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The Working Poor: Invisible in America

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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 break the patterns of child abuse and substance abuse. Shipler exposes the interlocking problems by taking us into the sorrowful, infuriating, courageous lives of the poor—white and black, Asian and Latino, citizens and immigrants. We encounter them every day, for they do jobs essential to the American economy.

We meet drifting farmworkers in North Carolina, exploited garment workers in New Hampshire, illegal immigrants trapped in the steaming kitchens of Los Angeles restaurants, addicts who struggle into productive work from the cruel streets of the nation's capital—each life another aspect of a confounding, far-reaching urgent national crisis. And unlike mostworks on poverty, this one delves into the calculations of some employers as well—their razor-thin profits, their anxieties about competition from abroad, their frustrations in finding qualified workers.

This impassioned book not only dissects the problems, but makes pointed, informed recommendations for change. It is a book that stands to make a difference.

352 pages, Paperback

First published January 4, 2004

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About the author

David K. Shipler

23 books74 followers
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 taught at Princeton University, at American University in Washington, D.C., and at Dartmouth College.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 427 reviews
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,310 reviews120k followers
June 24, 2021
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 according to actual need would be a preferable way to address such imbalances. He also provides much detail about the hurdles faced by the working poor when they try to get social services.

David K. Shipler - image from Dartmouth

A couple of possible ideas popped to me from this. First, a centralized data system that took in all information and then generated matching programs, with completed applications, ID cards, authorizations, whatever, would make it possible for those in need to do one-stop shopping. Another small idea would be to add, or increase in cases where it does not already exist, night-time hours for social service agencies, so that people need not take off from work in order to come in. Shipler makes it clear that dysfunction in families is a major factor in poverty, and it may be that in many cases all the social services in the world will not effect change. But overall, it remains clear that needs are great, and society is not adequately focused on how to bring the poor further into a middle class mainstream. This is gripping, heart-rending stuff, and things have only gotten worse with so many more years of assaults on the needy. A must read for anyone seriously into public welfare policy.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

The author's blog, The Shipler Report, FB and Twitter pages

A list of Shipler's articles for New Yorker magazine
Profile Image for Alison.
Author 2 books35 followers
September 2, 2015
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.
Profile Image for Dan.
269 reviews48 followers
November 15, 2007
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. Sure, people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but that task requires more than just elbow grease and a little savings these days. When you are at this level, the smallest problem has gigantic ripples throughout your life. Shipler notes throughout the book how each person or family he talks to has had a significant financial downfall due to a series of events. These events are always inextricably connected. For example, a mother of two has a very low-paying job. She needs to drive to her job because the bus won't get her there in time. She also needs to drive her children to the day care center. One day after work, the car does not start. The kids are now at the day care center after hours, thus ringing up an extra bill which she cannot afford. Plus, the car is broken and must be fixed. Plus, she now has no way to get to work on time the next day or to get the kids to the day care.

There are numerous other instances of these types of ripple effects in the book. People living paycheck-to-paycheck cannot keep a bank account open due to minimum amount requirements. They often get billed extra fees because they go below the amount. Then they go into debt because they can't pay the extra fee back. And they don't qualify for certain help from organizations or the government because they don't have a bank account because it's been closed due to the lack of a minimum amount in the account.

These are the stories of the people who are trying and can't get out of the spiral. Shipler also writes about people who are just flat out lazy. These people play the system, lie, cheat, and steal to get their way, all without working. These people give the working poor a bad name.

To me, Shipler's message is that we need to meet these people halfway. If they put forth the effort to get on their feet, we need to help them get the other half. Right now, they have to walk about 98% of that on their own before anyone else steps in.

Although being incredibly sad, this was a very good book. It did stray from the topic at hand from time to time, but each new topic was directly related to the troubles the working poor face (lack of healthy diet, no health insurance, lack of good parenting skills, etc.)

So now I have to recommend this book to my father-in-law so he can see that it takes more than just "working hard" to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It's a Sisyphean task.
Profile Image for Tom.
39 reviews8 followers
November 26, 2010
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 climbing into higher levels of workplace hierarchy. His solution for the plight of the working poor is very much reformist and government-centered - the poor should overwhelm the rich at the voting booth, and his critique of how successful that has been/could be is nonexistent. The answer comes not from below - from poor people organizing themselves and building power - but from government programs, corporations, politicians, and benevolent gentry such as himself and his target audience. Capitalism needs to be changed, but is essentially good. It depends on poverty - Shipler says so quite uncritically - the issue for him is that the poor are treated better and given the opportunity to get ahead so others may replace them. If any of this made you cringe, you might be better off finding something with a little more teeth.
Profile Image for sleeps9hours.
362 reviews2 followers
July 31, 2008
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 only cause of poverty. Neither stereotype is correct. In my research along the edges of poverty, I didn’t find many adults without troubled childhoods, and I came to see those histories as both cause and effect, intertwined with the myriad other difficulties of money, housing, schooling, health, job, and neighborhood that reinforce one another.
The interactions were described by Dr. Robert Needleman, a behavioral pediatrician who sees children from all socio-economic levels in Cleveland. “Horrendous parenting can cause severe behavior problems that have, as part of them, difficulty in paying attention,” he said. “It takes a lot of psychological health to be able to go to school and pay attention to a teacher, and care and do the work. The kids who do that are healthy. Really bad parenting can prevent that.”

