At the Edge of Poverty

At the Edge of Poverty - ) the bur- 11 was to tagon and...

Info iconThis preview shows pages 1–5. Sign up to view the full content.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Background image of page 1

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 2
Background image of page 3

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 4
Background image of page 5
This is the end of the preview. Sign up to access the rest of the document.

Unformatted text preview: ) the bur- 11 was to tagon and :primarily ia Inquirer really de- ime Presi- defense in : priorities )cial needs tion. l after the sh took to mpassion- nd home- need was Within two had each ren. . .of verify in the (Also, The ' children — '02). Line, New 7 DAVID K. SHIPLERI At the Edge of Poverty The author is a respected journalist who carefirlly researched the conditions affecting the working poor whose lives he described in his book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America. This excerpt comes from the Introduction to that book. e man who washes cars does not own one. The clerk who files cancelled checks at the bank has $2.02 in her own account. The woman who copyedits medical textbooks has not been to a dentist in a decade. This is the forgotten America. At the bottom of its working world, millions live in the shadow of prosperity, in the twilight between poverty and well-being. Whether you’re rich, poor, or middle class, you encounter them every day. They serve you Big Macs and help you find merchandise at Wal-Mart. They harvest your food, clean your of- fices, and sew your clothes. In a California factory, they package lights for your kids’ bikes. In a New Hampshire plant, they assemble books of wallpaper samples to help you redecorate. They are shaped by their invisible hardships. Some are climbing out of welfare, drug addiction, or homelessness. Others have been trapped for life in a perilous zone of low-wage work. Some of their children are malnourished. Some have been sexu- ally abused. Some live in crumbling housing that contributes to their children’s asthma, which means days absent from school. Some of their youngsters do not even have the eyeglasses they need to see the chalkboard clearly. a From The working poor: Invisible in America. Copyright © 2004, 2005 by David K. Shipler. Used by permission of AI- fred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. . . . While the United States has enjoyed un- precedented affluence, low-wage employees have been testing the American doctrine that hard work cures poverty. Some have found that work works. Others have learned that it doesn’t. Moving in and out of jobs that demand much and pay little, many people tread just above the official povertylb'liiilé’, dangerously close to the edge of destitution. An in~ convenience to an affluent family — minor car trou- ble, a brief illness, disrupted child-care — is a crisis _ to them, for it can threaten their ability to stay em- ployed. They spend everything and save nothing. They are always behind on their bills. They have minuscule bank accounts or none at all, and so pay more fees and higher interest rates than more secure Americans. Even when the economy is robust, many wander through a borderland of struggle, never getting far from where they started. When the economy weakens, they slip back toward the precipice. Millions have been pushed into a region of ad- versity by federal welfare reform’s time limits and work mandates. Enacted in 1996 during an eco- nomic boom, the reform is credited by many wel- fare recipients for inducing them to travel beyond the stifling world of dependence into the active, challenging, hopeful culture of the workplace. They have gained self-confidence, some say, and have ac- quired new respect from their children. Those with luck or talent step onto career ladders toward better and better positions at higher and higher pay. Many 181 18565; s E CTI O/N 7 Perspectives on Classism and Its Consequences more, however, are stuck at such low wages that their living standards are unchanged. They still can- not save, cannot get decent health care, cannot move to better neighborhoods, and cannot send their children to schools that offer a promise for a successful future. These are the forgotten Ameri- cans, who are noticed and counted as they leave welfare, but who disappear from the nation’s radar as they struggle in their working lives. Breaking away and moving a comfortable dis- tance from poverty seems to require a perfect lineup of favorable conditions. A set of skills, a good starting wage, and a job with the likelihood of pro- motion are prerequisites. But so are clarity of pur- pose, courageous self—esteem, a lack of substantial debt, the freedom from illness