Recently, InTheFray Contributing Writer Laura Louison spoke with David Shipler about The Working Poor, the upcoming election, and the potential for investigative journalism to effectuate change:

The interviewer: Laura Louison, InTheFray Contributing Writer

The interviewee: David Shipler, author of The Working Poor

In the introduction to The Working Poor you state that you were curious about working people who’d been left behind as the economic boom took off and as welfare reform was put in place. Tell me a little bit about your incentives for undertaking this project and your reaction to what you learned through your research.

My incentive is part of a quest to understand my own country. I was working abroad for many years, and then covering foreign policy after I returned. I began to feel that that subject was too vicarious, and what I liked to do when I was living overseas as well, [was] write about the country I was living in. Since I was living in the United States, I wanted to focus on the most vexing problems facing America, so I began with race relations, and wrote A Country of Strangers, which was published in 1997, that [raised many] questions of poverty. I think both those issues are enormous ones for this country, and I wanted to try and understand them as well as I could. When I set out to write about poverty, I felt that since that particular condition was freighted with so much ethical baggage — that is, the idea of work as a moral enterprise in this society, and so many poor are vilified for not working, that I would try to remove as much of the moral element from the equation as I could by looking at only the people who were working, or who were [working] periodically at least, and trying to get ahead that way. So that was my motive for focusing on the poor or nearly poor, who were actually at work.

As for what I found, well that’s a very big question with a very big and long answer. I’m a liberal, but I’m also a reporter so what I tried to do was to take my ideological lens and put it aside, and look with clear eyes, if I could, at this condition, this situation, and talk to people about what forces converged upon them to bring them where they were — namely working, but not able to move out of that zone of the edge of poverty. And what I found was that the forces were both societal and personal. That is, there were failures of the society’s institutions: public education, private enterprise, government services — and there were also terrible family problems that weighed people down and created in them legacies of hardship and disability from which they found it difficult to recover. [The] whole pattern [of domestic violence, for instance,] is tied in with alcoholism often, drug abuse, and so forth. I think [this cycle] affects people’s ability to function well in the economic marketplace.

So many women told me they had been sexually abused as children, and they had to say that, I think, as a way of explaining why they distrusted men — no surprise – and why they had difficulty forming lasting relationships. [This] has both an emotional and an economic consequence. If you’re earning low wages, and you’re part of a family that has two or three wage earners, that’s one thing, but if you’re a single wage earner, that’s quite a different thing. So, that realization that the problems of these folks really encompassed a broad array of issues, both those that are family-based and those that are societally based, led me to a couple of conclusions.

One was that the best way to address the issues was to reform not only societal institutions and policies, but also to provide services that could help people recover personally. And you know, if institutions where [poor] people go very often — schools, medical clinics, so forth — can become gateways to arrays of services, either containing them under one roof or at least referring people to services, and trying to address the whole range of problems that a given person or family faces, then some headway can be made, I think. The other [conclusion] is that in the political arena — and this sounds like a very naïve thing to say in an election year — that liberals and conservatives have to stop shouting at each other and start listening to each other if any headway’s going to be made here.

I find a lot of liberals — and this does not include people who actually do anti-poverty work who actually understand the problems — who are rather doctrinaire, and I’m one. I’m not doctrinaire, but I’m a liberal and tend not to want the family’s individual failures, and conservatives tend to see only those [failures, ignoring] the societal issues. If liberals and conservatives — and I include here conservatives who really want to do something, and not those who say, “Well, it’s their fault therefore we don’t have any obligation,” pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that everyone carries around, then they’d have a [complete] picture of the whole problem. And only if you define the problem thoroughly, can you invent thorough solutions. So that’s a plea for political dialogue across the ideological lines, which is not a very likely element, but I still think it’s necessary.

It’s also in many ways, I think, a plea for political involvement by people in lower socio-economic classes, which is really not something that I think is possible for many people who are struggling.

