RAY SUAREZ: The book is "The Working Poor: Invisible in America." The author is the Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist and writer David Shipler.
He's focused on the daily lives of individual working Americans and their families, a followed them for years to illustrate the interlocking problems that beset them-- problems that make it so hard to climb out of poverty. And welcome.
DAVID SHIPLER: Thank you.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, you and I could walk to a campus book store not far from here and find shelves groaning with books on poverty in America. What did you want to do with this one that was different?
DAVID SHIPLER: I wanted to get inside people's personal lives as well as I could, so that I could see from their perspective the forces that were leaving them in a position where they were working and yet were poor or near poverty. So I spent a lot of time with people and let them talk. And a lot of these folks revealed a tremendous amount about themselves and about their backgrounds. And I watched them go through trials.
I saw a guy who washes cars, but doesn't own one; a woman who's an assistant teacher, but doesn't have the money to send her own children to the daycare center where she works; another woman who was working in the back room of a bank filing canceled checks, but had $2.02 in her own account; migrant workers in North Carolina who harvest the sweet potatoes in time for Thanksgiving and the Christmas trees in time for Christmas; garment workers in L.A... and people that all of us encounter personally also every day, in Wal-mart, in Burger King and so forth.
RAY SUAREZ: They were people who, as you kept reminding us, work hard, work a lot, and never seem to get ahead. Why?
DAVID SHIPLER: Well, they're paid very low wages. They work long hours if they can get the long hours. Not all of them are able to find work that will get them the 40 hours or more a week. They have expenses because a lot of them support families. Half the poor families in America are headed by single women, so there right there you have an economic problem, because if you have one wage earner at seven or eight dollars an hour, you're not making enough to support you very well and lift you above the poverty line. And the other thing is that these folks, a lot of them were struggling hard to get above the poverty line, and the federal poverty line is pretty low, it's artificially low.
RAY SUAREZ: Remind us what it is.
DAVID SHIPLER: Well, for a family with three children and one adult, it's $18,725 a year. And what these folks are finding, and many of them have come off welfare and they're working, is that crossing the poverty line is not like showing a passport and crossing a border. It's like going across a very long mine field, and if you make a misstep, you're dead. And that happens to a lot of folks. They make some mistakes and they've had it.
RAY SUAREZ: Quietly and without a lot of fanfare, I should say, you slip in two notions that are pretty challenging to the conventional economic wisdom of America: One, that this kind of low-wage work makes life comfortable, easy, and affordable for middle class and upper middle class Americans and that a lot of this work comes in the form of a subsidy to employers because people make up the gaps in their paycheck by depending on various forms of government support.
DAVID SHIPLER: That's right. There are, of course... folks who are in this position make the living standards for the more affluent Americans rather high. We can afford a lot of things that we could probably not afford if people were paid a living wage, a much higher wage. In addition, as you point out, there are government programs that in effect subsidize the low wages.
One of them is the Earned Income Tax Credit. It's a very good program actually. It's more than a credit. That's a misnomer. It actually can provide... it's almost like a negative income tax, not quite, but it can provide funds for people when they file their tax returns. This time of year people are pretty much done filing their tax returns when they're low- income workers. If you go to a poor neighborhood, you'll hear people talk about "when I get my taxes." I mean taxes aren't... you know, doesn't mean a check they write; it means money they receive. "When I get my taxes, I'm going to catch up on my bills. I'm going to, you know, buy a new car. I'm going to buy some furniture." It's a couple of thousand bucks maybe around tax time.
RAY SUAREZ: The overall impression of this book, as you walk us through exactly what the working poor are up against, is not a very encouraging one except for the optimism and the endurance of the people that you profile. I mean, you find yourself thinking, "God, I would be crushed by this."
DAVID SHIPLER: I was quite struck by the power of the persistence of many people I met who had been in stagnant jobs for a long time or they had moved from one job to another, but they never seemed to give up. Caroline Paine, up in New Hampshire, had gotten.. gone to the trouble of getting herself a college degree, a two-year degree and she'd gone into debt to do it.
She's never been able to get a job that makes use of that degree. She's always been stuck in jobs of ten dollars an hour or less, and mostly less. She had a problem with her teeth because she didn't have enough money to go to the dentist, and this is a chronic problem among many poor working families. She lost her teeth. She had to get them all pulled out to get Medicaid to pay for a set of dentures. The dentures didn't fit. She couldn't wear them. And I always had the sense, I'm sure no employer would admit this directly, but that without that thousand-watt smile that Americans prize so dearly, she was not allowed to work in ongoing contact with the public. So she never got the kind of job that would allow her to move up.
RAY SUAREZ: Unlike the sort of hit-and-run experience that a lot of people have with reporters who come to cover a part of their lives, you stayed in contact with many of these people for years and repeatedly visited them. How did you sort of land from your privileged, better-off world and inhabit this other world without it being voyeuristic?
DAVID SHIPLER: Well, it's an interesting question. I keep thinking actually about what my mother once said to me-- that she'd raised me to be comfortable in an embassy -- in a hut. And I think she succeeded in a way. I spend time listening to people, and people's favorite subject is themselves, as all reporters know. So I just ask them about themselves.
Some people were very open and very warm and very receptive to my pestering them all the time again and again and again. I think for some, and they didn't say this, but my guess is just from reading them, it was kind of an unusual experience to have some stranger come into their homes and sit at their kitchen tables and ask them about themselves. These are families that are really taxed heavily with all kinds of problems, which is one thing that I think we have to recognize when we look at poverty. There are personal and family problems that go along with the societal problems that contribute to these issues. And these were folks who didn't have a lot of extra time or energy to be reflective or introspective, so to have this occasional stranger come in and sit with them was an unusual experience for them, I think, and one that was not always a bad one.
I had remarkable conversations, especially with women, when I would ask them, "Tell me about your childhood," and so many of them would say to me that they were sexually abused at home-- by fathers, stepfathers, mothers' boyfriends, older siblings in foster families. And I was wondering why women were willing to say this to a stranger. I mean, there were times when this happened in the first interview. One woman I talked to I met 30 minutes before, and she said, "I was sexually abused by my father and my husband doesn't know it." Somehow that was so important in identifying her problems and defining who she was that she had to put it there in the center of the conversation.
RAY SUAREZ: The book is "The Working Poor, Invisible in America." David Shipler, thank you.
DAVID SHIPLER: Thank you.