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Feb 16, 2004 10:39:33 PM Archived Entry: "Working, working poor, poverty in America"How did I escape the trailer park? It's a question that's haunted me. Admittedly, I never saw myself as poor: spending my teens as a black dressed art mope kept me from feeling like income was in any way inhibiting my ability to fit in with my peers (I never had known what the "right" clothes were to wear anyway). Fortunately I didn't have any medical emergencies to rub my existence near the bottom of the economic ladder in my face - and I was too odd to even get in a situation that might have resulted in a teen pregnancy (I probably kissed about six guys total in all of my high school years - so sad!).
February 15, 2004
'The Working Poor': Can't Win for Losing
By RON SUSKIND
THE WORKING POOR
Invisible in America.
By David K. Shipler.
319 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $25.
he phrase ''working poor'' doesn't carry much weight in this fractious political season. It slips by in a campaign speech, with nothing much to grab onto as it passes. It suffers from a kind of blunt-edged simplicity -- a collision of enormous, rounded terms that, by the lights of American exceptionalism, should not be joined. Both political parties quietly agree that it is an ugly, unsettling combination -- that any American who works steadily should not have to suffer the barbed indignities of poverty. But Americans do -- millions of them. There are 35 million people in the country living in poverty. Most of the adults in that group work nowadays; many of them work full time. And while there are heavy concentrations of African-Americans and white single women in the mix, the group is every bit as diverse, and diffuse, as the nation is.
Which presents a central problem for David Shipler in his powerful new book, ''The Working Poor: Invisible in America'': how do you write a treatise on something as vast and many-hued as an ocean, a forest, the sky? Shipler knows this and, somehow, proceeds undaunted. A former New York Times reporter, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his book ''Arab and Jew,'' and then managed to wrap his arms around the classically obstreperous topic of race in America with ''A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America.'' This is what he's become known for: tackling the unwieldy.
Of course, Shipler has plenty of company in writing about fault-line issues of the American experiment, like race, class and the nature of opportunity. But it is an area populated in the past decade or two by writers -- like Alex Kotlowitz in ''There Are No Children Here'' or, more recently, Barbara Ehrenreich, who chronicled her personal journey as a low-wage worker in ''Nickel and Dimed'' -- who incline toward the power of personal narrative. In the first few chapters of ''The Working Poor,'' Shipler shows, inadvertently, why so many journalists have made that choice. He lunges forward at the book's start with some sweeping judgments, like ''the rising and falling fortunes of the nation's economy have not had much impact on these folks'' and ''the skills for surviving in poverty have largely been lost in America'' -- both debatable issues -- and introduces a racially diverse, thinly connected army of poor workers, some appearing for just a paragraph or two. Parts of an early chapter titled ''Importing the Third World'' read like a dissertation on sweatshop cash flows.
I suggest that readers -- and this is clearly one of those seminal books that every American should read and read now -- stick with it. Shipler, like the man who pays to wrestle a behemoth at the county fair, is just trying to get leverage on an indomitable opponent. By the fourth chapter, just a third of the way, his strategy takes shape: he's wearing down the giant. Shipler's subjects, many of whom he spent nearly seven years following with meticulous empathy, begin to reappear in the text. Their stories start to deepen, mixed with complex insights that Shipler interweaves judiciously. In the chapter ''Harvest of Shame,'' he deftly shows how government crackdown on illegal immigrants creates ''migration within the migration,'' as an army of immigrant workers races from strict-enforcement states like Ohio to more lenient ones like North Carolina, and notes that ''when a migrant stops moving . . . he starts to enter America.'' There are employers like Jimmy Burch -- a North Carolina farm owner -- who co-signs loans for new trailers for his workers. He has an interest. His workers do, too. He says he's ''never been burned'' with a default -- not yet. Shipler never shies away from noting the employer's power, but by embracing complexity, and trusting the reader to be up to the task, he burns off the easy illusions of hero versus villain that so often addle journalism.
