David Shipler's new book focuses on a part of the US economy that seldom makes headlines: low-wage workers and their families. In "The Working Poor: Invisible in America," Shipler brings to life the stories of men and women who occupy some of the lower rungs of the labor market ladder; people who run copy machines, work as retail cashiers, or pick vegetables for a living. Both moving and enlightening, "The Working Poor" does an excellent job conveying what it's like to work at low-paying jobs and at highlighting the complex causes and effects of poverty in contemporary America.
One of the book's strengths is that Shipler attempts to avoid simplistic ideology. He has a point of view; for example, he states in the first page of his preface that "nobody who works hard should be poor in America." However, Shipler also notes in the very next page that in his book he has tried not to view poverty "through an ideological lens." He adds: "Indeed, devout conservatives and impassioned liberals will be bothered by this portrait of poverty, at least I hope so, for the reality I discovered does not fit neatly into anyone's political agenda."
Shipler discusses the American myth of Horatio Alger that suggests that anyone can achieve prosperity in America, and therefore "a low wage is somehow the worker's fault." He also says there's another myth: one that suggests society is "largely responsible for the individual's poverty."
The book presents a more complex picture than either of those two myths. By extensively interviewing individuals, sharing their stories, and peppering the book with larger contextual information, Shipler both informs and engages. A former reporter for The New York Times who won a Pulitzer Prize for a previous book, he puts a human face on the lives of lower-income workers. In-depth profiles help readers understand issues such as the effects of a lack of affordable health insurance or of rotating work shifts that make it hard to care for a child.
Some of Shipler's anecdotes, such as his description of a successful job-training program, are encouraging. Other parts of his book, such as a section on malnutrition and its effect on child development, are discouraging to read. In addition to interviewing workers, Shipler adds depth to his narrative by gaining the perspective of some of those who employ them. A section on garment workers, for example, also includes interviews with several small-business owners in the industry, who explain the economics of their businesses.
In his final chapter, Shipler discusses possibilities for change. While he notes that there are some poverty-related problems our society faces and doesn't know how to solve, he argues that an even larger problem is lack of societal will.
"We know how to promote home ownership and make decent apartments affordable, but we don't do enough of it," he writes. "We know a great deal about how to treat alcoholism and drug addiction, but we don't provide enough facilities to accommodate all who need and crave the help."
But, he observes, whatever approaches our society develops will blend ideas from both conservatives and liberals. "Relief will come, if at all, in an amalgam that recognizes both the society's obligation through government and business, and the individual's obligation through labor and family and the commitment of both society and individual through education."
Martha E. Mangelsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.