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William BoleSeptember 13, 2004
The Working Poorby By David K. ShiplerAlfred A. Knopf. 320p $25

In the debate over poverty in the United States, there are just two ideas, or at least it often seems that way. One is that people are poor because of the system and that any real solutions will have to come from forces outside the individual, namely government. That is the view from the doctrinaire left. Then there is the right’s idea: people are poor because of their own bad choices, and things won’t change until people change themselves.

Left and right have been churning out these arguments for years, and the political debate has become as stale as the 39-cent loaves of white bread sold at factory outlets patronized by the poor. What is new is that the right unquestionably has the upper hand, in an era when the arguments of the affluent go almost unchallenged.

There are not many doctrinaire leftists around anymore, when it comes to poverty. But recently, the New York Times columnist David Brooks tried to make an example of John Edwards, the U.S. senator who spoke often of two Americas while campaigning this past year to become a presidential candidate. Brooks praised the North Carolina Democrat for talking about poverty, but blamed him for talking about it in economic terms, as Karl Marx did.

Edwards was a bad target. While on the stump, he referred to the need for both individual responsibility and social justice in bridging the chasm between affluent Americans and the invisible Americans. Inadvertently, however, Brooks showcased the right’s one-way view. A person’s behavior determines his or her economic destiny. If people live in an environment that fosters industriousness, sobriety, fidelity, punctuality and dependability, they will thrive, he wrote on March 2, with not a hint that economic circumstances might conspire against them as well. And Brooks is among the less ideological conservatives.

That column applauded David K. Shipler’s The Working Poor, which Brooks called wonderfully observant. Brooks would do well to observe more closely what Shipler has done in making visible the lives of these forgotten Americans. Others would do well to listen along as Shipler enters sympathetically and unsentimentally into some of these lives, into poverty’s tangled web of cause and effect.

Shipler’s journalistic journey began in 1997. He went to black neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and white towns in New Hampshire, to malnutrition clinics in Boston and sweatshops in California, and numerous points in between. It was a time of giddy prosperity that sailed past the people profiled in his book, yet they rarely blamed others for their conditions, as Shipler says they reasonably could have done. They often blame themselves, and they are sometimes right to do so, he says.

Whether it’s dropping out of school or having babies out of wedlock or doing drugs or showing up late for work, Shipler finds enough examples to illustrate the conservative contention that poor behavior generates poor people. At the same time, he finds ample illustration of what liberals mean when they speak of structural causes of poverty, like failing schools and decrepit housing. Most valuably, he sheds light on the ways in which all these personal and social forces are intertwined.

Working poverty is a constellation of difficulties that magnify one another: not just low wages but low education, not just dead-end jobs but also limited abilities, not just insufficient savings but also unwise spending, not just poor housing but also poor parenting, not just the lack of health insurance but also the lack of healthy households, writes Shipler, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and former foreign correspondent for The New York Times.

Shipler gets to know a young mother and father who reap a minor windfall from the federal Earned Income Tax Creditand use it to get tattoos. In the same pages appear frugal mothers who plot ways to put cheap, nutritious meals on the table.

Some stories are unbearably sad. One of the most gripping is that of Caroline Payne, a single mother in New Hampshire. She had much going for her, including a two-year college degree and glowing evaluations by her supervisor at Wal-Mart. Still, she was trapped in one of the superstore’s low-rung jobs, partly because of something she did not have: teeth. She could not come up with the money for dentures, and cashiers are supposed to smile.

Payne was also afflicted with depression, which at times led her to neglect her appearance. She faced the frequently impossible challenge of keeping inflexible jobs while tending to the special needs of her 14-year-old daughter, who suffered from mild mental retardation and the aftershocks of sexual abuse by her father, Payne’s ex-husband. Depression and mild retardation are threads that run through these lives, as is sexual abuse of children. One chapter is titled Sins of the Fathers, as in biological fathers, not Catholic priests.

The needs of the working poor are not well served by the usual false choices of ideological debatebetween strong families and strong government, better values and better policies, personal and social responsibility. Shipler points a finger of blame at both left and right, yet he is not blindly evenhanded.

The political opponents have to cross into each other’s territory to pick up solutions from the opposite side, he advises. But he also suggests that while many liberals have done this by signing on to welfare reform, conservatives have yet to step onto the liberal ground of government assistance.

The final words of Shipler’s remarkable reportage are, It is time to be ashamed. These stories should tell pundits and politicians that it is also time to end the either-or choices.

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