or addiction, a func- tional family, a network of upstanding friends, and the right help from private or governmental agen- cies. Any gap in that array is an entry point for trou- ble, because being poor means being unprotected. You might as well try playing quarterback with no helmet, no padding, no training, and no experience, behind a line of hundred-pound weaklings. With no cushion of money, no training in the ways of the wider world, and too little defense against the threats and temptations of decaying communities, a poor man or woman gets sacked again and again — buffeted and bruised and defeated. When an excep- tion breaks this cycle of failure, it is called the fulfill- ment of the American Dream. As a culture, the United States is not quite sure about the causes of poverty, and is therefore uncer- tain about the solutions. The American Myth still supposes that any individual from the humblest ori- gins can climb to well-being. We wish that to be true, and we delight in examples that make it seem so, whether fictional or real. The name of Horatio Alger, the nineteenth-century writer we no longer read, is embedded in our language as a synonym for the rise from rags to riches that his characters achieve through virtuous hard work. The classic im- migrant story still stirs the American heart, despite the country’s longstanding aversion to the arrival of "the wretched refuse” at “the golden door,” in the words etched on the Statue of liberty. Even while resenting the influx of immigrants, we revel in the nobility of tireless labor and scrupulous thrift that can transform a destitute refugee into a successful entrepreneur. George W. Bush gave voice to the myth when he was asked whether he meant to send a message with the inclusion of two blacks, a Hispanic, and two women in the first senior ap- pointments to his incoming administration. "You bet," the president-elect replied: “that people who work hard and make the right decisions in life can achieve anything they want in America.”1 The myth has its value. It sets a demanding stan- dard, both for the nation and for every resident. The nation has to strive to make itself the fabled land of opportunity; the resident must strive to use that op- portunity. The ideal has inspired a Civil Rights Movement, a War on Poverty, and a continuing search for ways to ease the distress that persists in the midst of plenty. But the American Myth also provides a means of laying blame. In the Puritan legacy, hard work is not merely practical but also moral; its absence sug- gests an ethical lapse. A harsh logic dictates a hard judgment: If a person’s diligent work leads to pros- perity, if work is a moral virtue, and if anyone in the society can attain prosperity through work, then the failure to doso is a fall from righteousness. The marketplace is the fair and final judge; a low wage is somehow the worker’s fault, for it simply reflects the low value of his labor. In the American atmo- sphere, poverty has always carried a whiff of sin- fulness. Thus, when Judy Woodruff of CNN moderated a debate among Republican presidential candidates in March 2000, she asked Alan Keyes why he thought morality was worsening when cer- tain indicators of morality were improving: Crime was down, out-of—wedlock births were down, and welfare was down, she noted. Evidently, welfare was an index of immorality. There is an opposite extreme, the American Anti-Myth which holds the society largely responsi- ble for the individual’s poverty. The hierarchy of racial discrimination and economic power creates a syndrome of impoverished communities with bad schools and closed options. The children of the poor are funneled into delinquency, drugs, or jobs with meager pay and little future. The individual is a vic- tim of great forces beyond his control, including profit-hungry corporations that exploit his labor. In 1962, Michael Harrington’s eloquent articula- tion of the Anti-Myth in his book The Other America heightened awareness; to a nation blinded by afflu- ence at the time, the portrait of a vast "invisible land” of the poor came as a staggering revelation.2 It helped generate Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on r l 1 I Poverty the cou Mort nomic poor ha $1,430, $1,700 in the I higher, and all after all unresol‘ outrage. In re. anti-my ther helj points a] sites of person’s bad fortr the accic' find son lated to ] school, t to be ch] find beh inheritec poorly 84 from wh seen. How 1 poverty ' about w¢ rarely be case. The over thei cold mac gate arou technolo; takes hay achieverr between that for a: ference, f dividual’s skills” as also "soft lowing o anger tha versity. Jo lacks, a ior ap- 1. “You .le who life can 1g stan- znt. The land of that op- Rights itinuing rsists in