from The Falls Church News Press
By Nathan Hamme
David K. Shipler, renowned scholar and Pulitzer Prize winning author, made a special appearance in Falls Church last week to discuss his newest book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America. He was not addressing a capacious crowd of literati or economists or politicians, as he has done in previous events as a professor and Brookings Institution scholar and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace associate. A writer of undeniable talent and master of creative method, he instead offered insight into his latest investigative work for an “action-oriented” book club in the cozy confines of the Kemper Masonic Lodge.
Shipler is known not only for the quality of his work and his efficacious intentions, but for the magnitude of the issues he works to address. He is perpetually searching for the “white whale” in contemporary clashes, whether it is the issue of race explored in A Country of Strangers: Black and White in America, or the multifaceted Middle Eastern conflict investigated in his award winning Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land. While the cynic scoffs at the toil and trouble of searching for a definite answer to these problems, the theorist certainly appreciates and benefits from such ostensibly Sisyphean labors.
Using both general statistics and specific recollections and observations of poverty, Shipler is able to look at both the grassroots and the grass tops in his search for answers.
And yet, he is the first to admit the complexity of problems associated with poverty, and the even more complex effects of mitigating them. Shipler uses different metaphors to describe poverty: a “constellation of problems that interact and magnify” or an “ecological system of problems.”
He finds a particular fondness for the latter, which effectively highlights the inseparability of the forces that create poverty. There are the typical structural and infrastructural forces—family, neighborhoods, schools, housing, private enterprise—which can be derived into dozens more. He chooses another broad classification system: internal and external. Often these, too, are interrelated issues, as evidenced by the relationship between personal confidence and physical abuse.
This internal-external distinction has considerable importance in its political implications. One could say that contemporary conservatives believe in “tough love” while liberals prefer a “nanny state” approach, but that would be oversimplifying the debate. Shipler, as a responsible writer, chooses to stay out of that partisan sphere entirely, gleaning lessons from both sides of the spectrum.
Shipler introduced his discussion by asking how people thought to define poverty. The federal government defines poverty based on a person or family’s income. What is problematic, however, is that only $1 can separate those above and below the poverty line. Actual living conditions are determined by non-income factors such as the changing value of currency, the price of goods, and debt. Just as a person making $1,000 a month in Africa is not the equivalent to someone making the same in New York City, a person who owes money to a creditor cannot live as though all their income was disposable.
Mr. Shipler also attacked the “formula” the government has used to define poverty. The formula was developed in the 1940s, when consumer goods were less prevalent and expensive. Because of this, it was estimated that a family would spend 1/3 of their income on food, with the remainder to be used for shelter, clothing, and other necessities. With changing rent, transportation, and durable good prices, the contemporary family can often spend only 1/6 of its income on food. When dealing with fractions of an income, something has to give.
Poverty is also something that is hard to immediately recognize—not only conditions, but the people who experience them. The vast majority of poor people in America hold one or more jobs. Shipler asserted that impoverished citizens wear the “camouflage” of a job, because the overriding assumption is that anyone who works hard enough can succeed and, in fact, prosper.
This bourgeoning class of “working poor” runs contrary to the American Dream, and is judged by the harsher maxim: “Those who are poor are not working hard.”
The discourse invariably touched on many different psychological effects of poverty. This goes beyond, as Mr. Shipler noted, just depression associated with poverty. Diagnosed depression has risen quickly in recent years as it has been discovered to pertain to brain chemistry and can be affected by modern medicine. For a diagnosis, however, one must have the resources to employ a doctor, not to mention pay for prescriptions to combat the illness.
In commenting on the issue of depression, Shipler was able to illustrate some of its diverse effects, such as professional absenteeism. “Maybe,” he quipped, “[the poor] don’t feel they’re important enough for anyone to care about whether or not they show up [to work].”
Performance at the workplace is another issue. The author and several readers spoke of the sense of powerlessness and marginalization accompanying poverty. The insecurity of living “on the edge,” where anything unexpected (a rise in rent, a car problem, an illness), can mean losing everything. There are also the significant marginalizing effects of not being able to afford to eat out with friends or a trendy outfit. Any of these distractions can mean a loss in productivity or impending unemployment.
The author spoke of particularly memorable experiences he had dealing with individuals in drug rehabilitation programs. Consider living in the inner city with a powerful addiction, both too poor to buy drugs and too weak to refrain. Many turn to crime to feed this addiction, whether robbery or physical assault. Someone who has experienced first-hand the ills of society—the fears of living on the streets and among criminals—has more to fear in entering the working world.
First there is the fear of applying for jobs, and of being exposed as a criminal or an addict. Regardless of good intentions or successful rehabilitation, they know they will always be stigmatized. There is also the fear of new surroundings, whether in an office building or a factory that one is not used to. It is difficult to feel part of a team when there is a perpetual insecurity about how one is perceived.
The psychological effects of poverty led Shipler into a discussion of its effect on health. In preparing to write his book, the author visited many places such as hospitals and malnutrition clinics. Malnutrition, asthma, and child abuse are all conditions which disproportionately affect the poor.
While malnutrition has its obvious physical effects on children, causing slow growth rates and cognitive deficiencies, it can also have the consequence of poor performance in school. Students who are hungry have shorter attention spans and are often incapable of concentrating. This is especially true of young children who often can’t be persuaded to pay attention.
Asthma can be catastrophically costly to treat (Shipler recounted a story of a woman whose son had to be taken by ambulance to the hospital on several occasions at $250 a ride) but can also be exponentially worsened by living conditions. Low quality housing, and consequently renters who are less knowledgeable about their landlords sanitary responsibilities, can cause attacks through concentrations of dust, insects, and mold. Personally maintaining a home can be costly and time consuming. One of the authors subjects was writing rent and repair checks when her son unabashedly exclaimed “being poor is very expensive!”
Child abuse can stem from many different situations, many of which have origins in poverty: alcoholism, fiscal frustration, insecurity, and stress, to name a few. The effects of child abuse have extremely long consequences, including inability to develop trust in a particular gender or patterns of violent behavior. Most poor households, Shipler revealed, are headed by single parents, and half by single women. With only one possible source of income and one parent involved in child rearing may make an economically unstable situation increasingly unstable.
There is a commonly held assumption that there are legitimate reasons for fearing poor people, largely because they are assumed to be criminally inclined and social “free riders.” Ronald Regan fashioned the image of the “Welfare Queen” in the 1980’s, who was unemployed and drove around a Cadillac. The general population is only left to ponder what other subversive activities she is involved in.
The assumptions generated about poor people—that they are socially irresponsible, usually found in urban areas, and contribute to high crime rates—are subconsciously, but certainly, racialized. High urban demographics for minorities, as well as in terms of prison populations, create unjust associations between poverty, criminality, and color. In reality, most poor people, and most recipients of welfare are white—just as most American citizens are white.
The Working Poor: Invisible in America is as important an example of societal scrutiny as any other in recent times. Shipler is able to draw subjects from many different areas and backgrounds, and utilize real life experiences to document the hardships facing impoverished people in America. Along the way, he is able to debunk commonly held beliefs about the causes and effects of poverty, and advocate solutions that address both the internal and external factors that lead to it.
His investigation stands as evidence that rules and regulations regarding the poor must be rewritten and the resources that are available to them extended. The author was not only able to captivate and challenge his audience at the Kemper Masonic Lodge last month, but proved that it was possible to motivate those that he encountered to act and to succeed, both for themselves and for others.
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