42 pages 1 hour read

David K. Shipler

The Working Poor: Invisible in America

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2004

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Summary and Study Guide


David K. Shipler is a former New York Times correspondent and a 1987 Pulitzer Prizewinner who has authored nonfiction books on global politics, civil liberties, and racial inequality. He wrote the 2004 national bestseller The Working Poor: Invisible in America. The book’s aim is to discover, analyze, and expose the lives of the people who do work that is essential to America’s comfort and prosperity but who do not share in it. In 1997, “as America’s prosperity soared” (ix), Shipler undertook a six-year study of the people who had been left behind. He argues that both through oversight and the shame that comes with not being able to make ends meet, the difficulties of the poor are invisible to the rest of the country. Their stories of demonstrating hard work while remaining trapped in a low socio-economic position challenge the country’s prevailing American Dream narrative, whereby anyone with enough initiative and perseverance can defy the circumstances of their birth. Moreover, while affluent Americans thrive and suffer according to the economy’s fluctuations, poorer Americans endure hardship in both good and bad times, a factor that further enhances their separation from the rest of the country. 

In each chapter, Shipler examines a different factor that contributes to a low standard of living while acknowledging that such factors are interrelated and hardship in one area of life can cause and augment troubles in another. Crucially, he challenges the stereotype of the "invisible" poor by populating his study with individual faces, personalities, and experiences. 

Chapters 1 and 2 highlight the precariousness of the poor in financial matters. Shipler shows how desperate circumstances such as having insufficient funds to pay a bill before payday make people vulnerable to "loan sharks," who promise immediate relief in exchange for further debt. Furthermore, particularly in the case of single mothers, maintaining a low-waged job while having to manage childcare at the same time can leave the employed worse off than when they were on welfare. Shipler concludes that work, that bastion of the American Dream, does not “work” for the lowest-wage earners in society. 

Chapters 3 and 4 expose the trials faced by migrant workers, largely from Latin America, who work in garment factories and agriculture. In unsparing detail, Shipler shows how these migrants perform essential work and yet are housed and employed in conditions that endanger their health and well-being. The reason they endure such hardship is the promise of sending enough money home to their families and the fear of deportation. Chapter 5 goes on to describe how American-born citizens with a low skill-set and a traumatic background—which may involve substance abuse, imprisonment, and a dysfunctional family—lack the necessary skills and attitude to enter the workplace. 

Chapters 6 through 8 demonstrate the importance of a loving, stable family unit to economic and personal success. This is an extra challenge in the lives of the poor, where a greater proportion of women have endured sexual abuse that has stripped them of their confidence and self-worth. In addition, teenage pregnancy and single motherhood is a pattern repeated across low socio-economic generations. Shipley shows how fragmented family structures contribute to unintentional neglect and sometimes abuse of offspring, which in turn damages their physical health.  

The final chapters of the book examine the role of education in the lives of the poor, whether through schooling in childhood and adolescence or through work rehabilitation centers later on. Shipler shows that while education is essential for raising the skill levels and employability, the current one-size-fits-all system in schools does not work when it has to contend with other challenges faced by poor families. 

Shipler closes his book by emphasizing that the constellation of challenges faced by the poor means that “whatever remedy is found for” one problem “may help but not cure unless remedies are found for most of the others” (286). Essentially, it is difficult to tackle poverty in a piecemeal fashion. Instead, what is needed is intersectional help at institutions frequented by the poor, such as schools, hospitals, and welfare centers. Additionally, given that there is much voter abstention amongst the working poor, politicians must try harder to attract such voters to feel that they can participate in democracy and thereby more fully in the choices that are being made about their country.