p.162-3 A Baltimore malnutrition clinic video tapes parents feeding their children to show them their mistakes. In one, a little boy sits in a highchair playing with his food but not eating. His mother watches for a moment, then pulls out a magazine and reads. Nothing ever goes into his mouth, and she pays no attention.
In the second session, the same boy sits on the floor, putting blocks in a plastic bucket. His mother watches, yawns, puts her head down, and closes her eyes. She has no interaction with her son.
The third session finds both mother and child sitting at a low table, each playing separately with plastic blocks. The staff has told her, “Play with your child,” but she evidently thinks that means to play as if he weren’t there, or to play as if she were a child herself. Having built a stack of blocks, the boy says proudly, “Look, Mommy.”
She mocks him, repeating in a sarcastic tone, “Look what I did, Mommy.” Then, without including her son, she tries to assemble the blocks into a formation pictured on the bucket’s label. The boy reaches for a block on the table in front of her. She snatches it away and snaps, “No!” Then she even dismantles the stack of blocks he’s made to use a couple of them in her construction, all the while saying to him mockingly, “Look, Mommy! Look, Mommy!”
Again in the forth session, they sit at the low table, each doing a separate puzzle. The mother holds hers on her lap, tilted up so her son can’t see it. The boy picks up his puzzle, which is all together, then turns it over and dumps the pieces on the table with a clatter.
“You’re gonna pick them all up!” she says harshly. “You’re making a mess!”
The boy plays nicely and quietly, putting all the pieces carefully together again while the mother continues with her own puzzle, ignoring her son except to scold him.

p.167 recent studies have shown that “sensitive, responsive care in the first few years of life” leads to greater school achievement and less need for special ed, fewer bx probs, less use of drugs and alcohol during adolescence, and a higher ability to form relationships among peers from preschool on.

p. 225 Dr. Zuckerman of Boston Medical Center hired attorneys to work on his staff to solve some medical issues.

p.285 working poverty is a constellation of difficulties that magnify one another: not just low wages but also low education, not just dead-end jobs but also limited abilities, not just insufficient savings but also unwise spending, not just poor housing but also poor parenting, not just the lack of health insurance but also the lack of healthy households.
The villains are not just exploitative employers but also incapable employees, not just overworked teachers but also defeated and unruly pupils, not just bureaucrats who cheat the poor but also the poor who cheat themselves. The troubles run strongly along both macro and micro levels, as systemic problems in the structure of political and economic power, and as individual problems in personal and family life.
All of the problems have to be attacked at once.

p.286 The first question is whether we know exactly what to do. The second is whether we have the will to exercise our skill. We lack the skill to solve some problems and the will to solve others, but one piece of knowledge we now possess: We understand that holistic remedies are vital. So, gateways to addressing a family’s range of handicaps are needed, and they are best established at intersections through which working poor families are likely to travel (i.e. doctors and lawyers; schools and parenting classes, banks, health insurance info; public housing and English classes, job training).

p. 288 voting not an answer b/c most Americans don’t vote their class interests. In 2000 19% of Americans thought they were in the top 1% of wage earners, and another 20% expected to be. Unfortunate b/c no key sector of this free-enterprise system, whether business or charity, escapes the pervasive influence wielded by government through tax policy, regulation, wage requirements, subsidies, grants, and the like.

p. 289 Thomas Paine in Common Sense (1776) “Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”

p. 299 Opportunity and poverty in this country cannot be explained by either the American Myth that hard work is a panacea or by the Anti-Myth that the system imprisons the poor. 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.
Profile Image for Terri Lynn.
997 reviews
March 13, 2016
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 choices and never learned from them. I felt horrible for the women who had been abused as kids and teens but hey, I too suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse but did not drop out of school- I have a high school diploma, a bachelor's degree, and a master's degree all earned with honors from fully accredited schools. I did not have any children out of wedlock. I refused to get involved with or marry an abusive man. I have never smoked, drunk alcohol, or used illegal drugs nor abused legal ones. These women just did differently and locked themselves into misery. I am sorry for them but I have no respect for anyone who hates what went on before then continues through life to keep making the same stupid mistakes. I felt no pity for the illegal aliens. They had no right to come here so as far as I am concerned, they deserve whatever horrible things that happen to them. I do feel for legal immigrants however.

This is easy to read without jargon. It is full of personal stories and I liked the book.
443 reviews1 follower
February 25, 2013
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 blessed.

I highly recommend this book to all areas of the political spectrum, and especially for those who feel inclined to pass judgement on the poor and their work ethic. I appreciated the author's honesty in showing the mistakes and flaws of the people involved, and his insight into the ways that our government /charities /businesses fail the people they try to help. I am also awed by those who stand in the trenches and extend their hands to help.

I wish there were more take-away actions (do these three things and we can really solve this!), but the fact is that doing so would undermine the point of the book: It is a complex situation with complex answers. I hope to learn more about what I can do to affect the changes needed so that families can step away from the brink and start functioning again.
Profile Image for Megan.
469 reviews27 followers
January 21, 2020
The Working Poor is one of my longest outstanding reviews, and in the interest of continuing my "review every book" streak, I'm going to hop back in time and say a few things. My remembrance has dulled slightly, but I still had a bunch of quotes saved, so this review will be heavy on extracts with minor commentary from me. (This is why writing reviews soon after reading is critical -_- ).