Doing that frees the writer to ask a set of questions off limits to many practitioners of what is called ''poverty literature.'' Kevin Fields, a beefy 280-pound African-American man, with a shaved head, gold earring and a felony conviction for effectively fighting off a street gang, is virtually unemployable. Men with a similar arrest record, but different profiles, have less difficulty. ''Violence,'' Shipler points out, ''has a longstanding place in many whites' images of blacks. So, if you are black, if you are a man, if you are large and strong, or if you have a prison record, you are likely to be perceived as a person with a temper, a vein of rage.''
Half of all poor families are headed by single women, and, in a chapter titled ''Sins of the Fathers,'' Shipler doesn't flinch from delving into how many struggling women were sexually abused as children. The evolving estimates show the outlines of an epidemic. Kara King, a white New Hampshire mother, was molested by her father, who told her ''that's the way a father and a daughter are.'' The effects -- ''a paralyzing powerlessness'' that ''mixes corrosively with other adversities that deprive those in or near poverty of the ability to effect change'' -- are visible each time Kara and her family appear in the book.
The same goes for other subjects whose jumbled lives serve to illuminate various elements of this enormous topic. The reader learns the issues; knows the aching heart. What takes shape is an ensemble play that weaves together traditional feature reporting, digressions about ''best evidence'' and a few passionate expository arias to display ''the constellation of difficulties,'' as Shipler puts it, that defines working poverty. It defines the lives of millions of Americans.
Toward the book's finish, Shipler tries to harness the outrage provoked by his characters' stories to examine the question of what can be done. He shifts his focus to programs for job training, early childhood care and remedial education (that alone meriting a domestic Marshall Plan, considering that 14 percent of American adults can't find an intersection on a map, total a deposit slip or determine the correct dose of a medication). The author's efforts, here, are uneven. Programmatic solutions, after all, are the hard, ungainly work of hours and inches. Shipler's frustration seems to get the best of him when he is talking about unenthusiastic students, bad teaching and the way dreams of future success are little more than ''a notion carried on a breeze of impulse.''
But alongside these broad, imperfect efforts, Shipler threads a glowing filament: the telling acts of kindness, so often just small offerings, that lift both giver and receiver. It's the little traps and trips that foil those at the bottom. When you have no bank account, no car, no health insurance, it inverts the slogan of that best-selling self-help book: You have to sweat the small stuff. A modest mishap to someone who can land on a cushion of nominal security can land a poor person on the pavement, often literally. Caroline Payne, with a two-year associate's degree and no teeth, can't afford dentures. No one wants to hire her. When she finally gets a job in a Procter & Gamble factory, all is almost lost when the plant's rotating shift policy leaves her unable to care for her daughter one week every month. A friend steps up; her job is saved. In the book's last section, Kara King is fighting cancer. Her husband, Tom, has no car to the drive the two hours to a Boston hospital for visits. It's crushing to read. When a local car dealer gives him a loaner it feels like the healing of the world. The working poor -- that enormous cohort -- are easily outnumbered by America's broad middle class. Most experts agree: lifting a poor worker to the uplands of self-sufficiency takes a concerted, many-pronged effort. In that mix, invariably, must be someone willing to lend a hand, to make even a little sacrifice.
Shipler's underlying mission, no doubt, is identical to that of the narrative stylists who toil among America's underclass: to press readers beyond appraising poverty's causes and effects, so often inventoried for swift, harsh judgment, to the deeper understanding that the working poor are really us. ''I hope this book,'' Shipler writes, ''will help them to be seen.'' In short, he wants to give readers something to hold onto.
Then, the questions tend to be about the ''hows'' -- how we, as a country, might now act. Readers, by the last page, can scarcely avoid that question, or the larger algorithm that Shipler offers: ''To appraise a society, examine its ability to be self-correcting. When grievous wrongs are done or endemic suffering exposed, when injustice is discovered or opportunity denied, watch the institutions of government and business and charity. Their response is an index of a nation's health and of a people's strength.''
Ron Suskind's latest book is ''The Price of Loyalty.'' He is the author of ''A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey From the Inner City to the Ivy League.''
