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The Working Poor: Invisible in America

4.04  ·  Rating details ·  5,416 ratings  ·  410 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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Average rating 4.04  · 
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Will Byrnes
Oct 26, 2008 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 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 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 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 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 th
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 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
Jul 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 4-star, nonfiction
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
Abby Jean
Jun 20, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: summer-project, 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
Feb 25, 2011 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
Cody Sexton
Apr 05, 2020 rated it liked it
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 American
Laura Harrison
Mar 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
Sad, tragic and honest. Goes well with the best-seller Nickeled and Dimed.
Jan 07, 2013 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
Jul 23, 2008 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
Oct 03, 2010 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 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
Brianna Freshwater
May 25, 2021 rated it really liked it
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 develop
May 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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.
Sep 29, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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.
Mar 12, 2017 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
Annie Steiner
Mar 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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.
Dec 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: common-read
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.
Oct 01, 2014 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 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
Frederick Bingham
Feb 12, 2012 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 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
Feb 26, 2015 rated it it was ok
I work in a non-profit, and we read this for our most recent office book club.

If you don't know anything about the lives of poor people living in the United States, you might find that this book shines light on issues you've rarely considered. The book is written as a collection of stories, grouped by theme, about the lives of people whom the author interviews repeatedly over the span of a few years. These stories may help you see the working poor and their various situations from another perspe
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
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

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
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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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