The Working Poor in America
The concept of the "working poor" has gained prominence in the post-welfare reform era. As welfare rolls shrunk, the focus shifted from the dependent poor to the working poor. It was obvious that without substantial outside support, even families with full-time low-wage workers were still earning less than the official poverty line. And while American society purports that anyone can prosper if they work hard enough, it became apparent that with inadequate opportunity or bad luck, a growing number of families could not attain the American dream, or even break the cycle of poverty. The new challenge for American social policy is to help the working poor lift themselves out of poverty. That's why progressives who supported ending welfare as we know it have set a new goal -- the government should "make work pay" so that no one who works full time is poor.
After substantial decreases in the 1990s, poverty rates stopped their decline in 2000 and have actually started to again creep upward. The great conundrum of how one simultaneously alleviates the multiple causes of poverty has become a central obstacle to poverty reduction. Into this debate comes author David Shipler, a former New York Times Pulitzer Prize winner, with an aptly titled look at the state of poverty in America today, The Working Poor. Shipler's book is more anecdotal and descriptive than analytical and prescriptive. Yet it is a valuable portrait of poverty in America, just as Michael Harrington's landmark book, The Other America, was in 1962. While he does not offer many concrete solutions, Shipler provides readers with an intimate glimpse of the plight of the working poor, whose lives are in sharp contrast to the images of excess with which our society is constantly bombarded. And, like Harrington's work, Shipler's leaves us with the feeling that many of the country's poor are trapped in a spiral of poverty -- albeit working poverty -- from which there is no obvious escape. He describes the entangling forces that grip many of the poor:
For practically every family, then, the ingredients of poverty are part financial and part psychological, part personal and part societal, part past and part present. Every problem magnifies the impact of others, and all are so tightly interlocked that one reversal can produce a chain reaction with results far distant from the original cause. A run-down apartment can exacerbate a child's asthma, which leads to a call for an ambulance, which generates a medical bill that cannot be paid, which ruins a credit record, which hikes the interest rate on an auto loan, which forces the purchase of an unreliable used car, which jeopardizes a mother's punctuality at work, which limits her promotions and earning capacity, which confines her to poor housing.
Caroline Payne, who as a child bounced back and forth between caretakers after her parents' divorce, is one of the impoverished workers Shipler offers to illustrate...