Well, I think you’re right … I just did a 568593.story?coll=la-news-comment-opinions”>piece that ran in the L.A. Times about how important it [is] for Kerry to mobilize low-income voters with economic appeals because, as you probably know, the lower you go down in the income strata, the lower the voter turn out, but the higher the Democratic support among those who do turn out. So, it ran in 2000 from 75 percent of eligible voters turning out who earned over $75,000 turning out down to, I think it was 38 percent of those earning under $10,000 a year. And I did a little arithmetic and figured that if, that you could have added 6.8 million voters if those under $25,000 turned out at the same rate as those under $75,000. Of course, there are many reasons that low-income people don’t vote.

Among them, the exhausting lives that they lead, the complex logistics of getting to the polls when they have to juggle strange job shifts and child care and all of that, but I think beyond that there’s a sense of disengagement that exceeds people at other income levels. I mean, it’s a petty universal phenomenon in the United States, that sense of : “What difference is it going to make, the politicians are all the same. I can’t believe them, They’re not talking about my issues.” That’s not [an attitude] restricted to low-income people, but I think those of low-income feel it a little more acutely, and don’t see the connection between a vote and a policy. That’s certainly a key, a key issue in this election year especially I think. And I know there are pro-Democratic organizations, such as Emily’s List and People Coming Together, that are targeting low-income voters, and working on it.

Well, it really taps into the invisibility of poor people that Ann Brash talks about in your book.

A lot of people [feel invisible] I think a lot of people internalize that perception of themselves. They don’t feel that they matter, and that comes out of not just the way that society treats them when they’re poor, but also their own repeated failures. I mean, if you failed in school and in relationships and on the job repeatedly, you don’t have a lot of confidence in your own ability to affect change. The sense of powerlessness is really quite overwhelming. Some people will say that it’s their fault that they are where they are, they’ve made mistakes, they should have done things differently, they’ve saddled themselves with huge debt, and I think that too is an internalization of society’s view of them, and I think it belies their underlying doubt about their ability to make change. It’s like Sara Goddell [and Willie in The Working Poor] who said, “Yes, it’s our fault,” but Sara said she felt powerless to change. I think there are lots of reasons for that. You can encounter this surely in the women you counsel, this sense of powerlessness?

[That’s certainly an integral dynamic of] domestic violence because you give power over your life to an intimate partner. But most of the women I work with are people who, once they get to me, are system veterans — people the system has failed at many levels —  and so I think they don’t see themselves as powerful in their relationships, but that’s also part of a whole dynamic. They don’t see themselves as powerful in relation to their welfare worker, [or] in relation to their children and youth worker … The list goes on and on and on.

I wonder if you looked at the way they were parented, whether that sense of powerlessness began there. That the parents, or the parent, or the older grandmother, or whoever was the primary caregiver, took from them the decision-making abilities, or the right to control what they could control. You know, people who have looked at the patterns of play in children, and who use play therapy, have seen how important it is to let a child set the course of play, make some decisions, and have the decisions impact the way the adult interacts with the child. So the child does something, the adult interacts, reacts, and then there’s a circle of interaction, and the child then reacts and does something else, and so forth. That kind of play may not happen in certain families. I don’t know if it’s based on socio-economic levels — but I’m sure, it’s a lack that exists at other economic levels as well — but for people who are poor and have a lot of other issues piling up on them, that one can help to create a whole syndrome.

I’ve interviewed women who got pregnant in high school and dropped out and had babies out of wedlock, who if you talk to them for a while, you can’t help feeling that they were making choices but they either didn’t realize they were making choices, or didn’t realize the long-term impact of the choices, or made choices consciously for the wrong reasons, or were trying to gain autonomy or some kind of independence, a posture from their mother who’s on their case all the time. A lot of low-income parents are highly anxious about their kids, and are deeply afraid of their kids going astray, and react to that possibility with so much anxiety that they’re constantly telling their kids, “No, no, no,” when they live in dangerous neighborhoods, or are tempted by drugs and so forth. I’m thinking about a woman who dropped out of school, and when her daughter dropped out of school, she was just devastated. Her daughter wasn’t pregnant, but in terms of dropping out of school she was following her mother’s pattern, and it was just heartbreaking for her mother to see this happening.

I imagine that if you live in an environment where risks are very rarely rewarded, you’re reluctant to have your children take those risks because it seems like a very scary prospect.

