Reading David Shipler’s most recent book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America, it’s difficult not to think about the metaphor for chaos theory: A butterfly flaps its wings in China resulting in a hurricane in New York. As a matter of both economics and sociology, Shipler works doggedly to show us that, in the lives of the working poor in America, small actions have disproportionately large impacts.
Early and often, he stresses that these actions can be attributed both to the poor themselves and to the larger environment, including the sometimes sclerotic and demeaning programs meant to help them. He doesn’t shy away from naming individual failings that often have disastrous consequences: drug and alcohol abuse; early, frequent and unplanned pregnancies; an unwillingness or inability to take schooling seriously. On the other side of the ledger – the area not under personal control – he cites: usurious rates of interest on short-term loans and credit cards; the pervasive influence of junk food culture on both physical and financial health; government programs which withdraw aid just when those in need are beginning to make the progress we supposedly laud.
Shipler is clear about one of the purposes of this split focus. He tells us in his preface: “…devout conservatives and impassioned liberals will be bothered by this portrait of poverty … for the reality I discovered does not fit neatly into anyone’s political agenda. I want to challenge and undermine longstanding assumptions at both ends of the spectrum.”
Challenge them he does, with a comprehensive look at his subject matter. He is unfailingly lucid about how he reaches his conclusions – even when he is uncomfortable or conflicted as a result of what he observes – and he consistently provides the necessary context and historical background to defend his assumptions. Whether or not Shipler will end up changing many minds, however, is an open question. He plainly hopes that he will induce interventionist liberals and laissez faire conservatives to truly reexamine their positions. Yet one effect of his split focus is that readers will be able to cherry pick the data and anecdotes he presents to support the biases they already have.
In a sense, this is not new territory for Shipler. He has made something of a specialty out of examining vexing divides and trying to bring his readers fresh insights from a variety of perspectives. In all these efforts, including the current one, he is ale to balance seriousness of purpose with a high degree of readability.
These are talents he has been honing in a variety of contexts for more than 50 years: as a reporter for The New York Times from 1966 to 1988; as an itinerant scholar at places like the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Dartmouth, Princeton and the American University in Washington, D.C.; and as the author of three previous books, all of which essentially explore durable and precarious divides: Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, and A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America.
His latest book – in the same literary cohort as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed (first a book, now a play) – comes just in time for an election-enhanced discussion of the merits and failings of Compassionate Conservatism vs. The Democratic Response. One benchmark of the degree to which Shipler has either read or influenced the contemporary zeitgeist is the fact that Businessweek recently ran a cover story on the working poor.
What Shipler does best is stress connections and multiplier effects, as he does here with an intermittently homeless woman who calls herself Peaches – a Washington, D.C. resident who grew up, for the most part in foster care, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore: “For a dollar or two above the minimum wage, she felt she did well selling women’s clothes at Lord & Taylor and other stores. But long waits for buses in the winter dawns and nights aggravated her asthma, which made her miss work and got her fired. It was another case of the far-flung effects of disparate problems: poor public transportation causing poor health causing job loss.”
The layering of Peaches’ problems neither starts nor stops there, however. We are told when we are introduced to her, often in her own words, that she never knew her parents; that her adoptive parents died when she was five years old, pitching her into the foster care system; that she was put to hard labor by her ostensible caretakers early and often; that no one in her childhood helped to socialize her in any meaningful way, aside from consistently telling her that she was ugly and useless; and that she has been a prostitute and low-level drug and alcohol user – news which comes as no surprise after the buildup of her childhood.
It is a harrowing portrait.
The bad news in the book is counterbalanced, to some degree, by a few positive stories in which Shipler attempts to give his readers the view from other perspectives – such as those of employers, both good and bad – and thus suggest solutions to some of the problems he outlines.
In looking at The Landmark Plastic Company, in Akron, Ohio, for example, he shows why skills may be more valuable for employees than money – and why employers have a stake in helping to impart those skills and thereby bind employees into the culture of work.
Why do so many of the working poor fall in and out of the workforce? “‘They didn’t feel needed, necessary, or wanted,’ reported David Bokmiller, the unsmiling, tough-minded manager of manufacturing services [at Landmark]. ‘And that’s what most people want in life,’ he continued. ‘They were ignored, just another body. The supervisors weren’t doing the job because they were busy doing what supervisors do. So we looked back and looked through the whole matrix and said, all right, what’s distracting the supervisor? Why is the supervisor not able to do the humanistic things he needs to do? ‘Cause he’s too tied up in technical things.’ The company’s answer was to assign each new employee a ‘sponsor,’ a peer who would ‘be their friend, so to speak, and their guide for ninety days during their probationary period,’ David said, ‘make sure they’re comfortable, make sure they got friends, get them connected with other people, make sure they’re not left standing around or wondering, have lunch with them, take breaks with them, hopefully engage them socially, or try. Just to make them feel connected, wanted, needed, help them understand rules, policies.’”
The company came to this strategy after conducting exit interviews with employees who left, piecing together the cause of their difficulties and a potential solution – one which appears to be working well. Shipler is at pains to point out, here as elsewhere, that Landmark did not embark on this process for humanitarian reasons: They had an annual turnover rate of greater than 100%. The cost to them of constantly hiring and training workers was unsustainable if they were to remain competitive.
Just as problems cascade through the lives of potential employees, they eventually cascade into the businesses which employ them. That employers have a stake in addressing some of these problems is not blind altruism nor the privatization of addressing social problems; it is a values-neutral, bottom line, necessity. For American companies to remain competitive, both domestically and internationally – particularly in the lower-paid industrial and service sectors on which Shipler focuses and where the workforce has less formal education – companies have to step up and help educate and socialize people to the culture of work.
Shipler brings a similar analysis to his examination of the role of family in either perpetuating poverty or fostering success. “At the extremes of the debate,” he writes, “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 [emphasis in original]. 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.”
In the end, Shipler’s most compelling argument is functional. In that sense, one might characterize what he is arguing for as Functional Liberalism – a bookend to Compassionate Conservatism on the other side. Both represent attempts to bring a richer complexity to what have often been characterized as rigidly ideological left/right splits. We need to do more for the poor because this is morally right, but also because it is a functional necessity for the success of the larger society.
“Opportunity and poverty in this country,” Shipler sums up at the end of the book, “cannot be explained either by 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 the individual through education.”
He adds a moral injunction in his final paragraph: “Workers on 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.”