In Newport New Hampshire, Lisa Brooks, a single mother got up each morning
for her full-time job as a caretaker in a halfway house for mentally ill students.
only paid $8.21 an hour, which placed her and her four children several thousand dollars
below the federal poverty threshold.
One day, while Lisa was working, her son came
across poisonous mold in their run-down apartment, and suddenly trouble breathing, so
he went to the hospital repeatedly; the resulting medical bills were nearly too much for
Lisa – she already lived on the brink of insolvency.
She overcame, however, and paid
them, but it was too late, they had already wrecked her credit rating.
When she went to
buy a car, the lowest rate she could find was 15.747%.
She was imprisoned on the
treadmill of poverty – unable to make financial progress, just barely maintaining her
standard of living.
For this reason, she serves as the archetype of the working poor.
In 2001, George W. Bush reinforced the mirage-like qualities of the elusive
American dream: “You bet, people who work hard and make the right decisions in life
can achieve anything they want in America
This oft-repeated fallacy is the underlying
The Working Poor.
The victims of our deaf nation that spoke with Shipler for
the book weren’t out of work – all of them were employed, but yet all were slowly
sinking from subsistence to destitution – as they chased the unobtainable American
Forty years after Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of war on poverty, it is clear
that we, as a nation, are losing the war.
In 1969, the bottom 40% of United States
citizens earned 15.0% of the total income, yet by 2001, despite phenomenal economic
growth, the same percentage earned 11.2%.
This change is a cause for concern for
Shipler, one that sparked his exploration of America’s working poor – the employed
people who are caught in the dream-swallowing trap of poverty.
Shipler presents the
poverty pandemic as the result of a series of mutually exacerbating, self-perpetuating,
cause-and-effect cycles that cause the poor to fall increasingly behind the wealthy.
working poor face a constellation of difficulties that magnify one another: low wages,
low education, dead-end jobs, limited abilities, insurmountable loan rates, insufficient
savings, unwise spending, stratagemical check-cashing systems, poor housing, poor
parenting, lack of healthcare, lack of safe households, exploitative employers, muted
political voice, overworked teachers, defeated and unruly students, deteriorating
neighborhoods, bureaucrats who cheat the poor and the poor who frequently cheat