Book Review: The Working Poor: Invisible in America

The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is a class distinction in the labor market. Anything you do with a bachelor’s degree is seen as a profession, while anything you do with a high-school degree is seen as an occupation. Educational levels, however, do not just reflect social class, they are also constitutive of it. Graduating from college is a class act that both enacts class status and reproduces it. But if we only define the working class as people who do not have a college degree, then a sizable amount of all Americans can be defined as working class. Thus, working class might best be defined as: Those who do not have power over their work. Who do not control when they work, how much they get paid, how fast they work, or whether they will be cut loose from their job at the first shiver on Wall Street.
Although we are hearing a lot of talk right now about the “looming recession”, low-wage workers have been living in a recession of their own for years. And poor people have gotten the message loud and clear: The powers that be are not concerned with us. At the same time, the middle class is being pandered to and told by politicians and political pundits that they alone are the important ones. The only class of people who are deserving of assistance. This has not only made the middle class lose their sense of responsibility to the broader community, but has also made them feel a sense of entitlement. Which highlights that great conservative lie: a sense of “entitlement” doesn’t come when you’re working two jobs to make ends meet and you’re given a leg up from the government. It comes when you have much, and are still told that your struggles are the same as everyone else’s.
The middle class exists in a world where sweat remains a metaphor for hard work, but seldom its consequence. Hundreds of little things get done, reliably and consistently every day, without anyone’s seeming to do them. Making the middle class, both liberals and conservatives, utterly dependent on the working class, the great throng of the underpaid, undereducated, and overworked.
Moreover, while the middle class is educated enough to be able to think for themselves, they are likewise comfortable enough to be highly susceptible to propaganda. Which forms part of the reason as to why I don’t like middle class people very much. They are quick to become smug in any given situation and while routinely claiming to sympathize with poor and working class people; can’t stand the smell of them and openly criticize every decision they make and vote against every program meant to help them. But my bitterness goes even deeper than that. Because their 401k’s are built on the backs of my brothers and sisters. And it’s because my brothers and sisters are willing to suck shit and beat themselves into the ground all day to make value that other people get to keep, that these assholes make their money in the first place. We are the reason inflation stays low and private retirement accounts remain stable. Meanwhile we are left entirely dependent on the Social Security program, which remains perpetually under threat of being slashed and privatized by some backdoor method by the ownership class in order to boost, in a wonderfully self-serving loop, the stock market, which serves primarily the middle and upper classes.
"It is time to be ashamed," concludes David Shipler at the end this book, which is an indispensable survey of the forgotten millions who toil around or below the poverty line. The shame, in this case, comes from the false notion that hard work and prosperity go hand-in-hand in America, and that social advancement is possible for anyone of good character who, to put it in political rhetoric, pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps.
Unlike Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel And Dimed and other first-person accounts of wage slavery, The Working Poor takes a much broader approach than mere personal history. Beating back his daunting subject with a flurry of anecdotes, Shipler writes in a style resembling an especially stirring campaign speech, with each new facet of misery supported by a vividly rendered human example. Few of his subjects can be squeezed easily into ideological boxes: They're neither the welfare slouches of right-wing imagination, nor the saintly martyrs of an unjust system. They're just flawed characters who live paycheck-to-paycheck, unguarded against the next crippling setback.
Oddly enough it was initially a former manager who first turned me on to Shipler’s work. Preaching to me that what made this book great, was that it shifted the blame for the problems of the poor onto the poor themselves, therefore holding them accountable and providing room for personal responsibility. Hardly a compelling case. So for a long time, I didn’t bother to read Shipler’s book. But now that I have, and reflecting on what I was originally told about it, I can now honestly say, what a gross oversimplification and misreading he truly had. Rather, what Shipler does is link the formation and transmission of emotional and psychological problems to systemic problems, showing how they interplay to form patterns of poverty. Growing up poor puts people at risk, while coming from stable families, having good health, speaking English, and having role models are all things that can lessen risk, though even then it’s precarious. It’s not about personal responsibility: it’s about the formation of the personal and the political in each other. It’s really a first rate sociological analysis and I wonder how it is that some dipshit middle manager, could ever come away from it with the entirely wrong conclusions. Actually, I can. He was a complete fucking moron. Which, in his defense, is a prerequisite for middle management.
Nevertheless, The Working Poor, still remains a highly readable account of working class life in America, even though it offers few solutions, as these problems are just too far beyond easily accessible answers. But if you can find it in yourself to read just one book about the position of the poor in America, this would be a good choice. Because the working poor deserve dignity and they deserve it now.


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