Overall, my impressions were very favorable. Shipler approached this topic with a great deal of empathy, but also didn't shy from presenting the people who participated in his (I believe decades-spanning) study in an unfavorable light. The biggest strength of this book is its nuance. Having grown up relatively poor myself, I'm hyper-aware of the reductive arguments surrounding poverty in America. So often, people want to ascribe a person's poverty on choices that particular person has made, especially if those choices run contrary to the judger's own ideology or, perhaps, their own morality:
But the American Myth also provides a means of laying blame. In the Puritan legacy, hard work is not merely practical but also moral; its absence suggests an ethical lapse. A harsh logic dictates a hard judgment: If a person's diligent work leads to prosperity, if work is a moral virtue, and if anyone in the society can attain prosperity through work, then the failure to do so is a fall from righteousness. The marketplace is the fair and final judge; a low wage is somehow the worker's fault, for it simply reflects the low value of his labor. In the American atmosphere, poverty has always carried a whiff of sinfulness.
Shipler does not allow for this type of thinking. His main argument is that poverty is a part of a highly-complex system, each part inextricably entwined with the other:
As the people in these pages show, working poverty is a constellation of difficulties that magnify one another: not just low wages but also low education, not just dead-end jobs but also limited abilities, not just insufficient savings but also unwise spending, not just poor housing but also poor parenting, not just the lack of health insurance but also the lack of healthy households. The villains are not just exploitative employers but also incapable employees, not just overworked teachers but also defeated and unruly pupils, not just bureaucrats who cheat the poor but also the poor who cheat themselves. The troubles run strongly along both macro and micro levels, as systemic problems in the structure of political and economic power, and as individual problems in personal and family life. All of the problems have to be attacked at once.
There are also candid discussions regarding wage disparity, which examine common arguments surrounding the raising of the minimum wage. This was critical commentary considering we are still fighting this battle tirelessly and making very little progress. Shipler highlights that one of the biggest hurdles in raising the wages of the working poor is the comparison of those wages to the wages of others in positions deemed more "worthy" or deserving of money. So, essentially, we are promoting a predatory and unsustainable system based purely on a belief system about which jobs "matter" more than other jobs. Generally, of course, this is tied back to a college education and the cost thereof (though that is another can of worms, altogether):
"Pretty soon we've got these people who are being paid more than they really should be paid," he declared. Other employers echoed the conviction that there was a "right" wage for a job, and that if they raised their manual laborers' pay, they would have to do the same for their foremen, accountants, and executives to maintain a substantial distance between salaries.
Shipler also discusses the common (and, in my opinion, despicable) arguments regarding whether poor people should be shamed for buying luxury items such as cable TV, premium foods, or (and this one we hear all the time) cell phones:
They are caught between America's hedonism and in dictum that the poor are supposed to sacrifice, suffer, and certainly not purchase any fun for themselves. So Ann Brash gets raised eyebrows when she buys raspberries, and many others come under criticism for such indulgences as cable TV. The monthly cable bills cause acid indigestion in some people who do anti-poverty work, and the harshest critics seem to be those who were once poor themselves.
Another facet that I didn't expect Shipler to tackle, but which really added depth to his argument, was the inclusion of the struggles of undocumented workers in America. It's a contentious issue, now more than ever (*spits in the direction of our president*), but it needs to be discussed. Because there are millions of people supporting the backbone of our economy that we love to pretend don't exist, or else love to pretend exist as nothing more than malicious leeches, when the reality is far more sobering:
Being undocumented is precarious. Fearing deportation, you will think twice about contesting your wages or working conditions. You will be ineligible for government benefits except free school breakfast and lunch programs, emergency Medicaid, immunizations, and treatment for communicable diseases. And you'll suffer from less obvious inconveniences, such as the lack of a bank account, which will cost you in fees when you transfer money. In other words, American government and business gain financially from your inability to legalize your presence in the country.
As I said, Shipler presents an even-handed case, and he isn't afraid to say when people make decisions that do push them farther into the brutal slipstream of poverty. Blame (who has it, and who ought to have it) is a huge theme:
Rarely are they infuriated by their conditions, and when their anger surfaces, it is often misdirected against their spouses, their children, or their co-workers. They do not usually blame their bosses, their government, their country, or the hierarchy of wealth, as they reasonably could. They often blame themselves, and they are sometimes right to do so.
My main criticism with Shipler's work was that we actually spent a little too long in the minutiae of each of his case studies. For example, he usually elucidates an argument by providing a real-life example with a family/person living in poverty. These stories could go on forever, detailing every single detail of a particular person's "sob story", to be so crude, even after the point had already been made and the reader was ready to move on. Personally, I would have rather Shipler spent a little less time on the subjective personal accounts and more on some firm solutions. One of my frustrations was that Shipler presents all this fantastic commentary and then falls just short of offering up solutions such as socialized medicine, socialized education, limits on the amount CEOs are allowed to earn in comparison to their lowest-paid employee, etc. I wanted more of that, and didn't really get it.

At the end of the day, I found great value in this book and would recommend it to everyone -- ESPECIALLY if you have rudely judged people's poverty based on perceived laziness, spending beyond their "means" (for example possessing cell phones or cable TV), having "too many" children, having children out of wedlock/as a single mother, having poor education/not attending college, etc. This book is for you if you are that person, as I think many of us have been at one point or other in our lives (especially if you grew up poor and managed to, miraculously, claw your way up out of it). Stop opening up your mouth to spew judgment and sit down to listen for a change. :)
Profile Image for Abby Jean.
985 reviews
July 9, 2011
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 for you. while it gave me an extremely vivid and personal view into the lives of many individuals and families struggling with poverty in the US because of different reasons - disability, poor education, substandard housing, sexual abuse, domestic violence, etc - but does little to discuss how we can best address, ameliorate, or eliminate these problems.

