The Paula Gordon Show
Poor in America
Sandra Mackey

David Shipler

. . . reporter. The Working Poor:  Invisible in America joins Mr. Shipler’s Russia, Arab and Jew (Pulitzer Prize) and A Country of Strangers. Mr. Shipler worked for the “New York Times” from 1966 to 1988, reporting from New York, Saigon, Moscow and Jerusalem before serving as their chief diplomatic correspondent in Washington. D.C. He has also written for “The New Yorker,” “Washington Post,” and “Los Angeles Times,” has been guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and taught at Dartmouth College, Princeton and American University.

Excerpts3:39 secs

America’s future depends on the future of the working poor in America, according to Pulitzer Prize winning reporter David Shipler. Millions of hardworking people are poor and suffering. Who’s responsible? Everyone, he says. We all benefit from low wages that make possible unnecessarily low prices for services, goods and food.

The working poor are twice vulnerable because they are invisible, he found. But the plight of the millions who work hard for wages that condemn them to the margins of society is all too real, he reports. “Poverty” is not a problem among America’s vast number of working poor, Mr. Shipler says. Poverty is a CLUSTER of problems that all interact with one another. That’s why piecemeal programs have not and do not work.  So solutions also must be interrelated.

Examples of the complexities facing the working poor abound: Health challenges related to asthma and lead poisoning are directly related to substandard housing. (Boston Medical Center has 5 lawyers on staff who challenge code-defying landlords on behalf of sick kids.) Poor nutrition -- and stress -- directly affects kids’ brains, which affects how they perform in school, where resulting behavior problems create more problems. (Boston Medical Center has social workers to badger welfare people denying food stamps to fully qualified individuals.) Overcrowded apartments leave no place for children to do homework, even if a parent working three jobs to feed them were home to demand it. Childhood sexual abuse -- which Mr. Shipler found in epidemic proportions -- leads to a lifetime of failed relationships and inadequate parenting. (Interventions are challenging under the best of circumstances.) Grudging officials often create monumental “Catch 22”s. Predatory financial institutions reduce desperately limited incomes with exorbitantly high costs, forcing workers to sacrifice essentials to support distant families whose very lives depend on workers’ income. The list is long and the consequences dire, whether the worker descended from European immigrants who arrived on the Mayflower or arrived inside a sealed van last week, smuggled across the border from Mexico by an exploitative coyote to whom he or she is now effectively an indentured servant.

Mr. Shipler puts his hope for wide-scale remedies in America’s inventiveness, wealth, “heart” and capacity to focus and mobilize. They’re more than sufficient to make significant differences in the lives of honest, hardworking people at the edge of society, he believes.  Both skill and will are required to bring these worthy people into the mainstream, help the United States rebuild its rapidly eroding middle class.

Good ideas abound, Mr. Shipler believes, he’s seen patches of programs and projects that really do address the myriad of problems in a focused way. Where to begin? See these essential workers for who and what they are -- honest, working people who need some help. Pay a little more for that tomato or T-shirt. Fix our broken health care system. Invest in our children. Demand that politicians find common ground. And accept that government plays an essential role in the greatest of American dreams: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness...leavened with Justice.

[This Program was recorded March 4, 2004, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

David Shipler describes his role as a reporter (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize) to Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. He gives examples of just how invisible America’s working poor are.

Conversation 1 RealAudio5:40 secs

Conversation 2

On a quest to understand his country, Mr. Shipler contrasts the American myth (“the land of opportunity”) to the American anti-myth (“if you don’t prosper, it’s society’s fault”) and finds both falling short.  Solutions begin with defining problems, he says, convinced that America’s future will be directly affected by how it treats its working poor.  He expands, considering both long-time citizens and challenges for new immigrants. He faults “talk shout” hosts for discarding nuance and truth, then suggests ways politicians must stake out the common ground necessary for solving problems.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:39 secs

Conversation 3

With a series of stories of real working people’s real poverty, Mr. Shipler examines the interlocking problems created by repeated failures. He describes “soft skills” both workers and employers need to learn. When a poor family without resources suffers a reverse or a trauma, it has a cascading effect that is very hard to stop, he says, pointing by way of example to the multiple consequences of the epidemic of childhood sexual abuse.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:15 secs

Conversation 4

The interaction of housing and health offers a perspective on how individual problems exacerbate each other among the working poor, says Mr. Shipler. Poverty is not a problem -- it is a cluster of problems which all interact with one another, he reports. He tells how the Boston Medical Center employs lawyers to address a host of problems linked to illnesses. The health care system in the U.S. is broken, he observes, and needs to be fixed before it leads to a serious catastrophe.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:46 secs

Conversation 5

Confident in Americans’ inventiveness, Mr. Shipler suggests capitalizing on existing innovative programs, projects and knowledge. He highlights the importance of early intervention programs. America has the wealth, heart and capacity to focus its energies and mobilize its resources to make a difference for hardworking people at the margins of society, he believes.  Since problems are inter-related, services should be, too, Mr. Shipler insists, with stories of how this approach is already working.  He describes bureaucrats who deny working poor people the services to which they are entitled as the true welfare cheats. “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” applies to all and -- along with justice -- are the business of government, he says.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:18 secs

Conversation 6

Every single American is accountable for the plight of the working poor in the U.S., because everyone benefits from the low prices of goods and services that depend on low wages, Mr. Shipler concludes.  He illustrates with the plight of illegal immigrants who are essential to their employers, then reminds us that if we invest in children now, we will invest less in prisons later.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:33 secs


David Shipler’s urge to know his own country has served us all well.  We thank him for his continuing efforts to help America be the best it can be -- and having the courage to tell us about it when the United States fall short.

Knopf is the publisher of both The Working Poor:  Invisible in America and A Country of Strangers:  Blacks and Whites in America.

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