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This review is from: The Working Poor: Invisible in America (Hardcover)
Edit of 20 Dec 07 to state that this is a book of lasting value that must be kept in print, and to add links.
This book complements Barbara Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America Ehrenreich's is much easier to read and makes the same broader points. Where this book excels is in the details that in turn lead to policy solutions. I will go so far as to say that if John Kerry and John Edwards do not get hold of an executive summary of this book, and integrate its findings into their campaign as a means of mobilizing the working poor in the forthcoming election, then they will have failed to both excite and serve what the author, David Shipler, calls the "invisible."
Invisible indeed. How America treats its working poor--people working *very* hard and being kept in conditions that border on genocidal labor camps, is our greatest shame.
The most important point made in this book, a point made over and over in relation to a wide variety of "case studies", is that one cannot break out of poverty unless the **entire** system works flawlessly. To hard work one must add public transportation, safe public housing, adequate schooling and child care, effective parenting, effective job training, fundamental budgeting and arithmetic skills, and honest banks, credit card companies and tax preparation brokers, as well as sympathetic or at least observant employers. The author is coherent and compelling in making the point that a break or flaw in any one of these key links in the chain can break a family.
I am personally appalled at the manner in which H&R Block, to name the largest within an industry, and Western Union, to name another, are ripping off the working poor with a wide variety of "surcharges" such that they end up paying 25% of their tax return or their funds transfer back to Mexico. This is both usury and treason if you want to look at it in the largest sense. They are sabotaging the American economy in a time of war.
It surprised me to learn that while hospitals are forced to treat the poor in an emergency, they are also allowed to bill them, and these bills, for an ambulance ride or emergency treatment, often are the straw that breaks a family into destitution. This is outrageous and should not be permitted. Then the author tells us that it costs as much as $900 for a working poor family to declare bankruptcy and obtain the protection of the law from creditors, many of whom are cheats in the larger sense of the world. How can this be?!?!
It did not surprise me, but continues to distress me, to learn that the laws are not enforced. Although laws exist about minimum wage, humane working conditions (and humane living conditions for migrant workers), they are not enforced. The working poor are treated as less than slaves, for they are "used up and thrown out" with no defense against unfair firing. They are forced to work "off the books", to do piece rate work at below minimum wage, this list goes on. In essence, our politicians have passed laws that make us feel good, and then failed to enforce them so as to achieve the desired effects.
The author documents both the jobs leaving the US, and the fact that new jobs pay less. As Paul O'Neil, former Secretary of the Treasury has noted, we have two economies in America: one embraces automation (and kills jobs), the other requires expert labor (not the working poor). We have a double-whammy here that is totally against the lower half of the economic spectrum, and it is being aggravated by an incoherent immigration policy that feeds the beast.
On page 139 the author just blew me away with documentation to the effect that 37 percent of American adults cannot figure a 10% discount on a price, even with a calculator, nor can this same percentage read a bus schedule or write a letter about a credit card error. He goes on, citing the National Adult Literacy Survey from the Department of Education, to note that 14% of adult Americans cannot total a deposit slip, locate an intersection on a map, understand an appliance warranty, or determine the correct dosage of a medicine. I had no idea!!! This reality comprises a "sucking chest wound" in the economic body of America, and it is not a chest wound that can be healed as things now stand.
There are many other daunting "facts of life" in this book about the working poor, and they all add up to a complete failure of both the national and state leaderships to be serious about long-term sustainable economic prosperity.
The author concludes with some suggestions for reform, and here I wish he had actually gone to the trouble of creating a one-page policy paper summing it all up. His most obvious suggestion is wage reform, not just at the bottom, but also at the top. As I read and hear about executives making $5 million to $80 million a year, the norm seeming to be around $20 million, I have to ask myself, have we gone nuts? Are stockholders so stupid as to overlook the fact that capping executive compensation at 100X the pay of the lowest employee ($20,000 low end, $2,000,000 high end) would do *huge* good at the bottom and in the lower middle ranks? The extreme wealthy in America are playing a short-term game that must be brought to an abrupt halt because it is killing the people, the seed corn of the future.
The Earned Income Tax Credit *works* but most of the working poor are afraid to file income tax returns.