i have really mixed feelings about these kinds of books. certainly when i hear poverty discussed in political terms, especially by conservatives, there is little acknowledgement of the extremely limiting effect of the interlocking systems and policies of oppression and deprivation - so it's nice to have such a clear illustration of why lack of health insurance can prevent someone from getting a job. on the other hand, the focus on the individual reinforces a sense that poverty should be addressed on the individual level - the book details how church networks managed to keep several individuals from becoming homeless or hungry, thus implying expansion of that level of charitable programming as a solution.

i wanted to read more big picture ideas, that prevent people from getting to this state, that address the systemic problems, and there was not a lot of that in this book.
Profile Image for David.
517 reviews41 followers
January 11, 2015
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 past and part present. Every problem magnifies the impact of the others, and with results far distant from the original cause. A run-down apartment can exacerbate a child's asthma, which leads to a call for an ambulance, which generates a medical bill which cannot be paid, which ruins a credit record, which hikes the interest rate on an auto loan, which forces the purchase of an unreliable used car, which jeopardizes a mother's punctuality at work, which limits her promotions and earning capacity, which confines her to poor housing." He then proceeds to write about real people in such circumstances. And the people he writes about, for the most part, are hard working people struggling to stay off welfare.

The writing is fair and balanced and the author doesn't assign blame. One of the reviews said it was a book every American should read and read now. I wouldn't go that far but I do think it's an important book and to the extent someone is in any way interested in the subject matter I recommend it highly. It is a book I will want my children to read when they approach adulthood.
Profile Image for Cody Sexton.
Author 25 books79 followers
April 6, 2020
There is a class distinction in the labor market. Anything you do with a bachelor’s degree is seen as a profession, while anything you do with a high-school degree is seen as an occupation. Educational levels, however, do not just reflect social class, they are also constitutive of it. Graduating from college is a class act that both enacts class status and reproduces it.
If we only define the working class as people who do not have a college degree, however, then a sizable amount of all Americans can be defined as working class. Working class might best be defined as: Those who do not have power over their work. Who do not control when they work, how much they get paid, how fast they work, or whether they will be cut loose from their job at the first shiver on Wall Street.
Although we are hearing a lot of talk right now about the “looming recession”, low-wage workers have been living in a recession of their own for years. And poor people have gotten the message loud and clear: The powers that be are not concerned with us. At the same time, the middle class is still being pandered to and told by politicians and political pundits that they alone are the important ones. The only class of people who are deserving of any assistance. This has not only made the middle class lose their sense of responsibility to the broader community, but has also made them feel a sense of entitlement. Which highlights that great conservative lie: a sense of “entitlement” doesn’t come when you’re working two jobs to make ends meet and you’re given a leg up from the government. It comes when you have much, and are still told that your struggles are the same as everyone else’s.
The middle class exists in a world where sweat remains a metaphor for hard work, but seldom its consequence. Hundreds of little things get done, reliably and consistently every day, without anyone’s seeming to do them. Making the middle class, both liberals and conservatives, utterly dependent on the working class, the great throng of the underpaid, undereducated, and overworked.
Moreover, while the middle class is educated enough to be able to think for themselves, they are likewise comfortable enough to be highly susceptible to propaganda. Which forms part of the reason as to why I don’t like middle class people very much. They are quick to become smug in any given situation and while routinely claiming to sympathize with poor and working class people; they can’t stand the smell of them and openly criticize every decision they make and vote against every program meant to help them. But my bitterness goes even deeper than that. Because their 401k’s are built on the backs of my brothers and sisters. And it’s because my brothers and sisters are willing to suck shit and beat themselves into the ground all day to make value that other people get to keep, that these assholes make their money in the first place. We are the reason inflation stays low and their private retirement accounts remain stable. While we are left entirely dependent on the Social Security program, which remains perpetually under threat of being slashed and privatized by some backdoor method by the ownership class in order to boost, in a wonderfully self-serving loop, the stock market, which serves primarily the middle and upper classes.
"It is time to be ashamed," concludes David Shipler at the end this book, which is an indispensable survey of the forgotten millions who toil around or below the poverty line. The shame, in this case, comes from the false notion that hard work and prosperity go hand-in-hand in America, and that social advancement is possible for anyone of good character who, to put it in political rhetoric, pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps.
Unlike Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel And Dimed and other first-person accounts of wage slavery, The Working Poor takes a much broader approach than mere personal history. Beating back his daunting subject with a flurry of anecdotes, Shipler writes in a style resembling an especially stirring campaign speech, with each new facet of misery supported by a vividly rendered human example. Few of his subjects can be squeezed easily into ideological boxes: They're neither the welfare slouches of right-wing imagination, nor the saintly martyrs of an unjust system. They're just flawed characters who live paycheck-to-paycheck, unguarded against the next crippling setback.
Oddly enough it was initially a former manager who first turned me on to Shipler’s work. Preaching to me that what made this book great, was that it shifted the blame for the problems of the poor onto the poor themselves, thus holding them accountable and providing room for personal responsibility. Hardly a compelling case. So for a long time, I didn’t bother to read Shipler’s book. But now that I have, and reflecting on what I was initially told about it, I can now honestly say, what a gross oversimplification and misreading he truly had. Rather, what Shipler does is link the formation and transmission of emotional and psychological problems to systemic problems, showing how they interplay to form patterns of poverty. Growing up poor puts people at risk, while coming from stable families, having good health, speaking English, and having role models are all things that can lessen risk, though even then it’s precarious. It’s not about personal responsibility: it’s about the formation of the personal and the political in each other. It’s really a first rate sociological analysis and I wonder how it is that some dipshit middle manager, could ever come away from it with the entirely wrong conclusions. Actually, I can. He was a complete fucking moron. Which, in his defense, is a prerequisite for middle management.
Nevertheless, The Working Poor, still remains a highly readable account of working class life in America, even though it offers few solutions, as these problems are just too far beyond easily accessible answers. But if you can find it in yourself to read just one book about the position of the poor in America, this would be a good choice. Because the working poor deserve dignity and they deserve it now.
Profile Image for Joanna.
1,519 reviews41 followers
June 10, 2022
This book does a good job recounting the personal stories of the people the author interviewed, often extensively and over a number of years. The author gives a relatively empathetic and nuanced view of the complexity of the lives of his subjects, and he seems to understand that there are structural and societal forces at work.

