Bookmarks Issue: 

Invisible in America

A-WorkingPoorDebra Hall, a "welfare mother" in Cleveland, earns $7.90 an hour flipping garlic bread in a bakery. She has $8 in her bank account. Wal-Mart's profits exceed $5 billion annually, yet the company starts its employees at $6.80 an hour. These stories speak for the 35 million Americans living in near-poverty. To research the state, and fate, of America's "working poor," Shipler visited low-wage workers in Los Angeles sweatshops, New Hampshire towns, and North Carolina migrant camps. He found the majority of them "trapped in gloom," ensnared by the limits of free markets, government programs, immigration laws, family history, and themselves. Only wholesale reform, Shipler claims, will break this cycle.
Knopf. 336 pages. $25.

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"I suggest that readers, and this is clearly one of those seminal books that every American should read and read now, stick with it. ... It defines the lives of millions of Americans." Ron Suskind

Denver Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"One of the great strengths of The Working Poor is that Shipler is unafraid to take on the Horatio Alger myth. Everywhere he looks, ironies, rather than inspiring truths, flourish." John Freeman

SJ Mercury News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It's splendidly animated by his empathy, his ability to see people, and more important to depict them, not as statistics or symbols of injustice but as human beings. ... While Shipler is sympathetic to the plight of the people he interviewed, he doesn't sentimentalize them." Charles Matthews

San Diego Union-Trib 3 of 5 Stars
"Relying more on intimate portraits of the struggles of individuals than on a thorough historical or systematic analysis, Shipler exposes the way the poor are bilked by tax preparers, banks, employers and other scam artists who prey on their situation. ... In spite of its ultimate lack of vision, The Working Poor is an important book that presents a devastating portrait of poverty in America." Jim Miller

NY Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"As a witness Mr. Shipler is indefatigable. ... But how can one write a book about poverty in America and not deal with race?" Michael Massing

Critical Summary

"Nobody who works hard should be poor in America," writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Shipler. Few would disagree with that statement, yet even fewer would agree on how to reduce the factors that cause poverty in America. Presenting individual case studies, Shipler exposes the vicious social and economic injustices that define the working poor. (How can you buy false teeth if you don't have a job? But how can you get a job without teeth?) At times, he lets his frustration get the better of him, and makes sweeping judgements about single mothers, divorce, and race, even though the racially diverse cast we'd expect is largely absent. And since his reforms are convincing but uncontroversial, we're not left with much but despair. But if Working Poor lacks some long-range vision, it "begs our attention. Read it and be ashamed" (San Diego Union-Tribune).