National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Summer Books
Issue Date:  May 21, 2004

By David K. Shipler
Knopf, 336 pages, $25
Poverty in America

Reviewed by TIM UNSWORTH

Two old folk songs have burned a hole in my soul for decades. The first is titled “Sixteen Tons” and has a lyric that says: “You load sixteen tons and whaddya get? Another day older and deeper in debt.” The second tells of a poor man ordering a single meatball at a local greasy spoon. When he appeals for some bread, the short order cook shouts: “You gets no bread with one meatball!”

Both poignant songs also recalled novels such as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which appeared in 1939 and won the Pulitzer Prize.

Now comes another Pulitzer Prize winner, David Shipler, who won for Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land. He follows that with this painfully honest book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America. According to the author, the term working poor should be an oxymoron.

According to Shipler, the working poor “do not have the luxury of rage. They are caught in exhausting struggles. … their version of the American dream is a nightmare: low paying, dead-end jobs, the profound failure of government to improve upon decaying housing, health care [and] education.”

Unlike many of the dirt poor, we know these people. They clean our homes, iron our shirts, serve us fries, wash our cars, sell us specials at Wal-Mart. They are often at Mass on Sunday but refrain from the Eucharist because their divorced spouse has returned to Mexico (or Poland or Nigeria or elsewhere) and they cannot get an annulment without a two-year wait. So, they cohabit with a man or woman who helps to support her/his children.

Ironically, the hardships of the working poor could be encapsulated within this country’s richest family -- the Walton clan, who own Wal-Mart and who are estimated to be worth $102 billion. According to U.S. Catholic magazine, the low-price firm has 1.4 million employees. This enormous army of blue-smocked workers frequently qualifies for food stamps and Medicaid while forbidden to join unions or receive health insurance. Wal-Mart could easily make it possible for workers to afford health care insurance by raising hourly wages by just one dollar. (The firm does offer health care insurance but it is prohibitively expensive.) Or they could spread the $8 billion profit the company made last year. Instead, the giant continues to move into areas served largely by small Ma and Pa stores, pricing them out of business.

Shipler writes that the working poor are the “forgotten Americans” whose lives are marked by “invisible hardships.” They are constantly fleeced by loan sharks (payday loans, firms offering early tax refunds, etc. -- all at outrageous interest, often as high as 300 percent to 500 percent, with interest on credit card debt often reaching 375 percent).

It is time “to be ashamed,” Shipler writes. Instead, our society is building another layer of affluence -- people growing wealthy on the backs of others.

Health care is perhaps the most expensive fringe. Over 41 million Americans have no health care insurance. Those who do must often spend nearly 25 percent of their income for adequate coverage. (Old age has blessed me with Medicare. Yet, together with an insurance supplement, I pay $2,900 per year for basic coverage. It’s $5,800 for two. A family of four could easily pay twice that on an income of about $18,000 a year.)

It hurts.

Consider that there are nearly 30 million working people earning under the poverty level, less than $15,000 per year. This doesn’t even come close to providing for the basics of food, shelter and clothing. Now, ponder the sad observation that vast hordes of the working poor simply don’t have economic skills, which causes them to buy in mini-markets at inflated prices and to keep smoking even when the price per pack rises to more than $4, as it has in Illinois. The poor are saddled with poor education, dead-end jobs, limited abilities, insufficient savings and unhealthy households.

Shipler states that no one needs government more than the poor. However, they get much less of it than the wealthy, largely because they simply don’t know how to fight back. Meanwhile, the present administration is attempting to cut back on programs such as Head Start, which costs about as much as one aircraft carrier.

Shipler’s book is a modern social encyclical. It is filled with telling anecdotes that need to be read and pondered.

Tim Unsworth, an NCR columnist, writes from Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 2004

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