The author ends, quite correctly, by pointing out that the ideological debate, removed from the facts, will not alleviate nor eliminate the suffering of the working poor. Right on. It's time for the facts, for a public debate about the facts, and for public policy (and enforcement) based on the facts. This author, already a Pulitzer Prize winner, has rendered a great national service.
See also, with reviews:
Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor
War on the Middle Class: How the Government, Big Business, and Special Interest Groups Are Waging War onthe American Dream and How to Fight Back
The Global Class War: How America's Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future - and What It Will Take to Win It Back
The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism: How the Financial System Underminded Social Ideals, Damaged Trust in the Markets, Robbed Investors of Trillions - and What to Do About It
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Showing 1-10 of 10 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 7, 2007 8:04:26 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Mar 8, 2007 5:26:26 PM PST
Jeana Malcolm says:
Why do you say that "most of the working poor are afraid to file income tax returns?" The reality is quite to the contrary, and I find the generalization offensive. Most poor people, myself included, can't *wait* to file tax returns because we almost always get something back, oftentimes a substantial something. Shipler even makes mention of that in the book, when he states, "Tax time in poor neighborhoods is not in April. It is January. And 'income tax' isn't what you pay; it's what you receive." Don't assume because of a few literacy statistics that most poor people are too incompetent to do simple math or to let a computer program or an agent to do it for them, because it's absolutely not true.
And by the way, in reality, the Earned Income Tax Credit does NOT work except under very limited conditions, which work quite a bit more in your favor if you have children. If you're responsible enough not to, and especially if you're married, you don't have a chance. Just thought you should know that, because a lot of people (including the author) are under the misconception that all working poor people are entitled to it, when in fact they are not.
Posted on Apr 6, 2009 4:49:48 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 6, 2009 4:55:36 PM PDT
"It did not surprise me, but continues to distress me, to learn that the laws are not enforced. Although laws exist about minimum wage, humane working conditions (and humane living conditions for migrant workers), they are not enforced. The working poor are treated as less than slaves, for they are "used up and thrown out" with no defense against unfair firing. They are forced to work "off the books", to do piece rate work at below minimum wage, this list goes on. In essence, our politicians have passed laws that make us feel good, and then failed to enforce them so as to achieve the desired effects."
Are these migrant workers legally documented? If not, they must accept what they can get until they have legal resident status. Saying illegal workers are treated unfairly is the polar opposite of the folks who argue that all illegal residents should be rounded up and ousted from the country. These are extreme arguments driven by sheer unadulterated pathos. If you kick them out who's going to scrub your toilets or pour your coffee? These are occupations the average American has been conditioned to believe are beneath them and so they ironically and hypocritically condemn anyone whom they perceive as threatening to their standard of living, not having the foresight to realize it is precisely these migrants whom are facilitating those standards. They remain conveniently blind to the fact that anyone born in the US was born there because they come from someone who immigrated to the country. If it wasn't for immigration there wouldn't be a US for them to be so adamantly possessive of.
Conversely, to say that these immigrants who come here to work under the table are being treated unfairly is pure rubbish. If it was so horrible, they certainly wouldn't have pulled up stakes and traveled thousands of miles to subject themselves to such shabby treatment. Immigrants should always be welcomed in the US. They are and have been the backbone of the country since it's inception. There are however rules and laws that apply for anyone who wishes to be a productive and contributing member of American society. If they choose not to follow those rules then they will have to accept what they can get or go back home. The ones who do wish to follow the guidelines will have to tough it out until they can obtain their legal status. They will be treated fairly once they have conformed to the guidelines and pay their fair share of the taxes. And don't tell me about how tough it is to be a part of the manual labor force in America. I've been doing it all of my life. If you are honest and hardworking then there are ample opportunities to live a comfortable life provided a person is not inclined to measure their happiness by number of material possessions acquired or rate of return on their stock portfolios.
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 12, 2010 3:25:50 PM PDT
I've worked along side of undocumented workers who are scared, who have been in virtual slave labor conditions, where their wages are garnished for "company" beds and services, who live under constant fear of being deported, etc. It's dismal. "pure rubbish" is exactly how they are being treated. Yet ranchers, growers, packers, and produce companies get wealthy off their labor. It's simply unjust.
