February 27, 2005
By DEBORAH PETERSEN SWIFT, Courant Staff Writer
Despite the state's
reputation for wealth, there are two Connecticuts. In one,
business executives and professionals earn six figures. In
the other, workers in restaurants, hotels and retail stores
barely get by, says a 2004 report by Connecticut Voices for
More than 100,000 state residents - nearly 10 percent of the
state's workforce - work full time, but make less than $20,000
a year, hovering near or below the poverty level, which was $18,400
a year for a family of four in 2003. And the poorest are getting
poorer. Since 1990, the wage for the lowest 10 percent of wage
earners in the state dropped 1 percent, while pay rates in the
high 90th percentile have grown 25 percent, the report concludes.
The situation could get even worse for the working poor under
Gov. M. Jodi Rell's proposed budget, said Shelley Geballe, president
of Connecticut Voices for Children, a public education and advocacy
organization for children, youth and families.
"On balance, I would say [the budget is] going backwards," she
said. Low-income families enrolled in the state's Husky health
plan would pay first-time or increased premiums, and legal immigrants
who are not U.S. citizens would no longer qualify for state-funded
health care. Immigration is the fountain of youth in aging Connecticut,
which is expected to rank 12th in the nation in its number of
immigrants by 2025, she said.
Aid for housing and child
care - two large chunks of most family budgets - would also
lose more than they gain. Rell's proposal to fund more affordable,
supportive housing is good, but the state's overall commitment
to affordable housing is decreasing, Geballe said. The governor's
budget would add day-care slots by giving $13 million more
to the state's school readiness program, but it would reduce
child day-care subsidies for lower income families. The working
poor also would carry a disproportionate weight of sales tax
increases such as the proposed "sin
taxes" on cigarettes and alcohol, because they spend every
penny they earn, compared to wealthy people who can save.
Author David K. Shipler delved
into the lives of the working poor in his most recent book, "The Working Poor: Invisible
in America," a general nonfiction nominee for the 2004 National
Book Critics Circle Award. He shared his views recently at The
Lyceum, a resource and conference center in Hartford designed
as a place for people to share ideas and to explore policy on
the problems of homelessness and lack of affordable housing in
Shipler, who won the Pulitzer
Prize for nonfiction in 1987 for his book "Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land," has
also written about Russia and race issues. We talked to him after
he addressed community leaders and activists gathered in the
historic brick building on Lawrence Street.
Q: Have you ever been poor?
Q: What was your first job?
I worked in a camera store when I was in high school, sold cameras
and film and wrote up processing orders when people came in.
... It was great fun. I loved photography. It had an impact on
me, I think as I look back, because it required me to learn how
to explain things to people who didn't understand them in concise
and clear ways.
Q: At The New York Times you started as a news clerk, more on
the bottom, and I wonder if and how that has influenced you in
writing about the working poor?
...The implication is that I somehow identified because of the
way I started with people who were at the bottom. Maybe, but
I was still privileged because I had a college degree, and I
had been an officer in the Navy, commanded men who were older
than me. So I don't think I could say that I really learned about
what it was like to be in a job where you didn't have any real
power or authority or choices, to be honest. I knew it was a
stepping stone. I expected it to be a temporary thing, that I
would become a reporter, and if I didn't make it at The Times
I would go elsewhere.
Q: So why should I care about the working poor. It doesn't really
affect my life, does it?
Well, you benefit from the services they provide you. I think
the society, as a whole, spends not enough, but a great deal
of resources compensating for people's inability to function
completely in the private economy. I think morality is a part
of it. We have a wealthy society and one that has very high aspirations.
The American myth sets a very high standard. The myth says that
everyone who works hard should prosper. ... So, in terms of our
purpose as a nation and the hope that we bring to people who
flock to our shores looking for a better life, we need to diminish
the difference between the reality and the myth.
I'd say in addition, in a highly competitive global market,
to have a segment of the workforce in America not trained or
trainable enough means that in the long term, our competitiveness
and our economic health [are] in danger. If you look at the national
adult literacy survey that was done in 1992 ... it is shocking
to see the percentage of adults in the United States who cannot
do simple tasks such as finding an intersection on a map, figuring
a 10 percent discount on a price, writing a letter to the credit
card company complaining about an error. The question then is,
what do we do about this? I think business ought to be very alarmed,
actually, at how few resources we put into public education,
vocational training, drug [rehabilitation] and housing, and other
areas that contribute to the health and abilities of our workforce.
