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Editor's Notebook: The working poor are invisible though we encounter them every day

Peggy Boyer Long
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Americans who work hard shouldn’t be poor. That’s what we’ve always believed as a nation. So, whether through ignorance or choice, we don’t really see the working poor. 

They make up what journalist David Shipler calls the forgotten America. They are working, but they aren’t   making it, or they’re barely making it. “They are,” Shipler writes in The Working Poor, “shaped by their invisible hardships.” Yet, he notes, we encounter them every day. They serve us Big Macs, help us find what we need at Wal-Mart. They clean our offices, wash our cars. And they can’t afford their own stake in the American Dream. “The man who washes cars does not own one. The clerk who files cancelled checks at the bank has $2.02 in her own account. The woman who copy-edits medical textbooks has not been to a dentist in a decade.”   Shipler, a former reporter for The New York Times, set out to find some of these people and tell their stories. Their individual lives, he warns, aren’t tidy. Finding ways to help them won’t be easy. But Shipler does make his readers see them. And that is no small contribution.  

We cite Shipler’s book because it provides another dimension to the concerns we raise in this issue about the future of work. 

We examine in these pages the shift toward outsourcing some jobs overseas. That trend, along with the rise of technology, has pushed many Americans into the low-wage service sector. Is this the unavoidable price of the new world of work? Reporter Stephanie Zimmermann and scholars Ronald Spahr and Robert Reich offer some divergent opinions about causes and solutions. 

Here in Springfield, Statehouse bureau chief Pat Guinane investigates another type of outsourcing, Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s push to privatize the work of state government, while reporter Chris Wetterich details the governor’s moves to downsize the state government workforce.

Shipler, though, explores the nature of work itself and weighs collective responsibility for those who do our “essential labor.” It seems a good time to reflect on some of his conclusions as national policymakers begin to draw the borders of a new “ownership society,” which likely will mean cuts in federal entitlements. 

Working poverty, Shipler finds, 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.” In other words, work works for some people only if nothing else goes wrong, if the car doesn’t stop running, if the children don’t get sick and if the landlord doesn’t raise the rent.      

Shipler spent years tracking some of these individuals — workers, bosses, social workers, teachers and job center trainers. The villains, as he sees it, can be exploitative employers, but they also can be incapable employees. He asserts that his is a clear-eyed assessment. 

Clear-eyed he may be, but his ultimate sympathies are easy to see. Shipler argues that, while society often blames the poor for their condition, it doesn’t hold employers to account. And, while government puts its energies into moving people from a handout to a paycheck, it doesn’t concern itself much with the size of that paycheck, or the social supports that may still be necessary.“Indeed, this solemn regard for the employer as untouchable, off limits, beyond the realm of persuasion unless in violation of the law, seems to permeate the culture of American anti-poverty efforts, with only a few exceptions,” he writes. “Wages are  set by the marketplace, and you cannot expect magnanimity from the marketplace. It is the final arbiter from which there is no appeal.” Thus, Shipler argues, the key to moving people from welfare to work is to make the process beneficial to business. He has a number of ideas to that end. Among them, improving the nation’s schools by equalizing spending between rich and poor districts and providing better skills training for workers. Both of these efforts, he believes, would serve the needs of employees and employers.  

Yet Shipler doesn’t blink at using government policy, including the tax structure, to alleviate unfair wage structures. One idea: targeting wages to regional costs of living. 

Primarily, though, Shipler promotes a holistic approach to the problems of the working poor — beginning with opening our eyes. 

“It may look as if nobody is accountable,” he writes. “In fact, everybody is.”


“By itself, hard work alone would not pay off. That lesson, tainting such a revered virtue, is not one that we want to learn. But unless employers can and will pay a good deal more for the society’s essential labor, those working hard at the edge of poverty will stay there. And America’s rapturous hymn to work will sound a sour note.” 

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

Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.


Illinois Issues, February 2005

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