The Wages of Fear
Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty in his State of the Union Message exactly forty years ago. Inclined to remember him mainly for the carnage and defeat of Vietnam, we forget how noble his vision was on the domestic front. "The richest nation on earth," he proclaimed, "can afford to win [this war on poverty]. We cannot afford to lose it." Johnson's words sound like a clarion call from a distant planet in our more meanspirited era of "limited government," the "third way" and relentless skepticism over the capacity of any public policy to reverse persistent poverty.
We have seen dramatic efforts to address the problem of poverty, just not the kind that Johnson, Bobby Kennedy or Michael Harrington had in mind. Individualist theories of poverty--which attribute it to personal, behavioral "disorder"--met institutional theory--which indicted government for ostensibly coddling the poor--leaving us with the "compassionate conservatism" of today's White House. For Republicans and an alarming number of Democrats, "help" for the poor has meant shredding the threadbare safety net underneath them. Those who sink, along with their children, become the unfortunate cost of correcting a flawed system of social supports. Those who swim prove the wisdom of the conservative approach. QED.
These simplistic views were easy to uphold when the subject at hand was the dependent poor, that small but symbolically demonized group of long-term welfare recipients. It is harder--or so one might think--to maintain illusions about the self-induced nature of poverty when the conversation shifts to the working poor. That was my hunch when I embarked on research on low-wage workers in Harlem, three years before the onset of the 1996 legislation that ended "welfare as we know it." My conviction at the time was that the focus on welfare recipients had set the country on a punitive course that might be reversed if we spent more time thinking about the far larger category of the working poor--those full-time workers who still cannot pull above the magic poverty line.
Surely, I thought, conservatives could not pull those old "undeserving poor" strings on minimum-wage workers who take stigmatized jobs, enduring unpredictable shifts and waging a relentless struggle to pay the rent on dilapidated housing. Surely these poor people warrant the label "deserving." Not so fast. From the pages of The New Republic and the pen of Manhattan Institute "experts" came the argument that these workers were still poor because they, too, had blown their education or had kids out of wedlock.
We are still a long way off from making the working poor visible and legitimate claimants of public support. Perhaps it takes a gifted journalist to shine a light on the problem. That is precisely what we have in The Working Poor, David Shipler's insightful and moving chronicle of working poverty after welfare reform. Shipler's subject has been the topic of considerable discussion elsewhere. But because he writes with enormous grace, he captures the immense frustration endured by the working poor as few others have. A former reporter for the New York Times whose previous books were on the Arab-Israeli conflict and American race relations, Shipler takes the reader on a journey into the daily lives of line workers in Midwestern meatpacking plants, Los Angeles sweatshops and factories that manufacture everything from plastic pots to rubber hoses. The everyday struggles involved in paying the rent, putting food on the table, keeping kids safe in dangerous neighborhoods, warding off illness, worrying about teenagers going off the deep end and fighting with unfaithful partners come alive in his hands and defy simplistic conclusions about the motives and commitments of America's poor. Shipler carefully wraps the dimensions of working poverty (inadequate wages, oppressive working conditions) in the lives of real people who are at times the authors of their own troubles and at others victims of forces beyond their control.
The value of The Working Poor goes beyond powerful writing, however. It is rich in causal arguments. Two in particular struck me as essential: the cascading quality of poverty, and the psychology of hopelessness. Poverty is portrayed as an abyss with so many contributing causes that its victims cannot win by solving one problem at a time. Each debilitating hassle gives rise to yet another. "On the surface," he notes, "it seems odd that an interest rate can be determined by the condition of an apartment, which in turn can generate illness and medical bills, which may then translate into a poor credit rating, which limits the quality of an automobile that can be purchased, which jeopardizes a worker's reliability in getting to work, which limits promotions and restricts the wage, which confines a family to the dilapidated apartment. Such are the interlocking deficits of poverty, one reinforcing the other until an entire structure of want has been built."
Each piece of this impossible puzzle is, no doubt, a variable in somebody's regression equation, but it is Shipler who points to the unstoppable chain reaction. The poverty cascade he identifies helps us to understand the persistence of want in a country with so much wealth. Poor workers struggle against formidable odds to address one or two problems, only to be undone by the other forty that pull them down into poverty traps.