Invisible Plight

Invisible Plight: A report and discussion of the ideas presented in The Working Poor: Invisible in America, a non-fiction book exploring the stories of Americans living, working and trying to escape poverty. Other resources references and discussed: American Poverty as a Structural Failing: Evidence and Arguments by Rank, Yoon and Hirshcl, Educating Students of Poverty: One School’s Story by Roger Wallenstein, and The Changing Map of American Poverty in an Era of Economic Restructuring and Political Realignment by Janet Kodras. {Written in college, 2013}.

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In America, should the working man ever truly have to live in poverty? Those that do live in poverty are there often not through their own lack of education or individual life choices, but due to the economic environment they must operate within, institutional problems outside of their control and sheer misfortune. When these combined forces form the perfect storm, they can inhibit an individual or family until a kind of silent tragedy occurs: hard working Americans fall into poverty. They struggle to maintain the economic means necessary to survive, forever seeking the mythical ‘American Dream’ they will likely never attain. Many Americans are blind to the suffering of those near the poverty line. Those who are aware can misattribute the causes based on their own political or economic ideologies. There are no easy solutions for the millions impoverished in America, but perhaps it’s time America awakens and attempts to answer the question: what exactly is going on at the edge of poverty?

These are the sentiments and storylines David K. Shipler outlines in his work, The Working Poor: Invisible in America (2004). Through personal research and compiled interviews, Shipler comes to define poverty with some measure of complexity, “[poverty is] a peculiar, insidious thing: a cause whose effects then cause the original cause, or an effect whose causes are caused by the effect” (pg. 53). In modern U.S. culture, the idea of ‘The American Dream’ is still perforce emphasized in the social consciousness. This dream posits an ideal state, primed via freedom, democracy, and a capitalistic tradition, where any individual, from any background, can achieve a measure of success in this country. In this land of opportunity, this mythical ethos sets a demanding standard for every citizen where individualized mores are put to the test. Shipler highlights this:

…hard work is not merely practical but also moral; its absence suggests an ethical lapse. A harsh logic dictates a hard judgment: If a person’s diligent work leads to prosperity, if work is a moral virtue, and if anyone in the society can attain prosperity through work, then the failure to do so 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 atmosphere, poverty has always carried a whiff of sinfulness (pg. 5–6).

This stigma permeates throughout modern American society where those at the poverty line cannot be looked upon objectively. Throughout his book, Shipler relates the myriad of ways the poor end up in their destitute situations, “the ingredients of poverty are part financial and part psychological, part personal and part societal, part past and part present” (pg. 11). When at the edge of poverty, every problem can magnify the impact of the next interlocking problem, and that only when the complete array of variable remedies are achieved — insurance, housing, education, etc. — can America fulfill its promise (pg. 11).

The ‘invisibility’ of these struggles often comes due to economic and social stratification aligning themselves within the populace, walling off communication and information concerning the persons and families which are struggling. Most Americans do not know any poor people, or interact with them in any meaningful way; most people only see them and hear about them. Collectively, they are a storyline and a game piece within political conversations around the role of the government to provide programs to help the impoverished. And this means Americans taking part in the discourse around their fates can fail to identify the institutional and structural issues behind their situations, in favor of more simplified, and less morally challenging, answers to questions of ‘why’ and ‘how’ concerning poverty’s roots in this country. Inadequate tax credits, increasing IRS audits and subversive bank loans from corporations are some of these common institutional forces which economically relegate the poor in America. Shipler astutely reveals how these devious financial institutions, tax preparation firms, and the IRS itself, tend to ‘prey’ upon the poor when forcing them into situations where they have to pay more — to get less (pg. 15). At the heart of the matter, is the scarcity of basic education and financial knowledge the poor are commonly working with in America; they simply don’t know what questions to ask. Shipler concludes the result of these unfortunate outcomes is two-fold: the extreme lack of disposable net income means many ignorant poor families do not save any money, and on the social spectrum they become “caught between America’s hedonism and its dictum that the poor are supposed to sacrifice, suffer, and certainly not purchase any fun for themselves” (pg. 27).

Despite all the deficiencies within the circumstances of poverty, employment is always seen as the saving grace of those that can work hard enough to attain it. A good job is often seen as the master key on the path to upward economic and social mobility within this country. But what is a ‘good’ job? How many of them are there, and how many of them are for those that find themselves in these kinds of economic struggles? Shipler explains why ‘working’ may not always be the deliverance that it is built up to be:

Initially the new law [the Personal Responsibility and Working Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996] combined with the good economy to send welfare caseloads plummeting. As states were granted flexibility in administering time limits and work requirements, some created innovative consortiums of government, industry, and charity to guide people into effective job training and employment. But most available jobs had three unhappy traits: they paid low wages, offered no benefits, and led nowhere. “Many other supports designed to help them, such as food stamps and health insurance, leaving them no better off — and sometimes worse off — than when they were not working” (pg. 40).

