In capitalism’s mythology, society functions according to merit. Wealth and decadence are the tell-tale signs of hard work and brilliance paying off, while poverty is a sign of laziness, irresponsibility and a disposition or work-ethic undeserving of the products of society.
As in Calvinist ideology, morality and godliness can be linked to the material status of people. So, when the plight of the poorest in our society is raised in public discourse, the first reaction of many is to dismiss the sufferers of poverty in a manner that a passer-by may dismiss a pan-handler by quipping “Get a job, you bum!” This is the logic that fuels so much of social policy, and has its basis in the perceptions and needs of those in the highest positions of power.
Yet there is one facet of our social reality that is missed in this chauvinist analysis — a facet which, by its very existence, defeats this perception. There are those in our society who, despite working long hours under stressful (even dangerous) conditions and laboring in positions which are essential for the success of our overall economy, live well below the poverty line and must combine their long hours of work with public assistance programs to survive.
They prove by their day-to-day toils that it isn’t merely work that decides one’s fate in capitalism, that “effort” and “work ethic” are hollow concepts when pitted against the machinations of larger systems of exploitation.
An Expose into Everyday Wage Slavery
These people are people we see every day, whose labor is essential to comforts which many take for granted, from factory floors and textile mills, to the fields owned by agri-business, to behind the counters in fast food and offering direction in stores big and small. They work each day, balancing economic turmoil and perils, the devastating effects of alienation upon their psyche, the need to raise children and to feed oneself with employment in various dead-end jobs. Every moment is a battle fought up hill, with heavy burdens and little reprieve, for a wage so meagre that it can hardly sustain their bodies. Yet the impoverished worker toils on, unnoticed and unrelieved. David K. Shipler’s book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America, offers us an insight into the lives of impoverished workers told by the very workers themselves.
The Working Poor combines interviews of impoverished workers with statistical data, economic insights, policy analysis and the insights of those whose everyday experience is tied in with that of the working poor. Each chapter brings together interviews that combine shared experiences, from those of legal and illegal immigrants working in American sweat shops and in fields, to the psychological effects of poverty on workers’ experiences in the work place and at home, and even chapters dealing with the economic implications of abuse, mal-nutrition and how these factors exacerbate the already dire situation of working people.
The Multi-faceted Social Assault on the Working Poor
One feature of this text is that it documents a vast web of different factors which help to entrap workers into an unending cycle of poverty. In his chapter “Money and its opposite” Shipler reveals the exploitative measures taken by check-cashing companies, tax-prepairers, corporate loan sharks and scam artists who are able to drain bountiful sums off of workers who cannot afford to hold a bank account.
“Poverty is like a bleeding wound. It weakens the defenses. It lowers resistance. It attracts predators. The loan sharks operate not only from bars and street corners, but also legally from behind bulletproof glass. Their beckoning signs are posted at some 10,000 locations across the country: “Payday Loans,” “Quick Cash,” “Easy Money.” You see them in check cashing joints and storefront offices in poor and working-class neighborhoods. They have organized themselves into at least a dozen national chains, and they charge fees equivalent to more than 500 percent annualized interest.” (Shipler 18)
Shipler also frequently references the role that welfare reform in the 90‘s plays in the increasingly difficult position of workers who need more than their paycheck to survive and to feed their children, and makes frequent reference to the inadequacy of current social programs to help solve the problems faced by working people. Even in how poverty is defined in our society, Shipler reveals the inadequacies of dated formulas and deceptive measures of poverty:
“In the United States, the federal government defines poverty very simply: an annual income, for a family with one adult and three children, of less than $21,100 in the year 2007. That works out to $10.14 an hour, or $4.29 above the federal minimum wage, assuming that someone can get a full forty hours of work a week for all fifty-two weeks of the year, or 2,080 working hours annually….
But the figures are misleading. The federal poverty line cuts far below the amount needed for a decent living, because the Census Bureau still uses the basic formula designed in 1964 by the Social Security administration, with four modest revisions in subsequent years. That sets the poverty level at approximately three times the cost of a “thrifty food basket.” The calculation was derived from spending patterns in 1955, when the average family used about one-third of its income for food. It is no longer valid today, when the average family spends only about one-tenth of its budget for food, but the government continues to multiply the cost of the “thrifty food basket” by three, adjusting for inflation only and overlooking nearly half a century of dramatically changing lifestyles.” (Shipler 9)
Shipler’s illustration of the world of American poverty demonstrates that there isn’t simply one factor that creates and exacerbates poverty, but a multitude of factors which perpetuate the misery felt by working people. On his chapter documenting the crisis of food insecurity for children in America, leading to illness and slow development for a great many children living in the inner city, Shipler expands on one doctor’s proposed solution to malnutrition in America’s cities:
“‘If there were more subsidized housing there’d be less hunger,” Dr. Frank declared. If there were more generous food stamps, if high nutrition baby formula cost less, if inner city stores stocked fresh fruit and vegetables, if all day-care centers provided decent meals and snacks, if families could afford varied foods for children with allergies, if new immigrants were not confused by junk-food advertising, if mothers could breast-feed instead of work, if children of working parents weren’t passed among multiple care givers, if parents knew to sit youngsters down calmly to feed them, if there were less depression among those at the bottom of the economy, there would be less hunger. The clinics that treat malnutrition stand at a devastating collision of problems, most of which cannot be solved by physicians” (Shipler 202)
Despite the existence of a web of issues which come together in our society to exacerbate poverty, Shipler exposes a continued pattern of the blaming of the victims of poverty, from the employers who exploit them, to those who work with them, and even reveals a common thread of self-blame among working peoples for their hardships. Unfortunately, Shipler’s own analysis falls into this trap towards the end of the book.
