Out of Poverty

September 1, 2004
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Daniel Sokatch

David K. Shipler, The Working Poor: Invisible in America
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) $25, 319 pp.

By the time you read this, almost 4,000 low-wage luxury hotel workers in Los Angeles will likely be engaged in a fight for their economic lives. After months of fruitless union contract negotiations, the hotels have declared an impasse, signaling that they do not think further progress in negotiations is possible. The workers now face the prospect of a lockout or a grueling strike with no guarantee of success or relief. The hotel workers are fighting not so much for a better union contract as they are to renew a modest but decent one that would ensure that they retain basics such as reasonable workloads, maintenance of health benefits, and sick days. If they fail, many of them will slide further down the slippery economic slope of 21st-century America. These working people ˆ„ who should be walking examples of the enduring American dream that honest work brings success and advancement ˆ„ are instead poised at the edge of poverty.

In his new book The Working Poor: Invisible in America , David K. Shipler takes us deep into the difficult lives of working families trying to keep themselves afloat in a country that both needs and ignores their labor. Shipler introduces us to the people at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder: factory workers in New England, garment workers in Los Angeles, farm workers in North Carolina, office workers in Washington, D.C. White or African-American, Hispanic or Asian, immigrant or native-born, all face a complex set of interlocking problems that make it extraordinarily difficult to pull themselves and their families out of the gray zone between modest economic security and destitution.

Shipler organizes his book into chapters that address specific issues confronting the working poor ˆ„ dead-end jobs, immigration, inadequate vocational training, poor education and healthcare, histories of abuse. He demonstrates that no one factor causes the problems faced by these families. Shipler describes the poverty of the working poor as both cause and effect, a chain reaction of events and circumstances in which one problem exacerbates another, making it ever more difficult to break out of a grinding, and often transgenerational, cycle of despair and defeat.

We meet families whose experiences are variations on a theme: ’ÄúA run-down apartment can exacerbate a child’s asthma, which leads to a call for an ambulance, which generates a medical bill that cannot be paid, which ruins a credit record, which hikes the interest rate on an auto loan, which forces the purchase of an unreliable used car, which jeopardizes a mother’s punctuality at work, which limits her promotions and earning capacity, which confines her to poor housing.’Äù Simple inconveniences for a more affluent family can be the push into poverty for millions of working people in America. According to Shipler, cold-hearted corporate chieftains and political leaders, inefficient and uncaring government bureaucracies, an apathetic public, and the personal behavior of many of the working poor themselves all perpetuate the marginalization of this invisible class of Americans.

Shipler also offers possible solutions. He argues that the complex set of problems that is poverty must be addressed by an equally complex web of opportunities ˆ„ ’Äúgateways’Äù addressing the obstacles facing the working poor arrayed at the ’Äúintersections’Äù through which they travel. Better health care, for example, is critical but it will not solve the collateral problems that accompany poor health. He cites the holistic approach of a Boston medical clinic that employs lawyers to go after landlords to repair unhealthy and unsafe apartments and social workers to help patients navigate often-bewildering government, work, and medical systems. Solutions exist if the government, private sector, charitable institutions, and working poor join to create them.

Like Shipler, the rabbis do not simply discuss economic justice in broad strokes; rather, they translate sweeping biblical imperatives regarding treatment of the poor and the pursuit of justice into specific directives aimed at improving the lives of individuals. In fact, Shipler’s holistic solution is mirrored in rabbinic discourse. Regarding the orphan who comes before the community to be wed, Rambam teaches that ’Äúone must first rent a house for him, provide a bed for him, and provide all his furnishings, and only then provide a wedding for him and his bride’Äù (Rambam Mishneh Torah, Matanot Ani’im 7:4). Rambam recognizes that in order to prepare a poor orphan for a successful life and a successful marriage, all of the problems causing his destitution must be addressed, not just his lack of a partner. The responsibility of the community is not to turn a single poor person into a married poor person; rather the community must provide the foundation for the poor person to become a thriving, productive member of society.

Shipler contends that we as a society have the skills but not the will to make the changes that would improve the American working poor. Our rabbis teach that finding this will is not only a good idea, but a mitzvah, and an act critical to the preservation of human dignity and the greater social fabric.

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Daniel Sokatch, a lawyer with a Master of Arts from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, is Executive Director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. He is a member of Los Angeles' Muslim-Jewish dialogue group, and serves on the Board of Directors of New Vision Partners and on the Steering Committee of the Californians for a Moratorium on Executions Coalition.

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