But fundamentally, the book unquestioningly believes that capitalism is good and that the fixes are better policies, more friendly bureaucracies, and better government generally. There's no analysis of whether setting up a society that fundamentally depends on cheap labor is a good way to do things. There's no consideration of alternatives or universal income or anything of the sort. Shipler praises subjects who "get a taste of work" and want to work more, live the dream, and try to advance to higher paying jobs.

Increasingly, I'm not so sure that this money-driven economy leads to a morally good society.
Profile Image for Laura Harrison.
1,033 reviews113 followers
March 6, 2017
Sad, tragic and honest. Goes well with the best-seller Nickeled and Dimed.
Profile Image for Urmila.
118 reviews2 followers
February 21, 2013
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 people who dedicate their lives to helping them, this book explores the many factors that contribute to poverty in the United States, and why it continues to be such an intractable problem. You hear a lot of vitriol on this issue on both sides of the political spectrum - at one end, decrying the laziness and bad choices that lead poor people to deserve their suffering, and at the other end, blaming a system that completely stifles any kind of positive initiative. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle, and while it does point out some areas where institutions need to work better, it also shifts a certain amount of accountability onto the poor themselves for bad decisions.

The book didn't have any shocking revelations that I wasn't aware of, but it demonstrates how small mistakes or misfortunes that would be merely a setback for folks with more income and resources can put a person with less of a safety net on the street. Poverty becomes intractable because of a web of problems that reinforce each other. "A run-down apartment can exacerbate a child’s asthma, which leads to a call for an ambulance, which generates a medical bill that cannot be paid, which ruins a credit record, which hikes the interest rate on an auto loan, which forces the purchase of an unreliable used car, which jeopardizes a mother’s punctuality at work, which limits her promotions and earning capacity, which confines her to poor housing." Especially heartbreaking were the countless examples of how the cycle becomes intergenerational - the kids who grow up in troubled homes and see such horrible things at a young age that they become unable to perform well at school and end up falling further and further behind the rest of society.

The book was unsettling and quite depressing to read, but definitely an eye-opener.
Profile Image for Justine.
58 reviews4 followers
April 16, 2009
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 points out the flaws of the liberal and conservative approaches to poverty, noting that liberals tend to think the problem is anything but the dysfunctional family, and conservatives tend to think it's nothing but the dysfunctional family. Both paradigms are wrong, he asserts, and continues to lay a devastating case for how the poor in America really are invisible.

This book read like a novel, and I couldn't put it down. A required reading for my teenaged children, who I want to understand the world around them.
Profile Image for Taryn.
25 reviews17 followers
December 17, 2016
While it makes some decent points and looks at some of the roots of poverty and inequality, it doesn't go nearly far enough. Nor does it bother to see the contradictions it makes. The author clearly doesn't see the problem in this and offers no real solutions to the problems. He seems to promote the idea that anything other than a regulated capitalism can help the poor, giving a short, broad paragraph of why he thinks Marxism doesn't work (because USSR!!!11!) and betrays his own ideological deficiencies (namely neoliberalism) in doing so. Essentially the author shows that capitalism is the problem but then seems to turn around and say it's the solution as well. He's right on the first part - wrong on the second. This was published in 2005 and I think we can see for ourselves the results of his sort of thinking.
Profile Image for Annie Steiner.
26 reviews4 followers
March 16, 2019
This book was amazing start to finish. It offered me a view into a lifestyle that I was not privy to. It offered solutions that did not attack or belittle any political party. But what grabbed me the most was the stories each chapter and section told. My heart broke for these individuals.
Profile Image for Deborah.
42 reviews10 followers
October 19, 2010
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 large portion of American society, Shipler dedicated six years of his life to conducting fieldwork which would eventually provide the heart wrenching personal stories throughout his book, The Working Poor Invisible in America. Shipler’s chosen field research method of interview combined with observation granted him access into the inner lives of eight families tumbling about in poverty’s cycle. This method bestowed on his readers’ eyes the ability with which to see the invisible America. He takes readers on a journey into the world of the working poor to witness their ever present, exhausting struggles. His entrance into the workplaces, homes, personal thoughts and feelings of the working poor provides the reader with a level of insight which likely could not have been achieved any other way.

While standing in line at the grocery store watching a customer pay for her groceries with food stamps, Mrs. Middle Class American thinks to herself, “Why doesn’t she get a job and stop living off the taxes taken out of my paychecks?”, this said from the comfortable vantage point provided to the observer wearing a pair of $125.00 shoes. Mrs. Middle Class America self righteously calls another person’s work ethic and character into question without knowing anything about her. Such a remark is a true display of the type of ignorance that furthers stereotypes such as those “on food-stamps” as a picture of a lazy good for nothing, sitting at home watching TV all day while sucking the welfare system dry.

