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A Book Review
by Joy Renee


The Working Poor: Invisible in America
By David K. Shipler
© 2004
Alfred A. Knopf

Subject: Economics of Poverty; Poverty in America; Working class in America; Costs of living; Standard of living; Personal Finance

“The term…’working poor’ should be an oxymoron. Nobody who works hard should be poor in America.” pix

So says Shipler in the opening paragraph of his preface to this insightful indictment of an economic system that we should blush to call American. It is rife with injustice and weighted in favor of wealth over against work. But this is just what makes it so shortsighted. Work is the engine of the economy, the ultimate source of wealth, and the very well-spring of our self-worth as individuals and as a society.

So how is it that our vaunted democracy--purported to be “of the people, by the people and for the people” has allowed a system to be established that denigrates, disenfranchises and demoralizes the vast majority of its citizens? One explanation is found in a Time magazine survey in 2000 that found 19% of Americans believed themselves to be in the top 1% of income while another 20% expected they would be someday. Thus self-deluded, many are inclined to vote against their own class-interest.

Ah, but there is another rub. The vilified term of class in a country which has worked hard to convince itself it is classless. Or at least that there are no barriers keeping individuals imprisoned in a sub-par class. And the current climate in politics at all levels has made even discussion of the issues almost verboten by crying foul with the accusation of ‘class warfare’ thrown at anyone--whether politician, academician, or pundit--who attempts to point out the injustices of the system or suggest alternative policies, new programs or more money invested in proven programs which address them.. But, as Shipler makes clear in his closing chapter, Skill and Will, it is not the raising of the issues or the discussion and debate which amounts to class warfare. Rather, the class warfare is in the very policies and programs and laws and codes that have created a structure which, instead of serving the people as Government is supposed to do, serves instead to create obstacles, pitfalls and catch-22s for those who struggle the hardest just to maintain. It is in the actions of the policy makers and law makers who enact the laws that structure the tax codes and pay scales that favor the wealthy and penalize the working poor. It is in the actions of the employers who prevent their employees from acquiring the benefits they would be entitled to with a fulltime position by keeping their hours just under the wire and occasionally requiring them to work off the clock. It is in the actions of the aid agencies when they refuse to give out application forms upon request as required by law and instead ask a few perfunctory questions and turn the would-be applicant away. It is in the actions of teachers who buy into the stereo types and lower their expectations. It is in the actions of child-welfare workers who remove a child from home rather than helping the mother find affordable child-care or advocating with her boss for flexible hours. And it is in the actions of a President, who in 2003, asked Congress for $100 million for the 1996 Earned Income Tax Credit, which has proven to benefit employer as much as employee. But President Bush did not wish to augment the payments which had barely kept pace with the cost of living increases since its enactment. Rather, he wished to hire an additional 650 auditors to look for fraudulent claims. This at a time when the auditing of both wealthy individuals and corporations had dramatically declined. Now that is class warfare.

But this book is not a dry rendition of statistics nor a partisan harangue. Between the Preface and the short final chapter, which summarizes and proposes potential solutions, Shipler has compiled a series of vignettes based on intensive interviewing over three to six years of a number of struggling families. He also interviews employers, teachers, medical professionals, social workers, lawyers and others with hands-on experience with the system--those who have reason to know what works, what doesn’t work, and what might work if it were adequately funded. These are stories of real people and Shipler made a point of emphasizing in his preface that there are no composites. These are real people confronting the everyday realities of being poor in America at the turn of the 21st century..

This is the link to the text of the keynote speech by Bill Moyers at the Inequality Matters Forum at New York University June 3, 2004. It was published first on Wed. June 16 by  In it, Moyers discusses some of the very same issues as Shipler:

© 2004 by Joy Renee Davis

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