"It is time to be ashamed," concludes David Shipler at the end of The Working Poor, 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 bootstraps. Of the issues at play in the upcoming presidential election, the economy is front and center, but poverty rarely gets a whisper, partly because booms tend to skip over the poor, but also because neither party wishes to acknowledge the problem. While low-wage workers perform the vital services that help drive the economy, their absence from the national dialogue speaks to a disturbing irony: that a system meant to extend opportunities for all actually works to reinforce poverty over the course of lives and generations.
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 too 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. Since no one cause could suffice in explaining poverty, Shipler methodically connects the stories like links on a chain, each a small section of the larger whole.
Over 11 chapters with damning headings such as "Harvest Of Shame" and "Sins Of The Fathers," Shipler crisscrosses the country, ingratiating himself to Wal-Mart clerks, Burger King supervisors, sweatshop laborers, and migrant workers forced into a form of indentured servitude. Some have a thin safety net of family and friends, but most are ill-equipped to handle the slightest setback, let alone amass enough savings to better their stations in life. Time and again, Shipler reveals how poverty breeds more poverty, from the exploitative check-cashing and loaning facilities that make bad credit worse to the property-tax system that ensures lousy public schools to the conditions that make it impossible for reformed inmates and substance abusers to situate themselves in the workplace. And that's not counting the health and nutritional deficiencies, the scarring effects of physical and sexual abuse, or all the other emotional baggage that often comes with the territory. While Shipler does forward some common-sense solutions, The Working Poor functions more vitally by putting human faces on an ongoing epidemic. As in any common rehabilitation program, the first step for the country is simply to admit it has a problem.