From the Archives: The Working Poor Works

by Jeanette Beebe

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on April 23, 2007 in the Princeton Progressive Nation, the Progressive’s forerunner. It is being republished with the author’s permission. 

“The first problem is failure to see the people,” David K. Shipler announces early in his book The Working Poor: Invisible in America (published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). In a move unusual for liberal tomes of its ilk, it actually proposes solutions to the problem of poverty. Shipler fearlessly calls for us to look at what the “working poor” are, give some thought to it, and choose a term that’s more appropriate. On his title, Shipler claims: “Working poor should be an oxymoron. Nobody who works hard should be poor in America.”

Shipler’s message bends backward even before it gets to us: indeed, it is the way it travels that makes our impression hazy. I purchased his packet of pages sold at the Princeton University bookstore for around $13, half a week’s worth of lunches at McDonald’s. This budget is contingent upon the assumption that “the [working] poor” are frugal and use the Dollar Menu, a move that Shipler wouldn’t necessarily make himself. “They don’t have milk, but they do have cable,” sighs Brenda St. Lawrence, a caseworker featured a few times in Shipler’s text. Evidently the poor don’t follow Malthusian Theory: instead of scaling up the pyramid, they take the elevator a few floors and complain about their aching legs – or their backs, as Willie, the construction worker husband of Sarah, legitimately discovered. Misplaced priorities plague the young couple: they own a stack of CDs but no clothes for the baby. “We’d put ourselves poor,” Willie echoed, “but I know if we were smart people, we could be really well off…I guess it’s easier to make life easier by doing something that costs money…It’s our own fault. I’m not blaming it on anyone else.”

But Shipler does blame it on someone else – everyone else. He takes to task employers, big businesses, banks, the government, schools, and eventually “society” in general. Shipler criticizes bad business behavior, common-sense stuff we roll our eyes at: “Many restaurateurs cook the books by faking time cards to show employees working shorter shifts…and file W-2s that exaggerate the amount of tips paid to workers.” It is through investigating the personal stories of the workers themselves, though, that Shipler strikes gold…or at least silver. Michael Summers, of the Summers Rubber Company in Cleveland, asserts that “only with dramatic steps” will employer/worker relations improve: “An employee who didn’t come to work would get a call. If his car had broken down, [he] sent someone to pick him up…One, it calls their bluff, tells them, ‘We expect you here. If we didn’t expect you here every day, you wouldn’t be [working] here…But we rely on you, depend on you, and when you’re not here it creates hardship and cost. You’ve got to be here. And if you can’t be here you got to tell us what’s going on.”

Throughout his book, Shipler supports an extremely interventionist approach, a hand-holding work ethic. But what does this entail for businesspeople? More resources, Shipler emphasizes. Employers and businesses – from big to small – must invest in the capital of their workers. Take the time to teach the newbie a thing or two, instead of breezing through orientation. Forget the jargon, tell it plain and simple. The Plastic Company in Akron developed the following approach: each new employee is set up with a “sponsor.” A manager is assigned to “make sure they’re comfortable, make sure they got friends, get them connected…make sure they’re not left standing around or wondering, have lunch with them, take breaks with them…” And economic incentives don’t hurt: “If the employee stays at least 90 days, the sponsor gets a $100 reward.”

Shipler works under the guise of objectivity by letting all callers phone in. Instead of accepting opinions from only those who support his perspective, he at least allows multiple voices to chime in, however dissonant. He admits, “So I am rooting for them, no doubt. But I have tried to see with clear eyes, not through an ideological lens.” Overall, he succeeds in presenting a story that is, excuse the irony, “fair and balanced.”

Even through summary and analysis, Shipler allows those who he interviews to tell their own stories. His book is purposefully focused on anecdotes and individual experiences. “Each person’s life is the mixed product of bad choices and bad fortune, of roads not taken and roads cut off by the accident of birth or circumstance,” Shipler states. He adapts the simple “Q and A” technique to bring us into the scene: “So there’s enough profit to absorb an increase from $6.25 to $8? ‘There would be, because if we were having to raise our wages, then evidently everybody else would be too, and if we make sure we’re low enough, our competitors’ customers are gonna shop with us…We’d have to cut corners on other things like, you know, we may not be able to put all the pretty balloons up all over the store.'”

In this transcription of a conversation with a manager of Wal-Mart, Shipler translates the exchange with italics. It’s a small element, but effective in constructing an intimate atmosphere: we, as readers, respect Shipler for showing the puppet strings, and also share his honest, ad-hoc reaction. With this adaptation, the scene is temporally close, visceral, and present.

Shipler continues this close relationship with the reader by preserving the language of many of the individuals he interviews. With Jimmy, the owner of Birch Farms, Shipler gets out of the way: “You want to keep ’em you got to pay ’em more. Not anybody’s gonna stay here for minimum wage. Hell, they can’t live on minimum wage.” At the same time, Shipler doesn’t patronize these voices, which could be tempting when approaching “the [working] poor” from a researching journalist/academic perspective. He doesn’t interfere with the lives of those he documents, even with Caroline, a working mother haphazardly trying to find childcare for her daughter with cerebral palsy. Although he could have helped find a solution had he gotten involved, Shipler dryly yet genuinely muses, “Nobody in the profession of helping thought to pick up the phone and appeal to the factory manager or the foreman or anybody else in authority at her workplace.”

Shipler’s suggested solutions are as intricate as his writing style. “If problems are interlocking, then so must solutions be,” he states. He offers a hopeful prospectus on what the future will bring for the working poor and businesses alike. Good business, says Shipler, is when an employer cares considerably about those she employs. Genuine care is missing in the workplace, and attention to “real life” issues on the part of the employer results in a disconnect between employer and employee. We have a long way to go but companies like The Plastic Company in Akron are starting to see the light, Shipler admits. Progress is slow, but imperative. Shipler’s mission? To not have to write a book called the “working poor” because the “working poor” shouldn’t exist. His goal is to go out of business, i.e. the business of writing to incite change for the disadvantaged. Shipler, then, is fiercely utopian, but his energy is infectious. Someday, Shipler hopes, we’ll be able to look beyond the “working poor” to the working populace, the working citizenry – in essence, the working America.

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