Contrary to this stereotype, many times the customer in line paying with food stamps does indeed work hard, sometimes working two jobs and yet still can’t earn enough money to provide for her family. How can that be? After all, this is the land of The American dream, where success, fame and wealth are available to all through wise thriftiness and hard work, right? No, unfortunately the American Dream is but a ghost of the past.

There is no one specific problem that is the root of the noxious and invasive vine that is working class poverty. It is instead a combination of financial, psychological, health, and societal issues which when tangled together compound the effects of all. This vine winds its way throughout the lives of the unfortunate, often times binding so tightly around those relegated into the class of the working poor, it is nearly impossible for them to break free. Shipler illustrates the dilemma of the winding vine perfectly when he states, “Poverty leads to health and housing problems. Poor health and housing lead to cognitive deficiencies and school problems. Educational failure leads to poverty. (228) Imagine that a family is suddenly forced to move from a comfortable apartment to a much less expensive and poorly maintained apartment due to job and income loss. In the new residence there is untreated mold growing inside the walls and ceiling, which exacerbates the asthmatic condition of a child in the family. The asthma problems he continually suffers at home keep him up wheezing and coughing much of the night causing him to fall asleep often in school. Sleeping in school causes him to miss important lessons, which leads to academic failure, academic failure is linked to poverty, and around and around the cycle of poverty goes.

Identical problems experienced by those of both middle and lower class often prove to have much more serious consequences to those of the latter status. For example, when a person of middle class status gets a flat tire while driving to work, it is usually an inconvenience that slows him down a bit. But, after a call to AAA from his cell phone, Mr. Middle Class America thanks the AAA worker for putting on the spare tire, and is soon back on the road headed to the office. Conversely, when a person of the working poor experiences the same delay due to public transportation issues, it often times can be cause for employment termination. Those working in low wage jobs with a high rate of turnover, such as the fast food industry, are not valued or afforded the same degrees of leniency and understanding by those in management positions that most professionals would receive in the same situation.

An ironic example of another hardship faced by those of the working poor is the statistical imbalance of income tax audits conducted by the Internal Revenue Service. Ever since the Earned Income Tax credit was instituted in 1999, the working class poor have had higher numbers of audits than individuals of higher tax brackets. Republican congressional leaders fearing the working poor were abusing the earned income tax credit program instigated the increase of audits. The working poor have also been financially taken advantage of by those playing on their fears and ignorance of the I.R.S. This advantage allows companies to charge excessively high fees for income tax preparation and filing services. These firms also offer additional services such as issuance of temporary bank accounts and preloaded ATM cards for the deposit of tax return checks. These services are specifically designed for low wage earners without personal bank accounts. Most banks require account holders to maintain high balance minimums, and assess fees when an account falls below the required minimum balance. This practice makes it unlikely for low wage earners to open bank accounts. These tax firms are happy to provide these additional services to those with no bank accounts, at an additional fee of course.

The large tax firm H&R Block has taken advantage of low wage clients by using underhanded advertising schemes, such as was implemented in their Rapid Refund Program to obscure the true nature of the program. The slick wording of the program made it less than apparent that it was actually a short term loan that came with an extremely high interest rate. Although H&R Block was required by law to disclose the loan interest rate on documents signed by their client, the agents were not required to explain the forms unless requested by the client. Often times the explanation given to the clients still left them confused about how much was being charged to receive their tax refund money.

Growing up surrounded by poverty often times there are no positive role models of working adults for children to observe and in turn emulate. How can these children be expected to strive for success if it hasn’t been defined for them? Worse than the absence of a positive role model, is exposure to the opposite. Most times poverty stricken areas are filled with drug activity, criminal behavior, and violence. The criminals in the area are often looked upon as role models by the kids in the neighborhood. The drug dealers appear to be the picture of success, having nice cars, nice clothes and plenty of cash; it’s all very enticing to those who are growing up right next to it. Aside from the danger of emulating the dealers is the high likelihood of the emergence drug addiction. A person already dealing with the struggles of poverty who becomes addicted to drugs is effectively solidifying his position in the cycle of poverty. Emotional and physical abuse is found throughout all levels of society, but is has been found in higher rates in areas of poverty. Abuse suffered in childhood can so damage individuals that they believe their future is devoid of choice, that life is unable to be controlled. Those living with this ingrained belief are laying the foundation for a future of continued abuse, and to staying in the cycle of poverty. This type of thinking leaves no possibility of hope, and without hope, success is nearly impossible.

While a child’s future success in life is dependent on multiple issues, perhaps at the top of this list is the level and quality of education he receives. Schools in poverty stricken areas do not receive the same amount of funding as schools in affluent areas, leaving schools in poorer areas ill equipped of necessary teaching materials, understaffed, and sometimes even staffed with incompetent, insensitive teachers. How can a school be expected to encourage students to excel if it lacks the basic necessary resources with which to provide those students a quality education? Where is the justice for the children who through no fault of their own are denied access to quality education? Those in charge of funding decisions for school districts effectively choose which groups of children will receive a better education, providing opportunity for some while denying it to others. In addition to a poor education, those who grow up in poverty most times are not exposed to situations that would provide them with the necessary skills needed to enter the job market. In addition to “hard skills” such as knowing how to operate a machine relevant to the job, “soft skills” are also required, a set of social skills that would foster an ability to follow orders from superiors willingly, encourage good interaction with coworkers, and good emotional self control.

