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The Working Poor: Invisible in America

4.01  ·  Rating Details ·  4,427 Ratings  ·  358 Reviews
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 br ...more
Paperback, 352 pages
Published January 4th 2005 by Vintage (first published January 4th 2004)
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Will Byrnes
Oct 26, 2008 Will Byrnes rated it really liked it
This is a depressing account of many individuals who are afflicted with poverty and are, with exceptions, unable to escape. The book provides considerable ammunition for the view that the poor are kept there by an uncaring and hostile society. From the tales and analyses emerge nuggets of potential policy directions. For instance, there is attention given to the disparity in spending for schooling based on local real estate valuation. Certainly centralizing revenues and then distributing them ac ...more
Dec 11, 2007 Alison rated it really liked it
A manager at Barnes & Nobles told me that this was a great book because it shifted blame for the problems of the poor onto the poor, thus holding them accountable and providing room for personal responsibility. Hardly a compelling case for me! So for a long time, I didn’t read it. But now I have, and what the B&N guy said was a gross oversimplification and misreading. More thoughts here:

It's a great book.
Nov 15, 2007 Dan rated it liked it
I often get into discussions with my father-in-law about the state of the nation, problems facing workers and companies, and especially the role of the government. My father-in-law will often say the phrase, "People just need to work harder" in response to my queries about how to get people out of poverty or dead-end jobs. Well, I heard that phrase one too many times, so I decided to read David Shipler's book to find out if this "American Dream" is as easy to do as it sounds.

It's not easy at all
Oct 16, 2010 Tom rated it it was ok
If you don't know much about poverty, this book may prove useful to you, but go in with eyes open. Shipler is at his best when he's letting the poor folks he speaks to speak for themselves. However, he is very much a liberal, and while he's talking with poor people we also get sympathetic interviews with bosses, managers, job trainers, "tough love" social workers, and the like. He praises people who shape themselves (and allow themselves to be shaped) into well-behaved, obedient workers set on c ...more
Jul 31, 2008 sleeps9hours rated it it was amazing
Summary: Poverty is caused by complex interactions between personal and societal/business/governmental failures. The poor are affected more strongly by small mistakes/misfortunes that snowball due to lack of safety net.
The most heinous problems to me were sexual abuse/domestic violence.

p. 162 At the extremes of the debate, liberals don’t want to see the dysfunctional family, and conservatives want to see nothing else. Depending on the ideology, destructive parenting is either not a cause or the
Terri Lynn
I liked this book pretty well. The author spent a lot of time talking with people of different races and backgrounds about their poverty and also with social workers who help them and with their employers. Poverty was self-imposed in all cases. These people dropped out of school, had a stack of illegitimate kids they couldn't support, got involved in crime, used alcohol and drugs and even when they got jobs, they'd just fail to go in to work or orientations and not call in. They made bad life ch ...more
Jan 20, 2013 Sarah rated it really liked it
This book is not what you would call a pick-me-upper. I had to set it down sometimes, and come back to the stories of so many families fighting on so many fronts. It was exhausting to read about the way so many have to fight just to stay above water and hold their families together (or wishing sometimes they would let some parts of the family go).

It was a reminder that if you are able to spend time reading books for fun (much less spending more time commenting on them online!), you are very ble
Laura Harrison
Mar 06, 2017 Laura Harrison rated it really liked it
Sad, tragic and honest. Goes well with the best-seller Nickeled and Dimed.
Abby Jean
Jun 20, 2011 Abby Jean rated it liked it
Shelves: 2011, summer-project
this is a very good book to read if you know a little about the policy problems facing the working poor and want to get a better idea of the human stories of people affected by them, or if you don't know anything about the daily lives of the working poor and need a good illustration of the thicket of problems trapping them in poverty.

however, if you are looking for a systemic analysis of which policies and procedures create this poverty trap and perpetuate these conditions, this is not the book
David Quinn
Feb 25, 2011 David Quinn rated it really liked it
Although there weren't any astonishing revelations (and I'm not sure that's even possible with this subject matter) the author did an excellent job of conveying the fragile interrelationships between education, housing, health, upbringing, transportation, health insurance (etc.) and how one problem can trigger a devastating financial setback. He writes, "For practically every family, then, the ingredients of poverty are part financial and part psychological, part personal and part social, part p ...more
Jan 07, 2013 Urmila rated it really liked it
I remember the first time I visited the US I was struck by the amount of poverty I saw around me. I hadn't seen anything like it in Australia or the other developed countries I had visited. Since I moved here 7 years ago, I have always been curious how a society that prides itself on the boundless achievements it affords to those who are willing to work hard, could have a stratum of folks that seem so permanently mired in a cycle of poverty.