Impoverished persons working at the lowest wages often have fleeting opportunities to ever be promoted or enjoy increased benefits. Shipler asserts the call for better wages and lower employment reform, “unless employers can and will pay a good deal more for the society’s essential labor, those hard at the edge of poverty will stay there. And America’s rapturous hymn to work will sound a sour note” (pg. 45–46). Shipler also discusses impoverished foreign labor and its unique perspective within the midst of American opulence:

Luxury is produced by humble hands. Not only in the squalid factories of “developing” countries but on American soil too, wealth and poverty intersect. Where immigrants have come seeking lives of plenty, they bring their deprivation with them, creating islands of hardship amid the surging tides of prosperity. For a paltry wage, albeit one far greater than at home, they feed and clothe and comfort the Americans they wish to emulate (pg. 77).

Shipler explains how foreign immigrants are met with destitute living and working conditions, often receive lower pay than their domestic counterparts, and suffer discrimination. Such discriminatory condescension comes at the hands of an American society which is, of course, heralded for its traditionally egalitarian tendencies. However, the impoverished employ a modified style of thinking upon their own American dreams, unable to “gaze out to [the] expansive distance of possibility [in America]”; their principles are grounded in the intangible (pg. 107). Perhaps in a backlash against the basic American ideals of materialism and greed, Shipler showcases foreign migrants who have a separate mindset:

His men here were gloomy. They all missed their families and yearned to go home to Mexico, each on a different, carefully planned timetable: next January, a year, two years from now. They sent home about 70% of the money they made, but the experience provoked reflections on where priorities lay. “I learned to value the family,” one young man declared. “Here it’s material and it’s money, and that’s not life. It’s sustenance. It’s like eating and clothing are the most important. The spiritual and the family, you can’t buy it with money. That’s the biggest thing there is” (pg. 109).

The foundational mindset of working labor here, domestic or foreign in origin, comes to find less value in buying into materialist American values and the desire to habitually seek ‘more.’ The life course for these individuals and their kin is marked by constant hardship. To illustrate, Shipler relates accounts of physical vulnerabilities causing sickness, to socio-economic handicaps severely limiting childhood physical and mental development from the earliest ages (pg. 222). From within the aura of destitute living conditions, Shipler emphasizes how these struggling families come to place value on what’s most important to them in the midst of such adversity — their loved ones. To relieve the constant stresses of everyday life, these bereft families promote a strong reliance on kinship — “a safety net that improves the material dimension of life; for those who have that network of connectedness and caring within a family and beyond, the brink of poverty is a less dangerous place” (pg. 180).

Whether out of necessity or from an ascended, more enlightened perspective upon their conditions, an impoverished laborer is much more likely to adopt a more familial and relationship-oriented mindset as a measure of well-being within their life. Most Americans may be able to relate to this ethos, given they knew it and they also try to live by it themselves. But as a result of their status as immigrants and their appearance as outsiders, they are looked upon differently by the populace at large. Continually, Shipler points to the capable American populace, and its time-honored conviction to right societal injustices, as the answer to further lessening the hardships of the working poor and end discrimination against these working persons and their families:

The United States possesses agile mechanisms for discerning troubling truths and adjusting toward reform. We have done so against racial discrimination, environmental degradation, corporate malfeasance, misguided foreign policy, police brutality, and domestic poverty. The fact that all these ills remain, many of them less virulent than half a century ago, testifies to both the challenge and the accomplishment. If the ideal is high enough, it is never quite attained. If the striving is sufficiently intense, it never runs to completion; at best, it yields success after success indefinitely. That should be our mission against poverty in working America (pg. 299).

Determining the potential solutions and reprieves for the poor hinges upon the clear-eyed awareness of these principle disparities in the hearts and minds of all Americans. These are the complex truths Shipler tries to divulge in The Working Poor.

