For the past few months, we’ve shared stories of the “working poor” -- people with jobs yet only scrape by paycheck to paycheck. These included a single mom working in fast food, an ex-felon with two jobs, a 30-something college graduate living in her parent’s basement, and a senior citizen with no ready shot at retirement. The series was produced by ideastream’s Brian Bull, and was informed in part by a 2004 book titled, “The Working Poor: Invisible in America.” In our final installment of the series, Bull talks to the book's author, David K. Shipler, and asks what role the Great recession played in swelling the ranks of today's working poor.
Shipler: “Well the recession, the huge recession that we’ve had and we’re just climbing out of, of course expanded the ranks of the working poor. And lots of people who were comfortably in the middle class -- or felt they were -- fell into poverty or near poverty by losing their jobs, often in professional areas that they couldn’t find work in again. So they were experiencing some of the same fears and anxieties and traumas you could say, that the poor have experienced.
“There’s no question that there’s been a real downturn, and you can see it in the statistics. The percentage of people below the poverty line for the last two years has been about 15 percent and that’s quite high.”
Bull: And while many of us can afford things like sick days and vacations, maybe even being laid off for a spell, the existence of the working poor seems so much more precarious that an illness, a late bill, a car breakdown…any of those can render disaster for them.
Shipler: “Well, people who have low incomes don’t have a cushion, generally. Every dime that comes in goes out. So when they make a mistake, a bit of bad judgment about how to spend money, and that sort of thing, it has a much more devastating effect. Or even problems that are not in their control, for example, a car breaking down can really start a chain reaction that could lead to serious consequences. You know, if our car breaks down, we’ve another car, we’ve a second car that she can use. Or we can afford to rent a car for a few days if necessary, and we can also afford to have the car fixed. Whereas if you were poor, or even near poverty, you would find that a potentially devastating event.”
Bull: It seems that among some politicians, and parts of society too, that there is almost a judgment against the poor, even sort of a backlash to the point where programs that support the poor are cut, or heavily criticized. Is there perhaps a sense that such people need to be punished, that they’re perceived as lazy, inept, or dishonest?
Shipler: “I’ve seen a resentment of the larger society toward the poor, and it’s a feature of the United States that may be unique in the world. I haven’t studied this in other places, but because of the American dream - or the American myth - which says that everyone who works hard can prosper, and because work is considered a moral virtue in the United States, there’s another side to that American myth, another side to the coin which says, ‘Well, if you don’t prosper, then you must not be working hard.’
“And therefore you must be somehow lacking morality and willing to benefit from the larger society without doing your share.
“I remember asking a woman in Cleveland, who was getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning to go to work on a bakery assembly line, how it was that she found herself in poverty.
“And her answer was one word: ‘Lazy,’ she said. ‘I’m lazy.’
“I said, “What do you mean, you’re `lazy’? You work harder than I do. You get up at 3 or 4 in the morning to go do a mind-numbing job, for hours and hours, with few breaks. How can that be lazy?’
“Well, she didn’t quite have an answer to that, but I think what had happened to her, was she had been told…by politicians, by the larger society, maybe even by her own family, that it was all her fault that she was lazy.”
Bull: David Shipler, thank you very much for your time. I enjoyed talking with you.
Shipler: “Well, thanks very much for your interest.”