Friday, January 13, 2006

Shipler: The Working Poor

The lovely Ms. A and I first wondered the winter streets of Paris in 1994. We tried to love Picasso at his museum, lingered in front of an exquisite bridal boutique with a discrete doorbell, and popped out of the dank metro to find the Eiffel tower just where we least expected. We made a daily landmark plan based on travel books, but mostly let our stomachs and noses lead us. We even flirted with danger and found ourselves in a Cuban restaurant for food that flamed our internal organs. Our adventures were precious and precocious.

My reading life this year is just such an indulgence. A recommendation, a passing comment, a footnote or a nagging good intention jolts me into action. Within seconds I have it on hold at the Boston Public Library. Or I dash out to the Trident to sip jasmine tea and check out their stacks. In my “normal” life, there was considerable lag time between that initial burst of reader’s curiosity and then sweet indulgence. Now I can jump right in. Get me hands messy with ink. Get my head in a tizzy. Follow where I am taken. Let my stomach lead.

All of this rumination springs from reflection about just why I read David K. Shipler’s The Working Poor: Invisible in America. I exchanged emails with the always on-line Mr. I, to whom I mentioned reading "The Shame of the Nation" and hearing its author, Kozol, expound at a public lecture(see my blog entry). Soon I had Shipler as a suggested author. I placed in on hold at the library. It sat on my shelf for a month and then some. Finally, I cracked the spine.

Shipler makes the invisible working poor in America starkly visible. I was struck by the story of Caroline in the chapter “Work Doesn’t Work.” Actually, I quickly realized that Shipler must have had this chapter published elsewhere (maybe the New York Times Sunday magazine?) because I already knew her story. Yet I still re-read once again with fresh eyes.

It is not a terrible sexy read, but stick with it. As one interviewer put it: “I suggest that readers -- and this is clearly one of those seminal books that every American should read and read now -- stick with it” (emphasis added).

Shipler's work did get me thinking, once again, about how I spend my working time. Specifically as a public high school teacher, I don’t fret over how or why I work, but I do think about where I choose to teach. Which students and schools need all the attention they can get?

(page numbers from hardcover edition)

“Job trainers are discovering that people who have repeatedly failed—in school, in love, in work—cannot succeed until they learn that they are capable of success. To get out of poverty, they have to acquire dexterity with their emotions as well as their hands.” (7)

“The American ideal embraces an equality of opportunity for every person but not an equality of result.” (88)

“When a woman discloses such intimate humiliation to a stranger, she reveals its magnitude.” (143)

“One study found that ‘emotional deprivation, particularly at an early age, may predispose adolescents to seek emotional closeness through sexual activity and early parenthood.’” (145)

“Children saddled with grown-up burdens cannot succeed, and that is often their first failure, the root of inadequacy.” (155)

“The psychological techniques that help a child cope with sexual or physical abuse do not work when the child herself becomes a parent.” (161)

“. . . in a society where money is power, financial insufficiency may feel like personal inadequacy.” (168)

“When he laid out his plans, he got a clipped tone of false confidence in his voice, as if he knew that he was saying what he wished, not what would be.” (190)

“Students try to get attention because that is what they need, like food or water or oxygen.” (238)

“Will is a function of power, and the people who work near the edge of poverty don’t have very much power.” (286)

“To appraise a society, examine its ability to be self-correcting.” (298)

Related Links

York Times Audio Interview with David K. Shipler about “The Working Poor: Invisible in America”

New York Times Book Review "‘The Working Poor’: Can’t Win for Losing” by Ron Suskind

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