Yeah. The risks are really foolhardy risks, not really risks [that are going] to pay dividends, the kinds of risks that nobody would want their kids to take. I think also you get another pattern here, too, especially in inner-city neighborhoods, of aggressive, pre-emptive anger. You protect yourself by getting in the other guy’s face before he gets in yours. That whole methodology works very well in the street but it doesn’t work at all well in the school or on the job. I remember visiting a school in Baltimore — I think it was a middle school — and talking to kids who were peer counselors, and they were interesting because they were doing mediation with kids who got tin fights, and they had to use techniques, or recommend ways of thinking that [contradicted] what they had all been taught by their mothers, their fathers, their older brothers as methods of survival on the street. So it was almost a code-switching operation where they walked to school every day and they got in everybody’s face, and they got to walk through the school doors and to function there. At least according to the rules [they got] to function with the adults in the school, they had to take a completely different approach. Of course, then there were all the other kids in school and they still had to get in their face. So it was really complicated. How do you sort that out?

And then, on the job, anger management is a big issue. It’s a huge problem for many low-income workers, and it’s one that employers are not equipped to deal with for the most part. So all of that comes into play, and I don’t know how you address it really. It’s very complicated.

To take a different tack, I was curious about what intersections you saw between race and poverty, or ethnicity and poverty. I know that the subjects in your book come from many different backgrounds in terms of language, age — and I know that you’ve written about race issues in America in the past.

(Laughs) At 600 pages about racial issues, I figured I had pretty much covered that subject. I didn’t really set out to ignore race in the book, or even play it down. But I went about this book by trying to find common ground among the experiences of the various demographic groups. So, I went to rural areas, I went to urban areas, to different occupations — agriculture, manufacturing, service. I went to blacks and Latinos and Asians and whites, men and women — although women dominate, as they do dominate the ranks of the poor in the United States in terms of households. [I] began to [see] themes transcending all of these categories. There were certainly differences, in terms of migrant workers in California and native-born Americans in South Washington, D.C., or New Hampshire. But there were also themes that ran through all these folks’ lives. I began to feel that given all that has been written by a whole lot of other people, it was important to focus on those themes and to make sure that readers understood that the phenomenon that they were reading about was not one that was limited to a particular racial group, so that they could see that this was a problem that went across cultures and across ethnic lines in the United States.

Having said that, though race is still a huge factor in poverty. The poverty rates among blacks are much higher than with whites, three times [higher], I believe. The school systems in which black kids learn are inferior to the school systems where even low-income white kids learn, in many ways. The degree of neighborhood dysfunction, if you can call it that, is more severe for blacks than whites, [though in many cases, not all, there are certainly bad neighborhoods for whites, too.] That is, the external factors are powerfully lined up against blacks.

In addition, there’s a whole pattern of discrimination in jobs and elsewhere in other
parts of the society and other parts of life that weigh on blacks in a way that whites just never experience.  The sense of marginalization, the difficulty of either getting a job or getting a promotion. [For instance, at] the rubber company [I visited in] Cleveland, the foremen are white, and there are black workers, and there are racial tensions. And the [boss] couldn’t explain why his foremen were white, but he acknowledged that this was an issue, a problem. So there’s a power structure thing, [and] all these factors make it more difficult for blacks.

The other part of this is the issue of net worth, which isn’t something that’s been explored sufficiently and is not a factor in determining the poverty line, and it should be. They hadn’t updated figures when I did this book, but the median net worth of white families in the United States versus the median net worth of black families with the same education level, and same income, is usually different. And I think that you can describe poverty not only as income but also as debt and net worth, because that has a huge psychological effect as well as a financial one, so that people carrying a whole lot of debt feel imprisoned by that and don’t see possibility and opportunity as attainable. Unless that gets thrown in the mix, you don’t have a full picture. You know the income gives you a still photograph of the present, but the debt gives you a longitudinal picture of what’s happened in the past. And people can argue that if you have debt, you’ve brought that on yourself. Part of that is sometimes true, when people run up huge credit card balances and can’t pay them, but if you’ve been poor and you don’t have medical care, and you have to go to the emergency room, and you don’t have insurance, they have to treat you, but they can also bill you, which means that if you can’t pay, that goes on your credit report. There’s this [white] guy Willy in New Hampshire, who had a pretty good job as a roofer, but he had this $10,000 debt from emergency rooms when his teeth were abscessed and he couldn’t afford to go the dentist. He couldn’t even get a phone installed in his own name because he had this debt, even though he had a fairly decent job at the time.