As David K. Shipler elaborates, education is one of the most important aspects to the multi-faceted problem of American poverty. Of the plethora of issues surrounding those at the edge of poverty, the lack of education is commonly the root of the matter. In the absence of proper schooling, not only do job prospects fall but a basic understanding of financials is absent. In Educating Students of Poverty, author Roger Wallenstein explains how the foundation of poverty begins at youth, “the focus of the achievement gap seems to be less about racial and ethnic distinctions and more about disparities in socioeconomic status. Students from affluent and secure backgrounds have a running head start on students mired in poverty” (pg. 160). Not only does less education seem to be a strong indicator of future poverty, but lower socioeconomic status also tends to determine success in school. This is America’s dilemma when dealing with education and poverty; these two forces are so closely tied together to the extent where it cannot easily be understood whether a student faltered due to his own learning deficiencies or from external forces outside his or her control, such as the conditions of his home life, the resulting status of his bodily and mental health, or the quality of encouragement for learning he receives from guardians. Wallenstein cites a recent study to accentuate the point:

An April 2009 report by the consulting firm of McKinsey & Company stated, “The gap between students from rich and poor families is much more pronounced in the United States than in other OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] nations. In a world-class system like Finland’s, socioeconomic standing is far less predictive of student achievement. All things being equal, a low-income student in the United States is far less likely to do well in school than a low-income student in Finland. Given the enormous economic impact of educational achievement, this is one of the best indicators of equal opportunity in a society, and one on which the United States fares poorly” (pg. 162).

Can America’s promised ‘equality of opportunity’ truly be achieved? In order to level the educational field of play, the economically less fortunate students would have to be afforded some of the same educational opportunities the rest of more affluent American students receive.

As Wallenstein’s case study showcases, the parent’s role is immensely important — “one of the things that we encourage the parents to do is read to them…we’re moving away from how is my kid behaving in school and those types of questions to educating the parents to ask the right question. It’s not just student behavior, but how can I help my student with the academics” (pg. 164). Often in the current American dialogue concerning improvement in the educational system, the blame falls upon the teachers and their lack of quality classroom instruction. But perhaps it is just as much the parent’s responsibility to foster an appreciation for education in their children. If parents were better able to recognize the importance of their own role in their kids’ educational fates then maybe educational excellence could become the guiding light out of poverty for the next generation. Communicating these facts should become paramount alongside any widespread educational reform.

The struggles of the poor do not transpire in a vacuum, and the effect upon the overall economic climate of the country can be substantial. It should go without saying, but the less people in poverty, the healthier our economy, and its prospects for continued growth, becomes. Wallenstein urges Americans to recognize the education system’s unequal qualitative effects upon students, and its influence upon the overall success of the American economy, “this is not just a dilemma for these kids and their families. The achievement gap between rich and poor also is responsible for a lower gross domestic product and ‘the persistence of these educational achievement gaps imposes on the United States the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession’” (pg. 170). It is clear the effects of education are crucial, not only to remedy high levels of poverty, but also to the success of American economics and job growth. An educated society becomes an employed society. It should be clear that educational innovation is integral to the start of any kind of long-term solution toward quelling poverty in this country.

Poverty is a divisive issue in the American discourse, as people try to understand and define what exactly the problems are. Each of the authors and experts on the matter makes it very clear — there is no succinct, obvious reason or cause for this country’s poverty levels. The poor in America ended up there for a variety of reasons, both personal and societal. In the American culture, however, the disposition of capitalism often deems the onus to fall on the individual as the primary determinant within the equation. In American Poverty as a Structural Failing: Evidence and Arguments, the authors detail the two sides of the coin:

In recent times these debates have often been divided into two ideological camps. On one hand, poverty has been viewed as the result of individual failings. From this perspective, specific attributes of the impoverished individual have brought about their poverty. These include a wide set of characteristics, ranging from the lack of an industrious work ethic or virtuous morality, to low levels of education or competitive labor market skills. On the other hand, poverty has periodically been interpreted as the result of failings at the structural level, such as the inability of the economy to produce enough decent paying jobs (pg. 4).

The average American citizen likely has limited knowledge of the intricacies of what challenges a poor person goes through and what got them into their situation. Thus politicians, the media, and social scientists play a primary role in informing the masses of the conditions of the poor via statistics in lieu of stories. Over the years, this has created a skewed understanding of poverty in America. American Poverty reveals how the focus of past research “has increasingly fallen on understanding poverty and welfare dependency in terms of individual attributes” (pg. 5). Perhaps naturally, generalizations regarding poverty are formed within American society from the individualistic perspective; rugged and independent ‘individualism’ is a long-standing pillar of the entrepreneurial and capitalistic tradition on which the United States was built. However, the institutional forces at play in the American free enterprise play a significant role in these economic outcomes — and they are often overlooked by the American populace:

By focusing on individual attributes as the cause of poverty social scientists have largely missed the underlying dynamic of American impoverishment. Poverty researchers have in effect focused on who loses out at the economic game, rather than addressing the fact that the game produces losers in the first place. An analysis into this underlying dynamic is critical to advancing our state of knowledge regarding American poverty (pg. 5).