February 14, 2004
What Runs in the Family Isn't Success
By EMILY EAKIN
tart with Hollywood - say, the producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen or Peter and Bobby Farrelly, or the actors Ben and Casey Affleck. Move on to the gossip columns, where Paris and Nicky Hilton and Janet and Michael Jackson are recurring fixations. And then consider politics, a field whose most prominent names include George W. and Jeb Bush; John, Robert and Edward Kennedy; and Jerry and Kathleen Brown.
America, a quick survey of some of its most famous citizens suggests, is awash in successful siblings. Most people would hardly find that surprising. Success, it is commonly assumed, runs in families. Fairly or not, power, wealth and fame tend to accrue to members of the same clan, who have a natural interest in keeping their social and material advantages within the bloodline.
But just as celebrities and the superrich turn out to be exceptions to most social rules, says Dalton Conley, a sociologist and director of the Center for Advanced Social Science Research at New York University, they are in stark violation of the norm regarding sibling success. In his new book, "The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why," to be published next month by Pantheon, Mr. Conley turns conventional wisdom on its head, arguing that pronounced economic disparities lie not just between families but within them.
His astonishing assertion: differences between families explain only 25 percent of the nation's income inequality; the remaining 75 percent is explained by differences between siblings. More typical of the United States than President Bush and his brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, he suggests, are the White House's previous tenant, Bill Clinton, and his half-brother, Roger, a college dropout, onetime cocaine dealer and failed musician. Or, for that matter, Jimmy Carter and his ne'er-do-well brother, Billy.
"There's this enormous issue of sibling inequality that we sweep under the rug because we want to see the family as a haven in a harsh world, operating outside the dog-eat-dog world of American capitalism," Mr. Conley said over breakfast at a cafe in the West Village, not far from his apartment. "But you can't think of the family in isolation from larger social forces."
His statistics are startling, but he backs them up with a detailed (and occasionally opaque) analysis of three national data sets, including the 1990 United States Census, and 175 interviews with 75 families from around the country. And colleagues who have read his book - or heard him present his findings - are impressed.
"Before he started on this project, I was quite skeptical," said Michael Hout, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in social inequality. But he ended up giving the book a favorable review, which will appear in the spring issue of Contexts, a sociology journal.
"What's really innovative and interesting" about Mr. Conley's work, said Judith Stacey, a sociologist at New York University, "is his focus on the family as a source of inequality rather than a respite from it. What he is trying to show is the way in which larger forms of social inequality operate through families and wind up being reproduced."
Just 34, Mr. Conley has acquired a reputation in his field as an original thinker with a knack for poking holes in disciplinary doctrine. His first book, "Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America" (University of California Press, 1999), based on his prize-winning Ph.D. dissertation, proposed a novel approach to a much-debated conundrum: how to explain lagging black achievement rates in education and employment despite declines in overt discrimination and increasing income equality with whites?
The problem, he argued, was that social scientists were using the wrong data. When researchers compared blacks and whites at the same income level, they found gaps in black achievement. Mr. Conley showed that when data on accumulated net worth were used instead, the achievement gaps disappeared. The obstacle to racial equality, he argued, wasn't just racism but wealth: the typical white family has eight times the assets of the typical black family.
Mr. Conley cites his own family as a case in point. Shy, earnest and boyishly slight, with an endearingly lopsided grin, he grew up on food stamps on Manhattan's Lower East Side, one of the few white kids in a predominantly Latino and black housing project. While many of his peers dropped out of school and ended up in jail, Mr. Conley, the son of bohemian parents who were born middle class, attended some of the best local public schools and went on to a prestigious college and graduate school. His unusual childhood was the subject of his second book, "Honky" (University of California Press, 2000), which he calls "a sociological memoir."
"I'm the exception that proves the rule about race and class," he said.
Now, with his new book on siblings, Mr. Conley is once again challenging some of his field's basic assumptions about inequality. Typical studies of the issue have relied on comparisons of entire households and social groups rather than individual family members. After all, researchers have reasoned, families share genes, resources and a common living environment; how important can sibling differences be, compared with larger social obstacles to economic success like education, race and class?
On the rare occasions when sociologists have looked inside the family, they have tended to chalk up the disparities they have found there to luck - as Christopher Jencks and his colleagues did in the 1972 book "Inequality" - or to measurement error.
