The Working Poor Summary

David K. Shipler

The Working Poor

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The Working Poor Summary

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The central premise of David Shipler’s sobering book The Working Poor: Invisible in America is that no one who works hard should be poor. The working poor are those whose labor is critical to American life (meaning, American comfort) — those making clothing in sweatshops, food pickers, assembly line workers, immigrants in various, ignominious jobs – and yet, are heinously underpaid and undervalued for their service. They will always work hard, and they will always remain pour, states Shipler, unless change is prioritized.

The nature of the changes that Shipler recommends is as complex at times as the underlying questions surrounding the existence of poverty itself, or homelessness. This will prove refreshing to many readers, although it may be discouraging to others. Those tired of platitudes and simple solutions to complicated problems will find it a novel change. However, while The Working Poor can at times view itself as a methods book, it ultimately works better as an anthology of stories of those afflicted by poverty.

There are two primary visions regarding American prosperity and poverty that Shipler dismantles. The first is the tried and true vision of the American Dream, i.e., anyone who is willing to work hard will have success, and possibly even wealth. They will be able to achieve their dreams, by default of pursuing them within America’s borders.

The second is that wherever poverty exists, it is the fault of society. It is this clear-cut binary that Shipler takes issue with. It is not that either of these explanations are wrong. Poverty exists for both of these reasons, but there is far more behind the problem, and by extension, the myriad solutions. Shipler’s comprehensive review of the factors that can and do lead to poverty is vast. The Working Poor argues that one of the greatest impediments to social progress is taking too reductive a view of expansive issues.

The political process produces leaders who need to find solutions to problems that will, ideally, not cause discord among their constituencies, but that will also work easily and affordably. By pretending that a problem has only one cause, it becomes easier to sell the idea that there must also be one solution. Inevitably, when the “obvious” solution fails, it is back to the drawing board, with no relief for those most affected by poverty. When a system is “rigged,” according to Shipler, there is no amount of hard work performed by those inside the system that necessarily improves their station in society.

Much of The Working Poor focuses on the victims of the system. The book comprises a great deal of absolutely heartbreaking anecdotes. A woman named Caroline struggles mightily to provide for her disabled daughter, Amber. Caroline slaves away in dead-end job after dead-end job in an effort to provide the necessities. She faces insurmountable, escalating medical crises and battles depression as her struggle deepens and her quality of life dwindles. Caroline, unable to afford dental care, eventually loses all of her teeth. Finally, Caroline’s story does not end in triumph. Rather, she nearly loses Amber, despite the work she has done and the sacrifices she has endured just to scrape by.

Every story in The Working Poor is equally unsettling. This allows Shipler to achieve one of the book’s major goals: these working poor are no longer invisible. They have names faces, histories, families, dreams, and situations beneath which they are absolutely crushed. The working poor are a people without hope, given the framework in which they are forced to participate. By inviting the reader to view the text through such a personal lens, Shipler is able to show the view of “Get a job, you bum” that too many Americans share for what it is: repulsive, unproductive, and a substantial roadblock to true change.

However, while The Working Poor succeeds greatly in documenting the challenges faced by its subjects, it does not entirely hold up to scrutiny when it comes to Shipler’s theorizing. Despite his aversion to victim blaming, many of his philosophies do that very thing. Ultimately, the book falls victim to his own statement that the problem of poverty is massively complex, and cannot be understood and solved without innumerable answers. Of course, innumerable answers are beyond the scope of any one work.

Above all, The Working Poor may serve as an important conversation starter for people who have long considered the problems of poverty to be intractable to the point of hopelessness and apathy.