Markets and inequality seem to play essential roles in the modern formulation of poverty in America, yet they are either evaded for the sake of politics or cannot be fully understood or articulated on the macro level. This sentiment is enumerated in The Changing Map of American Poverty in an Era of Economic Restructuring and Political Realignment, author Janet Kodras decries the idea of individualism as the dominant force in American poverty:

…attributing poverty solely to individual deficiencies such as laziness and low aspirations, falters when the spatial dynamics of poverty in the United States are considered…Specifically, the market has the greatest structural effect on inequality and poverty, as it contains the mechanisms (e.g., labor markets, capital markets, property markets) that distribute economic resources (wages, profits, dividends, capital gains). The state has a secondary effect on inequality and poverty, either reinforcing or countering the market tendency toward uneven distribution, through the tax system and other policies and subsidies that grant advantage to certain sectors and populations. Beyond the evident point that inequality is a systemic feature of capitalism, the role of the market and state in affecting poverty cannot be studied in the abstract, as these take concrete forms and perform specific functions according to the particular place and time in which they are inserted (pg. 68).

These forces might be ignored within the popular discourse in the favor of a political agenda or to explain why a program is being cut, but perhaps it goes deeper. The elite in America have long pushed the ideal of individualism and the duty of personal responsibility, which has the natural byproduct of instilling an atmosphere of mass immunity from the plight of the impoverished. When dealing with the causes and effects of poverty, who else can be responsible for the sins of the individual, if not the individuals themselves? American Poverty points out evidence contrary to the individual cause, citing research which shows the attitudes and motivations of the poor vs. the non-poor are relatively the same, with almost nothing showing it to be a causal factor leading to their impoverished condition (pg. 6).

Some poverty may always be inevitable, but for reasons that can be at least partially understood and controlled. With a more complete understanding of the why and the how of the contingents of the populace finding themselves in poverty, perhaps the whole of the American people might then be able to accept both the structural and individualistic reasons for poverty. American Poverty lays out the modern institutional concerns which should be focused upon:

Three lines of evidence are detailed in order to illustrate the structural nature of poverty — 1) the inability of the U.S. labor market to provide enough decent paying jobs for all families to avoid poverty or near poverty; 2) the ineffectiveness of American social policy to reduce levels of poverty through governmental social safety net programs; and 3) the fact that the majority of the population will experience poverty during their adult lifetimes, indicative of the systemic nature of U.S. poverty. Each of these lines of evidence are intended to empirically illustrate that American poverty is by and large the result of structural failures and processes (pg. 8).

There is no way to outright ‘solve’ the structural deficiencies of the American machine. However, with increased conversation and research into the issues beyond the individual cases comes a better understanding of this confounding puzzle. With a better understanding, as close to the truth of the matter that we can manage, may come better potential solutions.

Ultimately, American Poverty compares the structural and economic contributions to poverty with a game of musical chairs in which there are ten equally well-equipped players and only eight chairs to sit in — “the characteristics of the individual players are no longer important in terms of understanding that the structure of the game ensures that someone must inevitably lose” (pg. 22). If the game can only allow so many winners in its current iteration, what else is there to do other than develop expansions the game — conceivably with better institutions and more efficient programs.

American capitalistic society champions “equality of opportunity” as a primary focus within the grand game of the marketplace. Equalizing opportunities for modern Americans seems to come at the ends of our economic structures and our educational outcomes. Yet, effectively refining and expanding the structural and market-making mechanisms in play within this country’s corporatocracy might remain an unsolvable struggle for years to come. Revolutionizing the American education system may not arrive sooner than the need to revolutionize what exactly it is that the workers of the future, low-wage or not, need to be learning. The reasons for poverty in America are far-reaching and inescapably complex. They will likely become more so going into the future. However, by increasing awareness of the true nature of poverty and all it entails, perhaps something can be done to fully materialize the working poor to the naked eye. Once their previously invisible plight is revealed, we should get to work on the creation of a new American Dream. It will be one we will have to create together, across the line.

Works Cited

Kodras, J. (1997). The Changing Map of American Poverty in an Era of Economic Restructuring and Political Realignment. Economic Geography,73(1), 67-93. doi:10.2307/144411

Rank, Mark R.; Yoon, Hong-Sik; and Hirschl, Thomas A. (2003) “American Poverty as a Structural Failing: Evidence and Arguments,” The Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare: Vol. 30 : Iss. 4 , Article 2.

Shipler, D. K. (2009). The Working Poor: Invisible in America. Bridgewater, NJ: Distributed by Paw Prints/Baker & Taylor.

Wallenstein, R. (2012). Educating Students of Poverty: One School’s Story. Schools: Studies in Education,9(2), 160-175. doi:10.1086/667913