leans of work is ‘lCC sug- s a hard to pros- re in the :k, then ess. The ~w wage 1 reflects n atmo- f of sin- 3f CNN sidential n Keyes hen cer- 3: Crime Wu, and welfare merican 'esponsi- archy of creates a with bad the poor obs with l is a vic- ncluding - labor. articula- r America by afflu- "invisible lation.2 It War on DAVID K. SHIPLER Atthe EdgeofPoverty 189 Poverty. But Johnson’s war never truly mobilized the country, nor was it every fought to victory. More than forty years later, after all our eco- nomic achievements, the gap between rich and poor has only widened with a median net worth of $1,430,100 among the top 10 percent and just $1,700 for the bottom 25 percent.3 Life expectancy in the United States is lower, and infant mortality higher, than in Japan, Hong Kong, Israel, Canada, and all the major nations of Western Europe“ Yet after all that has been written, discussed, and left unresolved, it is harder to surprise and shock and outrage. So it is harder to generate action. In reality, people do not fit easily into myths or anti-myths, of course. Working individuals are nei- ther helpless nor omnipotent, but stand on various points along the spectrum between the polar oppo- sites of personal and societal responsibility. Each person’s life is the mixed product of bad choices and bad fortune, of roads not taken and road cut off by the accident of birth or circumstance. It is difficult to find someone whose poverty is not somehow re- lated to his or her unwise behavior — to drop out of school, to have a baby out of wedlock, to do drugs, to be chronically late to work. And it is difficult to find behavior that is now somehow related to the inherited conditions of being poorly parented, poorly educated, poorly housed in neighborhoods from which no distant horizon of possibility can be seen. How to define the individual’s role in her own poverty is a question that has shaped the debate about welfare and other social policies, but it can rarely be answered with certainty, even in a specific case. The poor have less control than the affluent over their private decisions, less insulation from the cold machinery of government, less agility to navi- gate around the pitfalls of a frenetic world driven by technology and competition. Their personal mis- takes have larger consequences, and their personal achievements yield smaller returns. The interaction between the personal and the public is so intricate that for assistance such as job training to make a dif- ference, for example, it has to be tailored to each in- dividual’s needs, which include not only such “hard skills” as using a computer or running a lathe, but also "soft skills” such as interacting with peers, fol- lowing orders willingly, and managing the deep anger that may have developed during years of ad- versity. Job trainers are discovering that people who have repeatedly failed — in school, in love, in work — cannot succeed until they learn that they are ca- pable of success. To get out of poverty, they have to acquire dexterity with their emotions as well as their hands. An exit from poverty is not like showing your passport and crossing a frontier. There is a broad strip of contested territory between destitution and comfort, and the passage is not the same distance for everyone. “Comfortable is when I can pay my rent with one paycheck - I don’t have to save for two weeks to pay one month’s rent,” said 'Iyrone Pixley, a slender man of fifty in Washington, D.C. He was especially undemanding, having emerged from a tough life as a day laborer and a heroin user. “I don’t want to have to scuffle,” he said simply. "I want to be able to live comfortable, even if it’s in a ten-by-ten room. And in the course of a month I can pay all my bills out of my pay. I don’t have to have anything saved.” For me to be comfortable, I don’t have to have a savings account. In such a rich country, most people have more appetite than 'IYrone Pixley. Surrounded by con- stant advertising from television sets that are almost always turned on, many Americans acquire wants that turn into needs. "You’re living in the projects, your mom’s on welfare, . . . (yet) you be wantin’ things all your life, and you can’t have,” explained Frank Dickerson, a janitor who dealt drugs in Washington to get things he didn’t have. You got kids want to have the nice tennis shoes, the jackets; they can’t get that with a mom. . . on welfare. How they gonna get it? They may be getting older, growing up; they want to have nice stuff, so the only way to get that is turn to drugs. That’s right. You go out there, you deal, and you get the things that you need. Car, apartments, clothes.” Frank Dickerson spent three years in prison, but he and his wife also bought a house in the Maryland sub- urbs with the money he made from drugs. Poverty, then, does not lend itself to easy defin- ition. It may be absolute - an inability to buy basic necessities. It may be relative -— an inability to buy the lifestyle that prevails in a certain time and place. It can be measured by a universal yardstick or by an index of disparity. Even dictionaries can- not agree. ”Want or scarcity of means of subsis- tence,” one says categorically. “Lack of the means of providing material needs or comforts,” says another. "The state of one who lacks a usual or 'J-"I' ‘ ' Inn. - .