Black families coming out of the situation of deep poverty tend to carry with them debt, and you know everyone does, but they especially have that burden.

It’s not something that we talk about very much. Certainly the picture that a lot of politicians love to paint is that it’s sort of the black welfare queen, and statistics show pretty much across the board that white families are predominantly the largest force receiving public assistance.

Sure, there are many more whites in the country. More than half the poor in America are white. I remember when I did the race book I was in Alabama, [the city council was voting for some kind of benefit]. This black councilman took [a] white council man [who didn’t want to vote for the benefit] to the welfare office one day, knowing that most of the people there were going to be white, and the white guy was stunned.

I know that you were involved in your subjects’ lives for several years, and to go between that and your own life must have felt like quite a disconnect at times. What was like for you to move between two such different worlds?

It was difficult in a way, although my mother once told me that she had raised me to be comfortable whether I was in an embassy or a hut. (Laughs) And I think she succeeded, I’ve been in both in many parts of the world. She also taught me that you can learn something from everyone, and I learned a tremendous amount from these folks, and I admire many of them. I like them very much. I’m still in touch with a lot of them. It’s been a great education and growing personal experience for me.

At the same time I’m a reporter and a journalist, so I needed to restrain my impulse to open my wallet sometimes and just give them money. I think if anyone had been on the edge of real disaster, I probably would have just done that, but nobody was that I knew of, at least by talking to them.

I couldn’t pay them because it was just unethical. But what I have done since the book’s come out is give money to anti-poverty organizations. I’ve given part of the royalties in large enough chunks so that it can make a difference in programs. I’ve been in touch with organizations to find out what they would if they had some money that they can’t do now, so there are a couple of things going on that weren’t going on before, and I’m very happy to be able to do that. I think that money is most useful when it goes to an organization that can match it or can use it to get another grant to do something that they hadn’t been able to do.

For instance, the Korean immigrants group in L.A. that wants to start an organizing school for Korean grocery workers, to help them learn how to organize and learn what their rights [are], and possibly unionize. I gave them a grant to start that, and there’s a malnutrition clinic in Baltimore that had not been able to do any home visiting because they’d had some money for a while but then they’d lost it. So I talked with the director for a while to figure out how to give them money to fund a half-time person for a year. This is not extravagant, but they’ve now gone into partnership with the School of Nursing at the University of Maryland to get a person who will be seeing patients in the malnutrition clinic, and then will follow some of them home or go off and do home visits, to see the liaison and connection and interaction in the home which you know is very important in dealing with malnutrition. And then there [are] some other organizations I haven’t yet contacted or [that] haven’t gotten back to me that I’m trying to figure out how to best help.

The websites for these organizations [I’m helping] are on the Knopf website linked to my book so people learn more].

So from my standpoint, I don’t think [a book like mine] can turn around the lives of individual people. I wish it could, but it doesn’t. But I hope that the issue will be dated in a certain way. The book will be used to call attention to some issues and might have a policy impact eventually. I’m not sure whether that’s really going to happen, but it’s not really the reason I did it either. The reason I did it was to satisfy my own curiosity. That’s why you do a book. So you’re curious about it, and you want to understand it.

But to get back to your original question, yes, I felt very odd moving back and forth between the two worlds. I think it was Ann Brash who says that you know five dollars is big, and 25 is amazing, and that’s a huge amount. It was painful in many ways to watch people going through hell again and again.

It can be hard not to take that home with you.

Well, I did take that home with me. My wife’s a social worker, and she doesn’t deal most of the time with people who are in poverty. She does family therapy, so a lot of the issues I encountered were issues she’d dealt with in different forms. And we talked a lot about what I was learning. I always do when I do a book. She feels as if by the time she gets around to reading the manuscript, she already knows everything. And I always take these things home with me.


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The Working Poor

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