Q: You talk about how the working poor are caused by a cluster
of things. I assume that fixing the problem is not as simple
as raising the minimum wage, or sending more kids to college
or fixing Social Security.
No. I spent about five years going back again and again to families.
... And what I say was that the problems they had were various
and they were interlocking, and they magnified one another. People
would get into situations where there were chain reactions, so
that something that to a middle-class or an upper-middle-class
family would be an annoyance - a car breaking down - became a
crisis for a poor family that needed that one car to get to work.
People who work low-wage jobs are generally seen as dispensable
by employers, especially in an economy that is not robust, where
there are plenty of other people to take that person's place.
So if somebody doesn't come to work because a kid is sick or
the car is broken down, that person is easily replaced.
I'll give you an example of a chain reaction of a single mother
in New Hampshire. She's married since I interviewed her, but
she had a full-time job as a caretaker at a home for mentally
ill adults. She made about $8.21 an hour, as I recall, and she
had medical insurance, but every dime that came in, went out.
She had no savings, she had to move into a drafty wooden house,
whose conditions exacerbated her son's asthma.
Twice he was rushed to the
hospital by ambulance, and for reasons she was never able to
sort out, the insurance company paid for the emergency room
treatment but not for the ambulance charges, which were $250
one time and $240 or $245 the next. She couldn't pay them either,
and so they went on her credit report. With her bad credit
report, she was denied a loan for a mobile home, which she
sought to improve her housing conditions. When her car died
and she had to get another used car, she went to a respectable
dealership that ran a credit check, and when it came back negative,
they wouldn't give her a loan. So she ended up at a sleazy used-car
lot where they didn't run credit checks, but charged her 14¾ percent
interest on her car loan. ... So you see there the cascading
problems from housing to health to finance.
Q: I did a project on the
working poor a few years back ... and one thing that I found
that really surprised people was that working poor people had
cell phones and cable television and televisions. Even some
of my editors would say to me, "They're
not poor." Is that something that you ran into, some of
the misconceptions that people have?
I actually didn't find more than one person that I can recall
had a cell phone, maybe it is more prevalent in the last few
years. Cable TV was ubiquitous. Almost everyone had cable TV.
I think that cable TV is a way into the public square of America.
So it would not be fair, I think, to say in a haughty way that
they shouldn't indulge themselves in what is really the most
common form of American entertainment and most common source
You know poverty is relative. A Vietnamese farmer who owns a
water buffalo and has a few hectares of rice and irrigates by
hand is not poor in Vietnam. But a Mexican farm worker in North
Carolina who is paid by the bucket of cucumbers that he picks
and is crammed into a small concrete room in a barracks with
four or five other guys is poor in America.
Q: What is the difference?
Because poverty is relative to a society in which people live,
and I don't think it's unreasonable to see it that way. I think
that poverty is also more complicated than income, although income
is the only way that the federal government measures it. I think
it also has psychological and emotional aspects. It's a sense
of powerlessness. It's a feeling that choices don't have long-term
consequences. It is marginalization. Financially, it's also debt,
it's net worth. People who have run up huge debts -sometimes
by their own bad decisions in using credit cards, but sometimes
unavoidably because they needed services that they couldn't afford
- carry those debts with them into the present, and it really
restricts their future.
Q: There was just a study that came out that said half the bankruptcies
in America are caused by medical problems, and 38 percent had
medical insurance when their individual health crisis started.
I think it is more than half. Health insurance and the whole
area of medical services is an enormous problem both for working
people and for businesses. And I am waiting impatiently for the
moment when business leaders mobilize to demand that our government
really address this problem seriously. You know businesses that
provide health insurance are getting killed by increases in premiums
every year, which they either pay themselves or shift to their
employees. Many of the people I interviewed who were working
at places that did offer health insurance chose not to take it
because they didn't think they would be able to afford it. They
lived without it. Their children were often covered because their
incomes were low enough to make them eligible for either Medicaid
or for the state children's health insurance program So the parents
were the ones who were leaving themselves uncovered. ... But
the fact is uninsured people can find treatment, especially in
cities where there are networks of clinics and there are hospitals
and they are paid for. We all pay for them. So I think that this
is a crisis where both working poor people and business executives
actually have a common interest and I hope pretty soon that the
business community comes to realize this.