For those living right on the line of poverty, an act of achievement such as getting a raise in pay can actually feel like punishment. The government formula that calculates the allotment of quantity of food stamps and rental subsidy benefits allowable is based upon the recipient’s income level. So, a slight raise in pay can actually be detrimental to the family budget. Instead of bringing more money into the household, a slight pay raise can decrease the allotment of the recipient’s allowable benefits, which would mean having to pay more out of pocket for food and rent. The United States federal government defined poverty in 2004 as an income of less than $19,233 for a single adult family with three children. However, this figure should not be considered accurate. The formula used to calculate the definition of poverty was designed over forty years ago, and hasn’t been updated to reflect huge lifestyle changes brought about since its inception. The model set in 1955 used a formula that provided 1/3 of the family income for food budget. This is no longer realistic, since today’s families only spend 1/6 of the family income on food. Further skewing the data of this model is the absence of accounting for a family’s debt to income ratio which indicates how much money of the family budget has to be used to pay previous outstanding debt.
Another challenge faced by the working poor is poor health. America’s private health insurance industry makes it almost impossible for those of lesser financial means to have access to good health insurance. The method of obtaining health insurance through place of employment leaves millions of Americans uninsured and at risk. Only those of considerable financial means or those working for huge companies of considerable financial means are able to obtain sufficient quality health insurance coverage.

So, what is the answer to the dilemma of the working poor? It is a combination of many changes that must be implemented together. Shipler states that to break free from the cycle of poverty an individual must have: clarity of purpose, courageous self esteem, lack of substantial debt, freedom from illness or addiction, a functional family, and help from friends and private or governmental agencies.” (4) This is a long and challenging list. How can we as a society help those of the working poor achieve these goals?

Shipler provides an example of how to help through the cooperation between private industry and nonprofit corporations which produced successful programs to help prepare people for the workplace, while also making the process beneficial to all involved. Another method to help would be the implementation of a universal health care system, which would assure every American access to health insurance coverage, allowing these individuals the ability to receive treatment and medicines to better their health. A combination of services provided by community hospitals, schools, housing authorities, police, social workers, lawyers, doctors and other critical institutions could create an interconnection of services, making the approach to assistance holistic in nature. The creation of this interconnection of services would come through a shift of governmental priorities, a shift that will not be felt until the working poor begin to make their voices heard by voting.

In short, the answer to how to help America’s working poor is that we must all contribute. We must all take responsibility for our part in the health of America’s society. Government must do its part by providing access to good health care and education to all. The business sector must work with the government to provide mutually beneficial opportunities. Individuals must do their part through taking an active role in the voting process so governmental priority change can begin. Individuals must also do their part by working hard, by making a commitment to education and making a commitment to provide a safe, caring home environment.
Profile Image for Paul.
48 reviews24 followers
October 24, 2012
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 never comes off as preaching at you or condemning the people in the stories it tells, but instead tries to maintain a neutral perspective and look at problems and possible solutions.

As a mark of trying to be objective in its approach, you do get to see stories where there are people who more or less exploit the system, but these are rare. More importantly, you see a number of times where people don't take aid, or actively refuse it, whether it is out of pride, a sense of shame, or just plain ignorance that help is available for them. These people don't know and therefore don't access all of the resources that are available to them, or outright refuse to due to how they were raised and their own beliefs. In one sense this can be refreshing, but in another sense you want to pull your hair out and scream, if for no other reason than that certain services exist to help these people exactly because they have fallen on hard times due to bad luck.

While it does offer solutions with regards to how the working poor can be helped, it does so after looking closely at each individual story, a case study of sorts, and using that as a more representative example of the various aspects of being a member of the working poor. There are times when it might sound like it is taking a political tack, but when looked at in a broader light, how some people say that the poor just aren't "working hard enough" or something similar - after reading some of these stories, the average reader may change that assumption.

The book approaches the various facets of being a member of the working poor, covering everything from money and work to health and other less-obvious but equally powerful issues that affect the working poor. Some of these issues are things like a lack of basic skills for holding down a job, being unable to interact properly in social settings, or the devastating effects things as being molested and/or abused by family members or others has on those who are in this group. It goes on to cite not how one cause or the other is the culprit, but how more often than not a number of them conspire together to keep those who are in this category locked in, with little hope of getting out. The author then goes on to show how simply addressing one issue will not "fix" things, because once that fix is in place, something else somewhere else is bound to break, and all it takes is for one thing to go wrong and all the progress that was previously made to come undone.

Again, there are times when the author does seem to advocate for a political side - but that is only because of the fact that this demographic is quite literally struggling to survive on a daily basis, and often cannot speak for themselves, if for no other reason than out of their sheer lack of awareness of being able to do so. He speaks out against many of those in the structures of power who either demonize or use the working poor as a scapegoat for all the ills of the country, those who would usually say that they just "need to work harder" or that they are working the system. Politicians, corporations, crappy landlords (e.g. slumlords), and other factions who have something to gain from having a cheap, expendable and uneducated labor force that is easily replaceable, all too often unaware and/or ignorant of their rights, with low education, and fighting so hard for their next paycheck to make rent for them and their kids that they can't afford to worry about anyone else.

The first chapter alone is a perfect example of this - for many people with easy access to computers and an internet connection (such as some of you reading this review), filing taxes each year can be a pretty simply affair: load up an automated tax program, fill in the numbers from your forms, click a few buttons, and in a few weeks (or days) you get your refund deposited to your account. For the working poor who don't have such easy access to a computer or the internet, and who may not know about cheap/free online tax services, it shows a painful example of how certain large tax-servicing companies use this lack of access to resources, or knowledge, to their advantage. Since the fear of not getting the maximum refund looms over them, and they want to ensure that they get it done right, they will often go to a tax-preparer and pay an exorbitant amount of money to have their taxes done. Want to file electronically? Costs more. No bank account? No problem - for more money, we can set you up with a temp one that uses an ATM card, deducting $2 extra every time you withdraw. The extent to which the tax-preparation companies will nickle-and-dime them for more and more money is appalling.