Compelling Stories, Heart-Rending Examples
One of the greatest strengths of this work is that it brings forward the examples of individual cases of poverty which work to give it a human face — one that is more difficult to ignore than the stereotype produced by anti-worker chauvinism. Impoverished workers are given faces and names, such as Caroline, who has struggled all of her life to provide for her disabled daughter, Amber, contending with medical crisis and depression while going from dead-end job to dead-end job, eventually losing all of her teeth as a result of being unable to see a dentist and nearly losing her daughter thanks to uncertain employment and antagonistic relatives.
Each story is unique, with its own blend of trauma, despair, hopes, dreams and barriers to their fulfillment. Telling these stories is essential to raising consciousness of how capitalism crushes people, drains them of their energies, extracts surplus value from their toils and leaves them with barely enough to survive.
A Less-Than-Thrilling Analysis
There are a great number of strengths in Shipler’s careful journalistic work, from his incorporation of statistical data and accounting for the variety of different barriers set against the prosperity of workers to his illumination of the daily struggles and experiences of working people themselves. Yet the Achilles heel of his work is the “moderate” perspective he tries to bring forth at the end of the book.
Rather than champion a consistent theoretical line or even consistent position on the political spectrum, he attempts to reconcile the positions of social democracy with conservative chauvinism, coming to a conclusion that both blames the poor for their plight and exonerates them. After beginning with a disgustingly nationalist quote from Thomas Paine, he writes in his concluding chapter:
“As the people in these pages show, working poverty is a constellation of difficulties that magnify one another: not just low wages but also 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.
The villains are not just exploitative employers but also incapable employees, not just overworked teachers but also defeated and unruly pupils, not just bureaucrats who cheat the poor but also the poor who cheat themselves. These troubles run strongly along both macro and micro levels, as systematic problems in the structure of political and economic power, and as individual problems in personal and family life.” (Shipler 285)
Shipler here attempts to tread along the fence of the perceived “right” and “left” of bourgeois politics, making his work more palatable by the political mainstream in capitalism. While the author is conscious of broader forces that shape the lives of impoverished workers, he feels the need to incorporate within his conclusion a statement of moral equivalency between those whose power and influence have the largest impact on workers, who shape social policy and profit from the plight of such workers, with the workers themselves. This “balance” of responsibility is absurd — especially when taken in the context of Shipler’s own expose in the preceeding chapters — yet makes perfect sense when one considers the likely political opportunism that flow from Shipler’s equally inadequate reformist solutions to the problem.
If one is to come forward, offering the position that “the poor create their own plight” — even when it is paired with a criticism of broader systems of political economy — what they must inevitably do is divorce the individual utterly from their social and material circumstances. Yet it is such social and material circumstances which are responsible for formulating the very person we are. Shipler himself demonstrates this throughout in, for instance, discussing how poverty persists through generations within families, or how trauma in childhood inevitably created (or at least worsened) by poverty creates adults who lack the ability to cope with already challenging economic realities. The reality is that we are products of society, for all its cultural, ideological, political and economic factors which influence the actions and perspectives of all of society’s members, further influencing one another. It is every bit as impossible to analyze and understand an individual divorced of their social experience as it is impossible to analyze the movement of planets without comprehending gravity.
The roots of the problem of poverty do not lie equally with impoverished workers themselves and the system they are subjected to. Rather, the capitalist system spawns from its deepest levels the cultural context wherein bad decisions are made. Sure a worker can make mistakes in his life that have with them economic circumstances, yet one must remember two things. The first is that the mistakes he or she makes are not truly isolated; they were borne of certain circumstances and can likely be seen repeated across society as a whole. Drug use, domestic violence, irresponsible spending, having children out of wedlock — such “decisions” are influenced greatly by the alienation which faces people in capitalism, to the point where one hears of poor and celebrity drug addicts, wife-batterers in slums and in mansions, well-to-do teenage mothers and those who could hardly get by without the responsibility of child-rearing.
The second thing that one must understand is that who’s harmed the most by these commonly made mistakes is a function of economic and social power. Those in a more affluent position within our society have more safety nets and access to services for the alleviation of these social ills than the poor do. Shipler understands this, yet still champions a line that blames the victim, which is cowardly, idiotic and can only retard our understandings of poverty as a systemic problem of capitalist exploitation. His idealism and belief in capitalism and the American empire are not concealed, though thankfully his more inane and unhelpful observations are mostly isolated to the back of the book, where they can be purposefully overlooked.
Conclusion: An Essential Story Seldom Told
Despite Shipler’s weaknesses as a theoretician, his work to document the experiences of the working poor is worthy of praise. His journalistic work is thorough, combining the lived experience of low wage workers from a multitude of different backgrounds and situations with helpful references to statistics, to social policy and to the broader events and situations which have altered the life course of working people. For this, he deserves credit for making more visible the plight of workers. This text is a worthwhile read for those wishing to become more intimately acquainted with workers’ everyday experience of capitalism’s inherent injustice.