Saturday, January 20, 2007


Down and out in America.

David K. Shipler, The Working Poor: Invisible In America (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).

Being poor is a lot of work, so even the people who David Shipler met while he wrote this book who aren’t working are still working hard. Shipler used to be a reporter for The New York Times, and it would appear that he left so that he could devote himself to deeper, more sustained reportage that can appear in even a good newspaper. For this book, Shipler spent serious time on the ground with people whose stories don’t often make it into the Times, and he often got them to open up to him.

Some of the early chapters are the best. Shipler captures the way that the lack of access to transportation, health care, social capital, and other resources all feed on each other, and he does it by telling individuals’ stories. There’s plenty of humanity, but no pity. The chapter on immigrants is strong. Some of the later chapters fall a little flat, since Shipler can’t always find people to open up to him. This is true with his chapters on education, where he has a hard time getting beyond the classroom, and on substance abuse, where he tells the stories of some who have been down and have made it back up, stories that sometimes sound just a little too affirming and heart-warming.

The book closes with an attempt to identify policy solutions to the conditions of the poor. While the impulse to translate recognition into action is entirely understandable, Shipler’s discussion of policy is short, abstract, and out of touch with how things actually work – the polar opposite of the rest of the book.

Here’s one excerpt from The Working Poor, and here’s another that prompted me to find out more about Reach Out and Read on the internet and give them money.

He's actually a friend (or at least acquaintance) of my parents. He was the NYT correspondent in Moscow when we were living there in the 70s.

Have you read "The Arab and The Jew"? (Or something like that.) I recommend.
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