Why do they come? Because they can't find work at home, because they make more money than they could at home, because they are willing to escape political death squads and even worse conditions than they face here. But note: many don't stay, but return. Just as millions did during the early years of the 20th century!
Most of the systematic, careful studies of undocumented workers (which others call "illegal immigrants") show that they, net, contribute more in taxes and productivity than they take in services.
Lots of people are honest and hard working but still cannot make ends meet... and end up being working poor, struggling to make ends meet.
Nevertheless, I agree with you that quality of life should not be measured by "material possessions acquired or rate of return on their stock portfolios". I also believe that if humane wages were paid for many of these low-end jobs that far more folks in the U.S. would be willing to do them.
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 13, 2010 6:46:00 AM PDT
Great to be brought back to this book and to your comments. Would love to see a solid study on the "net" contribution of illegal immigrants that are gainfully employed (as opposed to unemployed and/or members of gangs we spawned such as the Maras). See DVD A Day Without a Mexican. Bottom line is that the US Government is corrupt, and the business community as well as the individuals (e.g. nannygate) that exploit these people is hypocritical--they are externalizing costs to the public. My latest book focused on empowering the poor to create infinite wealth (INTELLIGENCE for EARTH: Clarity, Diversity, Integrity, & Sustainaabilty) and points to books such as The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, Revised and Updated 5th Anniversary Edition: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits and Infinite Wealth: A New World of Collaboration and Abundance in the Knowledge Era to support my point: the human brain is the only inexhaustible resource we have, and it is downright foolish to exploit immigrants for the backs while failing to leverage their brains. The literature on True Cost and the literature on Bio-Mimicry are also emergent, we are in a race between the stupid rich and the brilliant poor. [stupid in a humanistic sense of course, just like most HR departments that pride themselves on hiring people at the lowest possible cost rather than hiring the very best people at 10% above market to get 30% added return--as Geneen used to do in the great days of AT&T).
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 13, 2010 6:47:32 AM PDT
Sorry to see in passing two people voted against your comment for the wrong reasons. Glad to read your thoughts that are relevant and correct. "The truth at any cost reduces all other costs." See the other truth quotes at Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog. Peace--and Prosperity--in our time.
Posted on Oct 22, 2011 6:52:30 PM PDT
If you are born into a working class family sometimes it is very difficult to get out. My screen name isn't
BELOWZERO for nothing. Some do make it in a spectacular way. Talent. Looks. A lucky break.
It is a major fallacy to think it is easy to succeed in America. Even if you do manage to struggle up a level those above you resent it. They KNOW you are low...
America has a caste system.
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 22, 2011 6:59:08 PM PDT
OccupyWallStreet does, I think, honor the 45 million that do not work at all, the 22% unemployed, the 16% under the poverty line. I certainly hope it develops well--Since 1980 the 1% have been looting the world starting with the USA.
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 23, 2011 6:12:41 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 23, 2011 8:51:00 AM PDT
When push comes to shove the great majority WILL be shoved. The rich and powerful are rich and powerful for a reason.
Working people are only good for one thing: Creating Wealth.
In the past this contrast has resulted in violence. Indeed there is a "slow Motion"
violence taking place every day. The victims are working people and in a lot of different ways. The 1% have been looting the world for much longer than 30 years! Millennia is more like it. It's a situation as old as the shift from hunter-gatherer to settled agriculture. A wholesale exploitation of producers. A sub class of schemers preying on, well, workers. 10,000 years later we have Goldman-Sachs and Wall Street.
What is more, we can struggle and fight all we want but NONE of us, rich or poor, will take so much as belly button lint with us when we die!
One can argue that it would be nice to have something in this life. Yes it would. Are we willing to make the sacrifice?
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 23, 2011 7:16:35 AM PDT
Native Americans wish you would ALL leave! Since that isn't likely it's better to strike a balance in society. Our society is obviously lop sided.
There's the problem. Solutions anyone?
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 23, 2011 2:59:14 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 23, 2011 3:00:33 PM PDT
My books are all free online. I subtitled the last one Clarity, Diversity, Integrity, & Sustainability. The bad news is that we are coming off 100 years of industrial triumphs based on subversion of everything else. The good news is that the five billion poor can create infinite wealth if given free access to the Internet. OpenBTS is coming along, the price point being sought is $2 a month.
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