The Wages of Fear

The Wages of Fear

Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty in his State of the Union Message exactly forty years ago.


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.

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.

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