As the book goes on, more and more instances of the working poor being exploited and/or used by others to make money off of them are shown, be it due to their ignorance, their fears, or their lack of access to resources or services. Yet on the other side, there are also inspiring examples of people and organizations who try to help, which helps to balance the otherwise depressing and soul-draining tone of the book at times.

Overall, this is a book I would recommend to anyone who cares about things being a bit more equal in this country, issues such as social justice and helping those who are willing to work hard help raise themselves out of the depths of poverty. It offers some good ideas of where one can help out, depending on the web of issues that today's working poor face, and the added awareness of their situation helps one realize that they aren't making it because they're lazy, but because they are up against some serious obstacles. While part of the book offers solutions to help them out, it also offers (in my opinion) a way to help us out as well, by giving us a more in-depth look at their lives, with which we can then use to inform our conversations when discussing the issues that face these people on a daily basis.
May 25, 2021
In modern America, politics provides a misconception that there is only two ways of looking at class in America, through left or right-wing ideology. If you were not aware before of this misconception before, this book will prove it to you.

Though some figures are outdated twenty years later, the major ideas are still relevant today and it provides the basics for addressing class in America. Chronicling the lives of ordinary lower-class citizens for five years, the comfortable blind spot developed by the middle and upper class will be quickly ripped away in this read.

This book made me laugh, cry, and scream with anger. A fundamental read for those who hope to make sense of how poverty continues in the supposed "land of opportunity."
Profile Image for John Stepper.
518 reviews19 followers
March 25, 2022
This book puts a human face on the struggles of those in poverty, and makes it shockingly clear just how many people face these struggles. The statistics are shocking, but the stories are gut-wrenching.

The problems are systematic and complex, and the solutions(?) are more elusive and even harder to imagine than I want to hope. I was left with a strong sense of “something must be done” but little idea of what that something might be…

Profile Image for Tom.
403 reviews96 followers
March 10, 2023
Absolute masterpiece – nuanced, intimate, heart-breaking. Shipler lets the poor speak for themselves, allowing us to see all their humanity, never romanticizing them, nor dismissing their struggles. Maybe the most important takeaway is that yes, the poor make bad choices, but we all do – it's just so much harder to escape the consequences when you're poor.
Profile Image for Leslie.
306 reviews7 followers
May 29, 2018
Let’s assume you’re poor, undereducated, lacking job skills, and working part-time in a minimum-wage job. What should you do ? Have a baby. Maybe 2 or 3. Or half a dozen. That will make things better, right ? And almost every single working poor person in this book of case studies does exactly that. I don’t get it.
Profile Image for Sara.
680 reviews13 followers
September 30, 2018
3.5 stars, not particularly groundbreaking, very readable look at poverty, with the angle of the working world. If you have never read anything on the subject, easy intro.
36 reviews
March 5, 2021
An example of people's stories that impact poverty in America.
Profile Image for Scarlett.
3 reviews1 follower
May 15, 2022
Read for class, very eye opening and would read again as a reminder. Definitely made me think
Profile Image for Jen.
862 reviews
March 13, 2017
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 are picked up late because Mom had to take the bus. There's a bill for the late child care, AND a bill for the car. Those kind of expenses have a ripple effect on the financial situation of people on the poverty line.

I remember well the days when I had less than $20 in my bank account, gas was almost $5/gallon, and I drove a car with poor gas mileage. Every week I'd wonder if I could get to work (bus service to my job was limited, complicated, and would have taken 2-3 hours). Carpooling with a coworker helped relieve my burden, but I often lived on basic food with little to no nutritional value to save a few bucks. Housing was 60% of my income and my credit card debt was through the roof.

I can't help but wonder if there will ever be a good solution to the issue.... it's not promising in this political climate!
Profile Image for Alyssa.
80 reviews2 followers
December 12, 2018
A fascinating read. I probably never would have picked it up if it weren't for work, but Shipler does a great job of humanizing the individuals he interviews without pitying them or setting them up as martyrs. There was a lot more narrative than I expected from this kind of non-fiction, but I was really drawn into each person's story.

I would be interested to hear more of his opinions on the current state of the working poor, since the book was originally published in 2004 and edited in 2016.
Profile Image for Catherine.
25 reviews
November 4, 2022
Such an amazing book that educated me and taught me so much. Read it for school but inspired me to work with those living in poverty!
Profile Image for Sarah Awa.
Author 2 books22 followers
February 3, 2022
I love the way this book was done. A holistic approach, talking to real people and telling their stories, showing how every aspect of their lives is intertwined and the devastating domino effect that can happen if you don't have enough money to "buy the problem away."

I also appreciate how the author didn't get very political. He shows that communities helping each other is often what works. People who are near each other and know each other. A personal touch. And I especially loved the stories of people who went above and beyond, thinking outside the box, like the pediatrician in a poor community who hired lawyers and social workers for his department, addressing more than just one aspect of the patients' lives...amazing stuff!

Whether you're rich and powerful or near the edge of poverty yourself, this book will (or should!) have a profound impact on you and inspire you to do what you can. We need more creative, holistic thinkers - and we need more awareness of these problems so more people can work together to solve them!
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