Web Sites, Documents and Articles >> Hartford Courant News Articles >

David Shipler: Visible in America

February 27, 2005

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 Children.

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 the state.

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 of information.

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 powerlessness.

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 did not.

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 a half.

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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
Powered by Hartford Public Library  

Includes option to search related Hartford sites.

Advanced Search
Search Tips

Can't Find It? Have a Question?