‘l a Emma"; A'tJJrii‘rin-rmm r --: .u' 190 S E CT I 0 N 7 Perspectives on Classism and Its Consequences L. socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions,” says a third. By global or historical standards, much of what Americans consider poverty is luxury. A rural Russ- ian is not considered poor if he cannot afford a car and his home has no central heating; a rural Amer— ican is. A Vietnamese farmer is not seen as poor be— cause he plows with water buffalo, irrigates by hand, and lives in a thatched house; a North Car- olina farmworker is, because he picks cucumbers by hand, gets paid a dollar a box, and lives in a run- down trailer. Most impoverished people in the world would be dazzled by the apartments, tele— phones, television sets, running water, clothing, and other amenities that surround the poor in America. But that does not mean that the poor are not poor, or that those on the edge of poverty are not truly on the edge of a cliff. . . . Indeed, being poor in a rich country may be more difficult to endure than being poor in a poor country, for the skills of surviving in poverty have largely been lost in America. Visit a slum in Hanoi and you will find children inventing games with bottles and sticks and the rusty rims of bicycle wheels. Go to a slum in Los Angeles and you will find children dependent on plastic toys and video games. . . In the United States, the federal government de- fines poverty very simply: an annual income, for a family with one adult and three children, of less than $21,100 in the year 2007. That works out to $10.14 an hour or $4.29 above the federal mum wage, assuming that someone can get a full forty hours of work a week for all fifty-two weeks of the year, or 2,080 working hours annually.5 With incomes rising through the economic expansion of the 19905, the incidence of official poverty declined, beginning the new decade at 11.3 percent of the population, down from 15.1 percent in 1993. Then it rose slightly in the ensuing recession, to 12.3 per— cent in 2006. But the figures are misleading. The federal poverty line cuts far below the amount needed for a decent living, because the Census Bureau still uses the basic formula designed in 1964 by the Social Security Administration, with four modest revisions in subsequent years. That sets the poverty level at approximately three times the cost of a “thrifty food basket.” The calculation was derived from spending patterns in 1955, when the average family used about one—third of its income for food. It is no longer valid today, when the average family spends only about one-tenth of its budget for food, but the government continues to multiply the cost of a “thrifty food basket” by three, adjusting for inflation only and overlooking nearly half a century of dra- matically changing lifestyles" The result burnishes reality by underestimating the numbers whose lives can reasonably be consid- ered impoverished. More accurate formulas, being tested by the Census Bureau and the National Aca- demic of Sciences, would rely on actual costs of food, clothing, shelter, utilities, and the like. Under those calculations, income would include benefits not currently counted, such as food stamps, subsi- dized housing, fuel assistance, and school lunches; living costs would include expenditures now ig— nored, such as child-care, doctor’s bills, health in- surance premiums, and Social Security payroll taxes. . . . Such a change would presumably make more families eligible for benefits that are linked to the poverty level; some programs, including chil- dren’s health insurance, already cover households with incomes up to 150 or 200 percent of the poverty threshold, depending on the state. Even if revised methods of figuring poverty were adopted, however, they would provide only a still photograph of a family’s momentary situation. In that snapshot, the ebb and flow of the moving pic- ture is lost. By measuring only income and ex— penses during a current year and not assets and debts, the formulas ignore the past, and the past is frequently an overwhelming burden on the pre- sent. Plenty of people have moved into jobs that put them above the threshold of poverty, only to discover that their