Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004
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****The Working Poor

Invisible in America

by David K. Shipler

Reviewed April 5, 2004.
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004.  319 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004, #3, Current Issues

Here’s an eye-opening book that shows the plight of the working poor in America in all its complexity.  David Shipler doesn’t point to easy answers, but he does give many case histories of people in poverty and the problems they face.  He’s not given to broad generalizations.  He shows you real people, with real difficulties.

The author spent years researching this book.  He says, “My purpose was to look into their lives as thoroughly as they would allow, to unravel the tangled strands of cause and effect that led to their individual predicaments.  Some I encountered only once or twice, but others I have followed for five or six years into the present, checking with them again and again as the economic boom has collapsed and recession has set in, as they have gone through promotions and bankruptcies, marriage and divorce, childbirth and death in the family.”

He doesn’t give simple answers or even suggest for a moment that the causes of poverty are simple.  In another paragraph from the introductory chapter, he states, “In reality, people do not fit easily into myths or anti-myths, of course.  The working individuals in this book are neither helpless nor omnipotent, but stand on various points along the spectrum between the polar opposites of personal and societal responsibility.  Each person’s life is the mixed product of bad choices and bad fortune, of roads not taken and roads cut off by the accident of birth or circumstance.  It is difficult to find someone whose poverty is not somehow related to his or her unwise behavior—to drop out of school, to have a baby out of wedlock, to do drugs, to be chronically late to work.  And it is difficult to find behavior that is not somehow related to the inherited conditions of being poorly parented, poorly educated, poorly housed in neighborhoods from which no distant horizon of possibility can be seen.”

We tend to not even see the working poor.  They don’t fit our myth that anyone in America who works hard can get ahead.  As David Shipler says, “The first step is to see the problems, and the first problem is the failure to see the people.  Those who work but live impoverished lives blend into familiar landscapes and are therefore overlooked.  They make up the invisible silent America that analysts casually ignore.”

This book looks closely at the lives of working poor people in America, in many, many different situations.  He looks at some people who are rising out of poverty, and others who seem forever trapped.  He doesn’t suggest simple solutions, but he does show some examples of programs that are honestly helping.

Whatever your background, I don’t think that David Shipler is out to offend anyone.  He simply wants to open your eyes and see people whom you never noticed before.  This is an eye-opening and important book.

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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