For the most part, however, sibling differences have been relegated to the realm of personality and left to psychologists, who have made some intriguing findings. For example, several studies have found that considerable personality differences between siblings remain after traits with clear genetic bases are accounted for, leading some scholars to conclude that siblings are little more alike than people from different families.
This research has prompted a flurry of debate and speculation, including a cottage industry of books and articles trumpeting birth order as the secret to sibling difference. Dating to the 19th-century British eugenicist Sir Francis Galton, who in an 1874 study of leading English scientists noted that a surprising number of them were firstborns, the idea that sibling rank shapes adult personality attained the status of folk wisdom in the late 1990's after Frank J. Sulloway, a historian of science, published the controversial best seller "Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives" (Pantheon, 1996). Thick with anecdotes, case studies and statistics, the book purported to show the Darwinian logic by which firstborns grow up to be rule-abiding conformists and political leaders, while later-borns become rebellious innovators and revolutionaries.
Birth order research continues to proliferate today, championed as a tool that might help parents predict everything from what position their second-born will play on the football team to the likelihood that he or she will embrace religion or suffer from asthma. More sobering, a number of studies have found a link between birth order, family size and I.Q., suggesting that with each additional sibling there is a corresponding drop in intelligence.
But many of these claims are vigorously disputed. In a recent article in the journal American Psychologist, for example, Joseph Lee Rodgers, a psychologist at the University of Oklahoma, and three colleagues argued that the birth order-I.Q. research was flawed because it was based on comparisons of siblings from different families. When siblings from the same family are compared, the scholars wrote, the correlation disappears. Large families do not produce less intelligent children, Mr. Rodgers and his colleagues concluded. Rather, parents with lower I.Q.'s have tended to have larger families.
Mr. Conley is deeply skeptical of birth order theory, calling it "next after astrological signs as people's favorite folk explanation for why things turn out." But more generally, he argues that personality differences are inadequate to explain disparities in sibling success. "The link between personality and social and economic outcomes is relatively weak in a complex society such as ours," he said. "Take football coaches. You can be reserved and authoritarian like Tom Landry or gregarious like Bill Parcells. Both are successful."
Success, as Mr. Conley defines it, depends on several standard sociological measures: educational attainment, occupational prestige, income and net worth. Because earnings for American workers typically peak between age 45 and 50, he geared his interviews and analysis to siblings in mid-career. And while his conclusions - that everything from parental job loss or divorce to race and family size can affect siblings differently - don't lend themselves to catchy headlines, they arguably provide a more nuanced portrait of internal family dynamics than all-purpose explanations like birth order.
Some of his more provocative findings concern middle-borns. In families with three or more children, Mr. Conley says, middle offspring are less likely to receive financial support for their education and may do less well in school than their older and younger siblings. The chances that a second child will attend private school drop by 25 percent with the birth of a third, Mr. Conley found, and the likelihood that he or she will be held back a year increased severalfold. Unlike typical first- and last-borns, he reasons, middle children never experience family life as an only child; instead, they are forced to compete with their siblings for money and attention. (In this sense, he concedes, birth order does matter: not as a psychological variable but as a constraint on family resources.)
Other findings seem to confirm common-sense intuitions. According to Mr. Conley's analysis, for example, women are more likely to be as successful as their brothers if their mothers worked outside the home. And, like the long-suffering George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life," the oldest child still at home at the time of a parental death or divorce is more likely than younger siblings to endure negative socioeconomic consequences as a result. Brothers and sisters may even experience race differently, he argues, since skin color can vary considerably within the same family.
In the end, the intricacy of Mr. Conley's analysis can almost seem a liability. "The Pecking Order" is so stocked with case studies and theoretical assertions that it is tempting to conclude that there may be nearly as many factors affecting sibling success as there are siblings in the world.
But Mr. Conley has a ready defense. "Anyone who's going to sell you on one variable is selling you a bottle of snake oil," he said. "Families and societies are just too complex for that."
However complicated, he added, his research has practical implications for parents. For example, thanks in part to his findings on middle-borns, he said, he was no longer considering having a third child.
"I've got one of each sex," he said. "I'm satisfied with two."
"Only weak men fear able women" - Marion Boyars