student loans, their car payment, and the exorbitant interest charged on old credit card balances consume so much of their cash that they live no better than before. When the poor or the nearly poor are asked to define poverty, however, they talk not only about what’s in the wallet but what's in the mind or the heart. “Hopelessness,” said a fifteen-year-old girl in New Hampshire. “Not hopelessness — helplessness,” said a man in Los Angeles. “Why should I get up? Nobody’s gonna ever hire me because look at the way I’m dressed, and look at the. fact that I never finished high school, look at the fact that I’m black, I’m brown, I’m yellow, or I grew up in the trailer.” “The DC. “I b tant thar “I am ning Xer “because know wl Anotl growing capital,” ideas, an “In some great ricl We feel I the car.” For p1 ents of p logical, p. part pre5t the othe: one reve: sults far down ap which lez erates a ruins a C] on an au unreliabli punctuali and earn housing. working] lems, the sum of it: It is no “The state of mind,” said a man in Washington, DAVID K. SHIPLER AttheEdgeofPoverty 191 __ If problems are interlocking, then so must solu- Y spends DC. “I believe that spirituality is way more impor- tions be. A job alone is not enough. Medical insur- ’ but the tant than physical.” ance alone is not enough. Good housing alone is .ost of a I am so I'lCh sard a woman whose new Job run- not enough. Reliable transportation, careful family inflation mng Xerox machines was lifting her out of poverty budgeting, effective parenting, effective schooling y of dra- because — not only material things — because I are not enough when each is achieved in isolation know who I am, I know where I'm going now.” from the rest. There is no single variable that can be mating Another woman who fell into poverty after altered to help working people move away from the 3 consid- growmg up middle class, celebrated her cultural edge of poverty. Only where the full array of factors is, being capital, which meant her love of books, musrc is attacked can America fulfill its promise. nal Aea- ideas, and her close relationships With her children costs of “In some senses, we are not at all poor; we have a 3_ Under great richness,” she said. “We don’t feel very poor. Notes begggs 2:1]: igflnpoor When we can I go to the donor or fix 1Bush was quoted in Richard A. Oppel, Jr., New York [inches For practically every family, then, the ingredi- T’mes' D ec' 18’ 2000' p' A19' now ig- cuts of poverty are part financial and part psycho- 2Michael Harrington, The Other America. (Baltimore: 3ahh in- logical, part personal and part societal, part past and PengUin, 1963)- payroll Part Present EVerY PIOblem {magnifies the impact Of 3“2004 Survey of Consumer Finances,” Board of Gov- -ly make the Others» and all are 50 t1 FIY mte{10Ckefi that emors of the Federal Reserve System, Feb 28, 2006. inked to one reversél can preduce a “11.31.” reamon wnh re- 4World in Figures (London: The Economist Newspa- ng ehfl- sults far d1stant from the ongrnal cause. A run- per, 2003), pp_ 76’ 79. 1seholds down apartment can exacerbate a chrld s asthma, 5 u ' t of the which leads to a can for an ambulance, which gem The Census Bureau counts money income before erates a medical bill that cannot be paid, which taxes 'and does n°t m‘EIUde C‘fpltalgauls and noncaSh my were ruins a credit record, which hikes the interest rate benefits £5uch as pubhc housmg,.Medrcard, and food h, a still on an auto loan, which forces the purchase of an Stamp” '1:he Poverty threShOId {5 391115th annuaHY mon- In unreliable used ear, which jeopardizes a mother’s on the basrs of the consumer price Index. See http: ling pie puhemahty at work, which limits her promotions //www.census.gov/hhes/poverty/povdef.htrnl. and ex- and earning capacity, which confines her to poor 6For more on the poverty index, Gordon M. Fisher, ;ets and hOUSing. - . . If she or any other impoverished "The Development of the Orshansky Poverty Thresh- e past is working parent added up all of her individual prob- olds and Their Subsequent History as the Official U.S. the plFe. ems, the whole would be equal to more than the Poverty Measure,” http://www.census.gov/hhes/ obs that sum of its parts. . . . poverty/povmeas/papers/orshansky.html. only to ayrnent, .d credit ash that asked to .y about (1 or the .d girl in man in ‘obody’s Ivay I'm finished rck, I’m er.” ...
View Full Document

This note was uploaded on 02/17/2011 for the course EDEC 4010 taught by Professor Stephaniejones during the Fall '10 term at UGA.

Page1 / 5

At the Edge of Poverty - ) the bur- 11 was to tagon and...

This preview shows document pages 1 - 5. Sign up to view the full document.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Ask a homework question - tutors are online