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The Working Poor: Invisible in America

David K. Shipler

The Working Poor: Invisible in America

Author:David K. Shipler
Publisher:Knopf
Genre:Non-Fiction

By Nicole Leistikow | Posted 2/18/2004

"It is time to be ashamed," writes David K. Shipler, in The Working Poor: Invisible in America. That is, we should be ashamed because we believe that those who work should not be poor, and yet we are complicit in a system that allows just that. Delving into poverty's complex causes--unhealthy environments, psychological wounds, poor parenting passed through generations, crippling hardships, economic stagnation, and more--the seasoned former New York Times reporter uses storytelling and analysis to illuminate these problems' tangled relationships. No single-pronged solution will work, Shipler suggests, but only "an amalgam" that recognizes the complex factors shaping difficult lives.

You got a taste of Shipler if you read the story of Caroline in the Jan. 18 New York Times Magazine. A single mother supporting a daughter with mild retardation, Caroline has worked all her life and never made above $10 an hour. Shipler tells Caroline's story compassionately, from her stepfather's sexual advances to her own bad marriages, the loss of her teeth (which may have kept her from promotion), her struggle to buy a house (which she later had to sell without a profit), and on and on. And there are many like her, Shipler shows, overwhelmed by the ancillary causes of poverty like sexual abuse, demoralization, and lack of vocational training, and who, without the insulation of wealth many of us take for granted, are pushed further toward the edge by small accumulating disasters.

A picture emerges of Shipler sitting at kitchen tables across the country, patiently listening to stories, going over household budgets, inquiring into taxes. He bumps down dirt roads in a beat-up pickup to visit farms where undocumented workers from Mexico live in crammed dormitories and pick potatoes for 12 hours to make $50. His reporting takes him to sweat shops in Los Angeles, a trailer park in New Hampshire, schools in Washington, D.C., and to the University of Maryland Growth and Nutrition Clinic, where Baltimore babies are treated for malnutrition. In some cases, he has tracked families' progress (or lack thereof) over several years.

In the end, while Shipler offers policy advice and a fair amount of hope, his book may not win bipartisan support. In his opinion, "The welfare cheats are the officials who design Kafkaesque labyrinths of paperwork," and the Bush administration comes in for a drubbing. Republicans needn't worry that the poor will bite back in November, though. As Shipler points out, typically "the lower the income, the lower the rate of voter turnout."

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