Q: The working poor seem to have something that a lot of people
lose when they become more well off, this sense of resourcefulness,
even a sense of community, even though there is a feeling of
First of all, our definition of resourcefulness may be a little
too narrow because we think of resourcefulness as an ability
to go out, find decent work, be diligent, stick it out and be
promoted through the hierarchy of the workplace. Their resourcefulness
... involves finding a job that will pay them something now,
navigating through the labyrinth of government bureaucracies
to get the benefits they are legally entitled to; figuring out
how to organize their transportation to work because in most
parts of the country public transportation is inadequate, so
you need your own car, which is expensive; arranging for child
care while they're at work because most poor households in America
with children are headed by single adults, half of them by women,
so unless they have an extended family, a grandmother or something,
they don't have a built-in family structure of support.
Frankly, I found a lot of
these folk very resourceful because they lived extremely complicated
lives and, when they moved off welfare, their living standards
didn't improve because their wages were so low, but their lives
got more complicated and more demanding and quite exhausting.
If you work even one job, and lots of these people work more
than one job, you're on swing shifts. Very often you're getting
up in the middle of the night, or you are coming home at 4
in the morning, then you've got to get up two hours later to
get your kid off to school; otherwise the kid misses the free
breakfast at school, etc. etc. etc. If the child is sick, what
do you do? Can you stay home from work and call your boss and
say, "I'm really sorry, my child
is sick today"? People at the low end of the spectrum don't
get the kind of slack that we get. So I think resourcefulness
is in the eye of the beholder and it has different definitions.
However, I do think you've put your finger on something else
that is important. That is, there's a sense of paralysis very
often among people who have been stuck in poverty for a long
time. Professionals who work with the poor believe there's a
lot of undiagnosed depression, one of whose features is paralysis,
and many of the poor suffer from depression without knowing that
what they experience even has a name, much less a treatment.
Furthermore, there is, I think for many of the poor, especially
single mothers with kids, an aloneness, an isolation, despite
the fact that they may live in communities where there are other
people who share their problems; they don't necessarily interact
around their problems with other people.
I talked to women who had been in parenting classes in Delaware
... because Delaware requires welfare recipients to take parenting
classes. And they told me it was very therapeutic just to be
with other women who shared some of the same problems, to be
able to talk about them, to feel less alone. So I think the more
community there is, the more connections there are, the better
off people can be. Religious congregations can provide this actually,
and I kept asking people who seemed depressed to me, did they
go to church? Did they have some kind of place? A lot of them
Q: I have to confess I haven't read your book. What would you
want me to know about the book. What would you say is one of
your biggest messages?
There are two things I discovered when I was doing this. I mean
it's a book about real people; it's not about policy. What I
found was that the problems these families have are the products
of both the society's failures and their own failures or the
failures of their parents. It was very difficult to find anyone
whose own behavior had not contributed somehow: having a baby
out of wedlock, dropping out of school, doing drugs, showing
up late to work, not coming at all to work. And it was hard to
find behavior of that kind that was not somehow inherited from
a legacy of being badly parented, being badly schooled, badly
housed in neighborhoods where there was not much hope, and not
much sense of opportunity.
So I came away feeling that
liberal Democrats, who tend to see the failures of the institutions,
of public education, and private enterprise and government
services - all absolutely correct as the crux of the problem
- that they have some pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. And that
conservative Republicans, who tend to see personal failure
and only that, also have pieces of the jigsaw puzzle - completely
different ones. And that, in my naïve way of
thinking, in this polarized society we have, if the Republicans
and Democrats could sit down together and put all the pieces
of the jigsaw puzzle together, they would have a picture of the
full range of the problems that afflict these folks. It's important
to do that because you can't devise solutions until you define
the problem. And so the problems have to be seen clearly, I think,
in a non-ideological way.
Now there are examples of liberal-conservative co-operation,
the earned income tax is an example. It was passed under President
Ford. It's been expanded under successive Republican and Democratic
administrations until this one. It appeals to Republicans because
you don't get it unless you work; it does not create a whole
new government bureaucracy. And Democrats like it because it
subsidizes poor workers, and can add, depending on your family
size, a dollar, two dollars an hour, in effect, to your wage.