Through interviews with the working poor and the peopl
Oct 03, 2010 Deborah rated it really liked it
In 1997, while many Americans appeared to be enjoying the benefits of a soaring economy, author David K. Shipler was on a quest to unveil a faction of society that was hidden in plain sight, America’s working poor. Shipler set out to bring to light the forgotten America, those living at or under the federal government’s official poverty line, employed yet still struggling to survive, day by day. In hopes of vanquishing the invisibility cloak that obscured a lar
Oct 11, 2012 Paul rated it really liked it
Shelves: social-justice
This book... was not an easy read. It can be often a bit depressing or unsettling, if only for the stories of real people that it presents to the reader. With that in mind, it tries to take a good, solid, objective look at the issue of poverty in the U.S. and how this group of people survive from day to day. It doesn't try to follow ideology, but instead just examines the lives of people who fit in this demographic and takes an honest look at what they have to endure and fight against daily. It ...more
2.5 stars.

I wanted to like it, and I stuck with it a lot longer than I should've (40% of the way), but then I couldn't take it anymore and started skimming.

This book is hard to read. He'll spend a chapter on a specific type of people, like migrant workers, and pop from story to story with no segue. You'll read six pages about Mark and Lisa, then one paragraph later you'll be reading about Hernando, but they have nothing in common other than low wage poverty in the garment district of LA. It's ju
Mar 12, 2017 Jen rated it really liked it
This book made me feel uncomfortable, which is probably partly the point. The poverty line is a tough one to cross, particularly in a country that isn't really interested in helping people get up and out of a welfare state. Too often, it's easy to say "they just need to work harder", or "stop buying iPhones or cable (or insert other "luxury" here)". It's not as simple as not having cable. A single mother has a job, and her kids are in child care. One day, the car won't start after work. The kids ...more
Oct 01, 2014 Jennifer rated it it was amazing
I decided to read this book because it appeared on a list of books that parents wanted banned from a high school reading list since it was "critical of capitalism". Those parents did not actually read this book. What this book is critical of is this: the wealthiest nation in the world cannot find the will to take a holistic, comprehensive, programmatic view of addressing the numerous causes of poverty so that individuals who are standing on the line between poor and destitute can find a way out ...more
Jan 02, 2015 Vanessa rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
If a single cause were identified, a remedy might be readily designed. It would fit neatly into a liberal or conservative prescription. If either the system's exploitation or the victims' irresponsibility were to blame, one or the other side of the debate would be satisfied. If the reasons were merely corporate greed or government indifference or impoverished schools, then liberal solutions would suffice. If the causes were only the personal failures of parents and children, then conservative v
Frederick Bingham
Feb 12, 2012 Frederick Bingham rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An eye-opening portrayal of the difficulty of dealing with poverty in this country told from the perspective of people dealing with it every day. This book about the plight of the working poor in America is good but a little dated. It is copyright 2004, before the real sh*t hit the fan in 2008. The problem of poverty is extremely complex. Each person afflicted with it is different and has their own set of issues, be that addiction, abuse, health problems, lack of education or opportunities, raci ...more
Mar 04, 2012 Miranda rated it liked it
ok so i liked this book. it is mass-market muckraking. the solutions at the end assume a market economy (which is totally safe for mass-market i guess!) so it ends up being a set of harrowing tales of life in or near poverty with the end result being, "well, it's all connected, so we need more funding for ... everything." which like yes! but also, hey, a living wage? he almost-kinda-doesn't really mention the possibility that walmart etc. paying wages as low as they can possibly get away with be ...more
Aug 22, 2010 Kendra rated it liked it
Shelves: sociology
Shipler chronicles the lives and stories of the working poor, examining the interconnected challenges of health, education, community, abuse, hunger, finances and addiction that keep many marginalized individuals at the edge of society. He highlights holistic program approaches that integrate resources to maximize impact, including a medical clinic that employs social workers and lawyers to better advocate for clients. In addition, Shipler exposes the broken systems of public and private assista ...more
My favorite quote: "Workers at the edge of poverty are essential to America’s prosperity, but their well-being is not treated as an integral part of the whole. Instead, the forgotten wage a daily struggle to keep themselves from falling over the cliff. It is time to be ashamed."

