Book Review: The Working Poor

The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler (Vintage, 2004).

In this thoroughly researched study of the “working poor,” or those with low wage jobs or intermittent under- and un- employment, Shipler uncovers the struggles of people just scraping by in America. The book is a comprehensive telling of the working poor on three counts: the narratives, the context, and the writing. The narratives delve deep into individuals’ struggles with employment, family, and money. Shipler details the experiences of about a dozen people, and the reader benefits from his persistence in interviewing them over several years, his follow-ups with secondary characters such as doctors and case workers, and the diversity of the subjects in terms of location, employment, and background.

He contextualizes each individual story with very thorough political-economic research. He never settles on simple analysis, instead explicitly opting for nuance and complexities. He drives in his thesis that the factors that cause and perpetuate poverty are overlapping and self-reinforcing and evade any simple solutions.

Finally, his writing is superb. He is so sympathetic to his subjects and relates their stories to the reader with words and transitions that are heart-rending. He never turns the reader off with polemics, although he does convey frustration and disillusionment with the system. Shipler succeeds in bringing to the forefront of the reader’s conscience a class of our countrymen that is sadly “invisible in America.”

Check out Shipler’s website, The Shipler Report, here. Note that his recent writing has focused on the rights and liberties of Americans.

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