I guess the other thing I discovered was the problems interact
with one another and magnify one another, that you can't address
one particular problem and remove it, as though you were removing
some toxin from the body. It's just not that simple. For example,
when a parent brings a child who is suffering from asthma into
the pediatrics department at the Boston medical clinic, the nurse
or the pediatrician asks questions about the family's housing
because there's been good research on antigens [in low-income
housing] that trigger asthma attacks. They include: mold, dust
mites, roaches that shed their skin into a fine dust. When pediatricians
discover there is a terrible situation in a house, so bad they
don't even want to send the kid home because they know the kid
is going to be back next week, they now have a battery of lawyers
who work full time in the pediatrics department. The lawyers
call the landlords because they've discovered that when doctors
call the landlords - at least in Boston, maybe it's a tough town
- landlords don't respond. But when a lawyer calls, they get
results. It's a good example of an enlightened understanding
that to fight poverty, you have to connect the dots, just the
way we have learned you have to connect the dots to fight terrorism.
Q: How do you get both sides
of the aisle to come up with solutions? I think some people
might say, "Well, we have to have some
working poor. I mean, who is going to park my car, who's going
to clean my house?" And, in some ways, don't the working
poor keep the rich rich?
There are a couple of answers
to that. The question of how do you get the power structure
to understand that this is an issue that goes back to the question:
If morality isn't enough of a persuasive force, then self-interest
has to be. Well, let me put it this way. There may be an analogy
to affirmative action here. I did a book on race relations
called "A Country of
Strangers," and I found to my surprise that a lot of private
companies had embraced the ethic of diversity, not because they
were forced to by the law, but because they thought it was in
their self-interest. They understood that they operated in a
global marketplace with diverse customers and that to be competitive
they had to have people who understood how to operate across
racial and ethnic lines. They also understood that to tap the
broadest reservoir of talent, they couldn't exclude whole groups
of people, not women, not blacks, not Latinos. It was just in
their self-interest to make sure that they brought people in.
It's not good for business in the long term, to the extent that
executives look past the next quarter's earnings report, to have
all of these problems. It costs a lot of money, for one thing.
The American Lung Association estimates that asthma costs $14
billion a year, most of it in direct treatment, some of it in
lost productivity. Parents miss work because they are taking
their kids to the doctors; kids are missing school and falling
behind. Maybe investment in housing could reduce some of that.
You are not going to eliminate asthma, but you'll reduce the
acuity of it. Maybe investment in public education and vocational
schools - you know Bush has just cut out federal contribution
to vocational training - would prepare a core of workers that
are not only educated, but educable. This country really needs
to wake up and understand that we need people who can be trained
and re-trained again during their working lives. I think business
and corporate America and Republicans all have a real interest
in recognizing this. That would be my argument.
Nobody's listening, but I can make the argument.
Q: So what's your next topic?
Civil liberties. I have been working on that for a year and
Q: What got you into writing about the working poor?
I think I am on a quest to
understand my own society. I worked overseas for many years,
and I wrote two books, one about Russia, one about the Middle
East. When I came back to the States, I covered foreign policy
for a while, and that began to feel too vicarious. I began
to understand that I liked talking to ordinary people in the
country I was living in, and since I was living in my own country,
I should try to unravel some of the most vexing problems that
we have. So I began with race, which is a fascinating and difficult
issue for us, and that led me pretty naturally to look at poverty
because I think that it is also one that is a curse that we
live with. I wrote about the working poor to remove from the
equation the moral weight that burdens people who don't work,
because in this country, we think that if you don't work there's
something wrong with you ethically, and when you do work, then
you are doing the right thing. So the question I wanted to
ask was, "OK, if you are working and you are
doing the right thing, how come you're poor?"
And you know when you do a book like this - and it takes me
a long time - part of the reason is that I really enjoy talking
to people and I don't like to stop doing that and go sit all
alone and write. So I do a lot more talking to people than I
may need to actually get the research. But when you devote this
much time, you have to do it out of your own curiosity. You can't
do it because some editor has told you to, because you need the
money, or you have a contract. You have to do it because you
really need to understand it better so that you can unravel it
for yourself and lay it out on the table. So that is what drives
me: I am trying to understand my own country.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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