and raising children who were college-bound. Tom and Kara “weren’t looking for handouts,” Shipler writes. They “thought the responsibility for their welfare rested not with the welfare system but with themselves.”

That conviction is precisely what welfare reform and other new initiatives emphasizing self-support have been designed to encourage. By all indications, they are having a profound cultural effect. Not only have we seen a big drop in welfare caseloads, but during the recent recession, the poverty rate grew considerably more slowly than expected. Less than 3 percent of those who worked full-time were poor.

Shipler has given us a vivid portrait of the struggle of the working poor to acquire steady, decently paid employment. But he is mistaken to suggest that government has not helped them on the road to middle-class security. Since the mid-1990’s, ambitious (and often costly) social policies favoring work over welfare and bolstering family ties have begun to transform how we think of public assistance for the working poor. These may not be the programs that Shipler and his political allies have in mind, and there is still much more that government could do. But the national statistics, like many of the stories poignantly recounted in this book, leave little doubt that we have been moving in the right direction.

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