A "snow day" can mean a day when your office closes, you take the kids sledding, come home for hot cocoa and enjoy an afternoon listening to your CD's. Or it can mean a day when your kids have no food because they won't get the subsidized meals at school, and you have to decide whether to forfeit the $38 you could make by mopping hospital floors all day, or leave them unsupervised in a freezing apartment where you have missed too many gas payments. Welcome to the world of the working poor, a world that is unseen by most Americans, but to which author David Shipler opens our eyes with clarity and compassion.
Shipler, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his 1986 book Arab and Jew, spent the years from 1997 to 2003 interviewing and investigating the lives of American workers who exist just at or slightly above the official poverty level. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 6.8 million workers who actually lived below the poverty level in 2001.) In this book he achieves a forceful impact by weaving together hard-hitting analyses of the conditions of their lives - the unyielding barriers to good jobs, credit, education, housing, health care, nutrition, etc. - and memorable and vivid portrayals of real people trying desperately to surmount those barriers - with some success, but mostly failure.
The hard-working and fragile lives of Tom and Kara King and their three children, for instance, who battle job loss, back injuries, the rural New Hampshire cold, epilepsy, alcoholism, and terminal cancer, are recreated with novelistic grace and impact. So is the story of Claudio and his wife, stoic migrant workers sleeping on cardboard in bare cement barracks, struggling to pay off the $2700 owed to the smuggler who got them across the border by filling bushel baskets of potatoes at 40 cents a bucket. And Leary Brock, surviving rape and years of crack addiction, transported almost magically - through the help of a fine job-training program - to the sleek offices of Xerox Corporation and a speaking engagement in the chamber of the Supreme Court. Scores of real individuals come to life in these pages, the workers as well as the clergymen, lawyers, business owners, loan sharks, welfare bureaucrats, managers, union organizers, doctors, and teachers who surround them, and are more genuine for the author's even handed coverage of their faults and their virtues.
What the book convincingly argues is that the "problems" of the working poor are not isolated. Illiteracy, depression, asthma, addiction, homelessness, malnutrition all come together, and can only be addressed by integrating the solutions. Institutions can go beyond their narrow mandates, as when the Boston Medical Center improves the physical health of its patients by hiring lawyers and social workers to address their housing and employment situations, or when schools offer day care for high school parents and subsidized meals. Job-training programs can also register people to vote: the author points out that if people with incomes under $25,000 cast ballots at the same rate as those over $75,000, an added 6.8 million would have gone to the polls in 2000, undoubtedly changing the outcome.
"The country's prosperity relies on badly paid workers - that's a fact that's not going to disappear," Shipler notes. "You can hardly go through a day... without the fruit of their labor in your life." He does these workers a service by underscoring their importance to the economy, and powerfully advocating for an America where "nobody who works hard should be poor." But also, by illuminating their difficult world, he does his readers - those who are fortunate enough to live outside of that world - a greater one.
HE7583.U6 M66 2004
Fools Rush In: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Unmaking of AOL Time Warner
by Nina Munk. HarperBusiness, 2004.
HC106.83 H46 2003
After the New Economy
Doug Henwood. New Press, 2003.
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