The Working Poor [Review]

David Shipler blends in the voices of all of America, united against this sickening reality in his book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America , creating an amazing portrait of the world around us. Perhaps our generation’s version of Jacob Riis’ best seller, The Working Poor is a reminder of what we have and a call for help for those who don’t.

I picked this book, and about all of my other summer reading books, from a (stolen) book guide for AP teachers, promising that if your student’s read this book they would “be enlightened about the current state of American History and would be guaranteed a 7 on the AP US History test and will graduate to make zillions per year and eat donuts” and whatnot. However, I am quite glad that it recommended this book to me, because regardless of the intentions of the review, it stands that this was a fascinating glance into another world that most of us choose to ignore.

Shipler, winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize, showcases his brilliance in storytelling once again, revealing the poignant hurt that each of these real-life characters face. Even though the book can be summarized in a single sentence, namely “Poverty is a problem and there is no easy solution”, most of us would just take that at face value, ponder it for a couple of minutes, and as soon as their head starts to hurt just go ahead and move along with their lives. Nothing done, nothing changed. Poverty is just one of those abstract problems “out there” that there is no way to fix.

But Shipler paints each chapter with many, many vignettes of the lives of the poor, organizing each chapter into similar problems and allowing the story to flow as organically as possible. With his comprehensive view of every step of the chain of poverty, it is difficult to not get dragged into the midst of the character’s troubles.

I say characters, but perhaps the hardest thing to remember is that these are people, and that for every person in the book, there is a legion of people standing behind them, having the exact same issues with the exact same hopelessness. This is not an easy book to read, and their struggles remain with you long after the covers have been closed. In Shipler’s preface to the book, he states: “If this were a collection of short stories, they could be said to have character and sometimes plot, even family tragedy and lonely heroism, But there is no climax, and no tale ends. Lives continue unresolved.”

Reading the book from the viewpoint of an ideological student, the chapter that hit me the hardest was by far Chapter 9, Dreams. Beginning with a typical “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question, Shipler deconstructs it to investigate how schools for the people in poverty are so different than our schools, and how their education and educators lead them to see dreams crushed within 4 years of the start of high school. It was heart wrenching to hear the students at Paul Junior High say the words “It’s scary sometimes when you don’t understand something … It’s scary to ask the teacher.”

Even though there is a plethora of problems presented, there is a frightening lack of solutions. Primarily because Shipler not only looks at the poverty from the view of the ones in trouble, but from the educators, the social workers, the business managers that hire those illegal workers. From every step along the way, there are critical errors that won’t fit a single solution or even a small cocktail by any single administration. The problems involved in here are deeply rooted in the minds of those who are poor and in the judgment of those around them. There are thick, thick walls surrounding the issue.

However, knowing about them and becoming more educated about their plight is beneficial to everybody. To understand even a tiny fraction of their pain could change the way that you act the next time you are out and about.

And maybe that is just enough to change somebody’s life.

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