The American Myth tells us that anyone who works hard and lives sensibly can achieve financial well being in the United States. Those who fail have only themselves to blame. The American Anti-Myth tells us the opposite: poverty is the fault of society. The poor face a rigid system that makes it close to impossible for them to rise.
Writer David K. Shipler identifies those two competing visions in The Working Poor: Invisible in America and proceeds to demolish both. He persuasively demonstrates through scores of compelling examples that the real answer is "all of the above." The system is rigged, and people make terrible decisions. The common problems low wages, poor health care and housing, bad education, clueless parenting, sexual abuse, addictions are interlocking, creating what Shipler calls "the destructive synergy of many hardships."Shipler, a former New York Times reporter, approaches the topic like the journalist he is, with profiles of a wide range of people struggling to get by. The tales of their lives are heartbreaking. Take Caroline from New Hampshire, a hard-working striver trying to support a learning-disabled daughter who was molested by her father. With little education, overwhelming burdens and a need for instant gratification, she moves from one dead-end job to another. Claudio, an illegal immigrant from Mexico working in the farm fields of North Carolina, lives with his wife in a cinderblock camp; together the couple is paid a total of $40 a day after deductions for "expenses." They owe $2,300 to the "coyote" who smuggled them here, and have a sick 14-month old at home. Most of Working Poor is descriptive, but Shipler has a strong point of view, and his last chapter offers provocative prescriptions. His "holistic remedies" would include minimum wage rates that vary by region, sophisticated job training, a radical change in school funding and universal health insurance. Not everyone will agree. But at the least, his well-researched book should make the working poor a little less invisible. Anne Bartlett is a journalist who lives in South Florida.