I thought the perspective Shipler had was fairly balanced between blaming/pointing at circumstances that are not necessarily the working poor's fault (i.e. attending a poorly funded public school with few resources to ad
Jul 23, 2008 Justine rated it it was amazing
I've been on a poverty rage lately, and this book was fuel to that fire. A narrative interlaced with dozens of individual stories, this book lays blame everywhere without having to point it out. Shipler stays out of the political fray for the most part. In fact, he mostly stays out of the preaching business, too. He lays out the facts and research, supplements with personal stories, conversations, and following families for years at a time, but mostly allows me to reach my own conclusions.

He poi
Bookmarks Magazine

"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

Sep 07, 2012 Zaphoddent rated it it was amazing
I can't remember any book I've read where the synopsis was so accurate. This is a brilliantly humane examination of the multiple forces at play for the poor. It's raw, depressing, unflinching and most of all superbly written. Shipler bluntly delves into the lives of the people he's featured in the book, following them over multiple years and offering a comprehensive look at the circumstances that have and continue to shape their lives.
The book doesn't apply to the poor just in America, it's an
Bebe Burnside
Nov 14, 2011 Bebe Burnside rated it really liked it
This should be a must read in every sociology class, economics class, psychology class, us history class etc. It really hits home about how so much contributes to poverty in this country. Working Poor should be an oxymoron and yet there are so many people in this situation. It's truly heartbreaking and frightening how close so many of us are to being in that situation. Just one bad turn of the dice can send you reeling as many of us know now in this current recession. A well told collection of s ...more
Aug 31, 2010 Jenifer rated it liked it
this book defnitely opened my eyes to as the diverse reason someone may be chronically poor. however, the economist in me held strong to the end. the book suggests an answer for poverty be found in government resources, which I appose. overall, a good read, definitely helped me understand the current situation in the usa. it is very different to be poor in the usa vs. being poor somewhere else, and i understand where the victims are coming from a bit better now.
Feb 24, 2008 Hannah rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poverty
Wow. Picks up where Nickel and Dimed left off--a far-reaching critique of both liberal and conservative approaches to poverty reduction and a comprehensive look at the diversity of the working poor in America. If you're into Project Runway (come on, fashionista policy wonks, I know you're out there), the section on the political economy of the fashion industry is especially fresh and fascinating.
Mar 22, 2011 Nora rated it liked it
This is one of those books that really gives you pause. It gave an informed and often heart-rending look into the lives of people whose struggles go unseen even while in plain sight. It encourages a more holistic approach to poverty and recognizes that there isn't one solution, or even one political party, that will fit. I highly recommend it.
Jan 09, 2015 Jeff rated it it was amazing
Shelves: society
A book that moves beyond defending a political theory into the realm of understanding reality. Refreshing and heart-breaking at the same time. If you have an opinion about poverty in America - be it right or left - but haven't read this book your opinion is ill-informed...
Susan Lydon
Oct 14, 2015 Susan Lydon rated it it was amazing
Shelves: textbooks, sociology
Eye-opening book which illustrates a reality many of us do not understand. I highly recommend this, though the author is a bit biased (against some organizations and government entities in particular).
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David K. Shipler reported for The New York Times from 1966 to 1988 in New York, Saigon, Moscow, Jerusalem, and Washington. He is the author of four other books, including the best sellers Russia and The Working Poor, and Arab and Jew, which won the Pulitzer Prize. He has been a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and has ...more
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“Wo rkers at the edge of poverty are essential to America’s prosperity, but their well-being is not treated as an integral part of the whole. Instead, the forgotten wage a daily struggle to keep themselves from falling over the cliff. It is time to be ashamed.” 0 likes
“Being poor is a full-time job, it really is.” 0 likes
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