Poor Standards

Thirty-five million Americans are living in poverty, yet they're not necessarily idle. Many of them are like Caroline, who earns $7.50 an hour in a New Hampshire factory, or Candalaria, who earns three-quarters of a cent for each zipper she sews on jeans at a Los Angeles sweatshop.

David K. Shipler, a former New York Times reporter, walks us through their ranks in his new book, The Working Poor.

Whether they're former drug addicts, people battling with crippling illnesses, or recent immigrants who send the bulk of their incomes back home, they all have one thing in common: a fragile existence at the margins of the working world. As Ann Brach, a single mother struggling to make ends meet, says, "Nobody really wants to know that sometimes $2 is a significant amount, and $25 is tremendous."

In a span of 40 years, as Shipler points out, we have gone from a "War Against Poverty" to an ambivalence toward the poor, reflected in both draconian shifts in public policy and hefty cuts to programs that help the impoverished (many of which, in any case, aimed only to mend the most poignant of problems without addressing the root causes).

Shipler's greatest challenge is to grapple with the vast complexities of poor peoples' lives, to put all the pieces together, and he has accomplished this by giving voice to as many people as possible. He is concerned not just with the poor but with those who work with them -- supervisors, caseworkers, doctors, teachers, academics. Some of the best recent books on poverty -- from Alex Kotlowitz's to Barbara Ehrenreich's to Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's -- have taken a very personal focus, narrating the intricate details of one or two individuals or families with whom the reader forms an emotional connection. Shipler's approach is more daunting. But by stepping away from the microscopic approach, he's free to take a look at a wider array of issues.

Throughout his book, Shipler shows us the obstacles to what many Americans take for granted: access to a bank account, adequate medical care, good schools, and safe neighborhoods. When a child is doing badly in school, a well-off parent can step in and provide guidance or hire a private tutor. Meanwhile, Caroline, a single mother, leaves her mildly retarded 14-year-old daughter, Amber, home alone at night when working shifts at a Tampax factory, owned by Procter & Gamble. When school officials got involved, Caroline stopped going to work, afraid she'd be reported to Child Protective Services, but could find no public services to care for Amber. She subsequently lost her job (although she was rehired when Procter & Gamble couldn't find a replacement).

It is through conversations with teachers in some of the nation's worst public schools that Shipler most directly confronts the problems faced by children living in poverty. For example, a group of sixth-graders in Anacostia, a virtually bombed-out neighborhood in Washington, D.C., dream of becoming doctors, lawyers, and football stars. But these dreams can hardly be realized when the children themselves are simply not getting an education. School districts are funded by local property taxes, and poor children are more likely to be left behind.

We also learn that racial segregation is not a relic of the past: One out of six black children in the United States attend schools that are almost entirely nonwhite. At Grape Street Elementary in Los Angeles, classrooms are short on books, and teachers often rely on photocopies. The effects of lousy schools are far-reaching. Bryan Hagin, a manager at Burger King, told Shipler that he had been having trouble with a cashier who couldn't do basic math. Bryan worked with the cashier on adding and subtracting, but, as Shipler points out, that cashier will never rise to management.

Another sad element to Shipler's story about the working poor is the discovery that most of the women in the book say they've been abused as children. Barbara, a social worker in New Hampshire, was shocked when a 10-year-old girl asked her, "How many times have you been raped?" When Barbara said she never had been, the girl said, "I thought everybody had."

In his final chapter, Shipler proposes a host of solutions such as universal health care, an overhaul of the school system, and a living wage. None of these are exactly new, it's true, but Shipler makes a strong case for them. And his argument is sensible: We should be ashamed, as he says, at allowing poverty to persist. By the time you finish his book, you probably will be.

Kathryn Lewis, a former Prospect assistant editor, is on the editorial staff at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.