In the midst of a contentious election year and on the heels of Barbara Ehrenreich’s acclaimed bestseller Nickel and Dimed comes a new book about real life on the poverty line in America. In David Shipler’s The Working Poor: Invisible in America , the Pulitzer Prize-winning author provides powerful testimony to the realities of poverty in the United States from those who experience it first hand. His subjects discuss their lives with an honesty and frankness that are surprisingly free of harsh denunciations or bitter accusations; rather than indict, their poignant stories move us to examine our own lives and the values of the culture we live in.
Putting a face on poverty
The Working Poor is filled with accounts of extraordinary people who struggle to maintain their dignity and overcome enormous obstacles. People like Caroline and her daughter Amber, who barely survive abusive relationships, predatory lenders, discrimination, foreclosure, poor health and criminal disregard for labor laws. We also meet Ann who scrapes together government aid, church contributions and help from friends to keep her family together and send her two children to Ivy League schools on $23,600 a year.
Shipler also presents the other side of the poverty line, introducing readers to people like Brad, a Kansas City manager, who waltzes into his interview with the author late and proceeds to denounce his employees for their tardiness in the workplace. And Jimmy, the California farm owner, who co-signs on his immigrant employees’ mortgages to help them create permanent homes in the U.S.
The stories pile up, one on top of another, reminding the reader of relatively simple, but often forgotten truths. Poor people make bad choices, abuse their kids, eat junk food, show up late for work and…(insert your favorite stereotype here). But the fact of the matter is, so do the rest of us. The difference is that money can cover for us. Mistakes and missteps can usually be corrected if you have enough financial resources. As Shipler puts it, “Money may not always cure, but it can often insulate one problem from another. In the house of the poor, however, the walls are thin and fragile, and troubles seep into one another.” Or as twelve-year-old Sandy says, “You know, being poor is very expensive.”
In search of a new paradigm
With this compelling book about life on the border of the federal poverty line, Shipler attempts to move upper class America beyond the liberal-conservative impasse in defining the causes of poverty. Liberals, he repeatedly asserts, blame systems and wrongly ignore the bad choices poor people make for themselves. Conservatives, meanwhile, focus their attention on individual moral failings, ignoring the legitimate role of government in alleviating suffering. Both sides, Shipler believes, fail to address the “constellation of difficulties” that plague poor people.
Unfortunately, Shipler’s argument is nowhere near as compelling as the stories he tells. The lives recounted in The Working Poor are like parables that affect the reader in a much more profound way than any polemic ever could. By the time we reach the summary chapter, Shipler’s analysis of the ideological impasse has lost its punch; there is no need for him to belabor his case about the uselessness of polarized ideologies and political posturing. Voter registration statistics can’t move us to compassion like the anguish of Deandre, a victim of abuse, does. Discussion of the American myth of work feels dull next to the grand celebration of Peaches’ new job at Xerox. The stories speak for themselves. But kudos to Shipler for telling them with such eloquence. Especially in an election year.