The Wages of Fear
We have heard a lot in the past fifty years about the internal, subjective wounds that make it so hard for poor people to rally their spirits in the face of the "interlocking deficits" Shipler describes. Oscar Lewis gave this a name several generations ago: the culture of poverty. Many writers have since rejected the notion, proposing explanations that deflect blame from the victim and place it squarely on systemic structural barriers in the labor market: racial discrimination, technological change that has favored skilled labor and a spatial mismatch between suburban job growth and the confinement of the poor to inner-city neighborhoods.
Shipler returns us to the psychological toll poverty exacts, without lapsing into the more objectionable aspects of Lewis's model. Instead, he draws a portrait of the forces that lead to punishing forms of depression. Poor, young mothers who have come of age without the nurturing they needed are often unaware of the needs their own babies have for bonding, consistent affection, and loving interaction. As a result, their children often display cognitive deficits--which surface as poor performance in school--before they reach the age of eight. Shipler devotes a chapter to the sexual abuse of children in poor households, particularly young girls victimized by their own mothers' boyfriends, or kids in foster homes that make the English poorhouse look positively appealing.
Teenage girls who emerge from these nightmarish conditions turn into women who are lonely, scared and hopeless, desperate for partners who are strong and protective. They look for love in all the wrong places, mistake control freaks for affectionate companions and find themselves at the mercy of battering boyfriends. This is not Oscar Lewis's culture of poverty, in which people fail to lift themselves out of poverty because of their inability to defer gratification or plan for the future. The world of Shipler's working poor is shaped by physical force, poor health, deep depression, now compounded by government regulations that insist on "personal responsibility" from people who can barely support themselves and often suffer from acute despair.
These are not just women's problems. Shipler also investigates the impact of violence on boys in the street and men in prison. In a particularly insightful chapter titled "The Daunting Workplace," he introduces the reader to Kevin Fields, a 280-pound ex-con with a shaved head and a gold earring. Fields spent several years in the pen for assault, a biographical detail he dutifully discloses to employers. When asked how he would handle conflict on the job, he replies with candor: "I always tell them I'm gonna stand up for myself because I'm a man.... You know, I ain't gonna let nobody run over me." In his classic Code of the Street, the sociologist Elijah Anderson covered this territory, pointing out the imperative to talk tough and threaten violence to fend off would-be attackers. Hair-trigger tempers develop among men (and women) who see backing down from any kind of confrontation as a sign of weakness. So they don't. Instead, in the workplace, in the schoolyard and in personal relations, ex-cons lose their tempers--quickly. Employers do not have to put up with confrontational characters; they just fire them (or simply don't hire them in the first place). It doesn't help when these temperamental problems pile on top of real skill deficits: the inability to read directions or make change or address an envelope. Bad employment records make it nearly impossible to climb out of working poverty.
I would be derelict in my social scientific duty, though, if I did not point out that journalists like Shipler generally avoid assessing how much these kinds of problems contribute to working poverty. This may sound pedantic, but what fraction of the poverty problem can be explained by poor parenting? Ten percent? Fifty percent? How powerful is sexual abuse as an explanation for interrupted schooling or failure in the labor market? How do these sources of disability compare, for example, with the press of a glutted labor market that pushes wages down? How much do they matter if labor markets tighten, wages rise and employers have to search among these very people for a labor force? The book leaves the reader with the impression that most working poor Americans are plagued by the family problems and psychological liabilities Shipler describes, but we don't really know that for a fact, and there is an abundance of sociological literature that would quarrel with him. In the end, we need more than poignant description. We need some understanding of which forces matter the most in pushing people to the poverty wall.
The only people Shipler sees out there who have been able to surmount working poverty are the immigrants who band together as extended families and the lucky graduates of successful training programs that give people skills that match employer needs. Solidarity and kinship ties make a difference, and they are alive and well among the Mexican migrants in the fields of North Carolina and the sweatshops of Los Angeles, where extended families band together, pressing all available hands--including children--into the labor market toward the support of multigeneration households. Thoughtful training makes a difference too, for employers (like Xerox, which Shipler praises for hiring graduates of select welfare-to-work programs) will hire these survivors, giving them decent jobs with benefits. Yet, as Shipler points out, these workers are still at the mercy of their employers. Enlightened bosses care about the promotion and security of their hard-working employees. But the examples of forward-thinking employers are few and far between in this book, relative to the many instances of exploitative Wal-Marts and the near-slavery conditions of many sweatshops and migrant labor camps. Undocumented immigrants are in the most vulnerable position, but native-born women coming off welfare or down-and-out men coming out of jail are only a few small notches above.
What, then, does Shipler propose we do? His final chapter is an intelligent summary of programs and policies that have been discussed at length by others. But he makes two important points that are not the usual stuff of policy discussion. First, he notes that we do know how to fix certain problems and yet we fail to put enough resources into successful programs to make a real dent. Only a fraction of the children who would benefit from early childhood education ever see it. Thousands of people are waiting for drug treatment, English-as-a-second-language classes and meaningful job training. "When we do it right, it works," Shipler writes. He cites Representative George Miller of California speaking in the 1980s: "And everywhere we've tried to do it on the cheap...we end up spending money with no appreciable results." We may need a raft of new ideas for fighting poverty, but Shipler points out that the whole country would be better off if we just expanded the reach of the old ones that worked.
The second telling point is that the poor have been ideological punching bags for too long. Politicians are more interested in scoring points with voters distant from the realities of working poverty than they are in actually solving the problem. How do we avoid more of the same? This is where Shipler is at his most idealistic. People who vote do much better in the policy sweepstakes than people who don't. Older Americans vote in large numbers: That is why politicians who cut a childcare tax credit for the working poor fall all over themselves to provide a prescription drug benefit for the elderly. A massive and perpetual voter registration campaign--the kind we knew so well from the early days of the civil rights movement--is the only hope for the working poor, who simply do not make it to the ballot box. It's an old-fashioned remedy that will strike many on the left as naïve, but I think he's got a point.