The Invisible Poor

by andrewcagle

I recently finished The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler. For a lover of non-fiction, and personal stories, this book was extremely enjoyable and moving for me to read. I don’t mean enjoyable in a based-on-a-true-story-triumphantly-inspirational way.  The book painted a very real portrait of America’s working poor and the world they live in. Shipler spent seven years following different families and individuals as he tackled the broad issue of poverty. Some of the people in the book came out on top, others served as a sobering testament to the difficulty in escaping the poverty cycle.

In the introduction of the book, Shipler writes:

“This is the forgotten America. At the bottom of its working world, millions live in the shadow of prosperity, in the twilight between poverty and well-being. Whether you’re rich, poor, or middle-class, you encounter them every day. They serve you Big Macs and help you find merchandise at Wal-Mart. They harvest your food, clean your offices, and sew your clothes. In a California factory, they package lights for your kid’s bikes. In a New Hampshire plant, they assemble books of wallpaper samples to help you redecorate. They are shaped by their invisible hardships.”

If there is one thing this book did for me, it served to take the blinders off.  This isn’t an invisibility of not being seen at all, it is one of not being seen when you are standing in plain view. The world of the working poor is one that for most of my life, I never saw or experienced. In reality, I saw it everyday. I just had no idea what life was like for tens of millions of working Americans. Poverty is a difficult subject to grasp and wrap our heads around. Part of that difficulty is the vastness of the issue. The other is the complexity. In looking to find answers, there are no quick or simple solutions. The first step in any case, is to develop a realistic picture and understanding of what living life under, at, or near the poverty line in America is like. Life and experience tells us that money isn’t everything, but it is something. From a pure financial perspective, Shipler poignantly defines what separates low-class America from the nation’s middle and upper classes. “An inconvenience to an affluent family-minor car trouble, a brief illness, disrupted child care-is a crisis to them [a poor family], for it can threaten their ability to stay employed.”

In America, we have been taught since childhood that hard work pays off. If you have enough determination and grit, no dream is too big or goal too lofty. The difficulty we run into is when we face reality and ask, “What if work doesn’t always work?” The values of capitalism preach that your wealth or destitution is a direct function of your work ethic and personal morality. While this holds some truth, it is surely no rule. This book about America’s working poor doesn’t hide the consequences of poor decision making, but it also shows that good people, making good decisions get caught in the cycle of poverty just as easily.

Most of America’s poor are single mothers. The single most crippling factor to a family’s well-being is having only a single wage earner. Many of these women are faced with the choice of working two jobs and being absent as a parent, or raising their children and filling the gaps that work doesn’t bridge through food stamps or housing vouchers. Beyond the Wal-Mart and food service employees, there is another sector of America that is invisible because you probably don’t see them at all. These groups are composed of Mexicans, Koreans, Cambodians, and Hondurans. Most Americans would be shocked to learn of the working and living conditions of the immigrant population that sews their clothes and picks their food. We don’t have to look beyond our borders to find the exploitation of cheap labor that produces the products we buy. Shipler writes, “Where immigrants have come seeking lives of plenty, they bring deprivation with them, creating islands of hardship amid the surging tides of prosperity. The author devotes two chapters to the subject of poverty among America’s immigrant population. I don’t have time to dive in depth, but I recommend it as an important read if you are interested in domestic human and civil rights issues in the US.

With all of the struggles related to poverty, the line between cause and effect blurs in the cycle. The question of whether more money can solve a family or individual’s problems also surrounds the issue of poverty. Here are some examples that illustrate what I am talking about. If someone is poor, they have to look for the cheapest housing available in order to make enough room for things like food and gas. Rent is a fixed expenditure; things like food and transportation are flexible. This means if a family needs to save $10 at the grocery store, they can probably do so, but at the cost of health. Not all low-income families can easily afford the most nutritious food or make it to a supermarket with a cheaper prices and a higher variety of food. This leads to poorer health and higher medical bills. In the case of small children, the US government’s WIC (Women, Infant, and Children’s) Program provides money for cereals, formulas, and milk. Still, infants and toddlers in poor families are more susceptible to malnutrition at a young age, which has lead to a higher prevalence of mild retardation among the low-income population. Additionally, because the family cannot afford better quality housing, mold, asbestos, mice, and cockroaches lead to asthma and other health related issues that could easily be solved by better housing conditions. This means the family has added health costs they cannot already afford with the health insurance they don’t possess. In a state like Texas, transportation is huge issue for the working poor. Even in large urban areas where public transportation exists, the network and system is poor. Gas is expensive and vehicles are also expensive to maintain. However, in order to work or obtain employment, a vehicle is necessary for families in cities like College Station, Waco, Lufkin, or Midland. Most of the working homeless population I know in Bryan, TX ride bikes or walk an hour or two to their jobs. Because a family has no money to save, a sudden vehicle breakdown can cause the loss of a job.

One of the toughest chapters to read in this book was “Sins of the Fathers”. “The ten-year-old girl sat on an idle swing, chatting with the caseworker on the swing beside her. “How many times,” the little girl asked, “have you been raped?” The question came casually, as if it could merely glide into the conversation. The caseworker, “Barbara,” tried to stay composed… That was Barbara’s introduction to the epidemic of sexual abuse that infests uncounted homes in America.” This exchange between a young girl and her caseworker opens chapter six. Without the proper help, women that have become victims of sexual abuse in their home, or even the foster homes they are put into suffer serious problems later in life. Often this leads to an inability to function in a healthy relationship. Women end up in a series of bad relationships or marriages, with multiple children, drifting in and out of employment and the welfare system. This epidemic contributes to the poverty cycle by planting the seed of future family dysfunction, at no fault of the individual. That is the worst part. Girls and women are left damaged without a support system to deal with the trauma and it resurfaces in adolescence in the form of emotional distance, deep distrust, and poor male relationship choices.

The US government defines the poverty line as an annual income, but that is really an inaccurate metric for measuring poverty. Poverty isn’t just about a lack of healthcare, education, or a nice home. It is just as much about security versus insecurity, hope versus hopelessness, stability versus instability, and self-esteem. There is an emotional and psychological element behind the amount of income that is key to understanding the working poor and how we approach the issue of poverty. In domestic politics liberals would have you believe that corporate greed and a lack of federal programming are the sole causes of poverty. Conservatives would have you believe that poverty in America either doesn’t exist or that anyone who is poor brought it on themselves. If either of these positions were true, the solution would be simple. The problem lies in the fact that poverty is a result of both  “bureaucrats who cheat the poor, and the poor who cheat themselves” says Shipler. It is a web of variables, causes, and effects that combine to create the system of poverty we live with in the US. There are certainly government solutions to some of these problems and I believe government programs are necessary, but ultimately an alternate and more desirable solution remains.

This is a secular book, from the standpoint it is not directly addressing any religious subjects. However, when it comes to learning how to love our neighbor, I would argue that reading this book is more important than reading anything Francis Chan, David Platt, or John Piper have written. Those are great books, but sometimes we enjoy reading and discussing ideas of spirituality and loving others more than actually implementing them. Personally, I gained a great deal of new insight into the struggles that plague American’s poor. Understanding someone’s problems is the first step to helping ease and eliminate their burden.

More importantly, the book displays these through personal stories. I hate having to use the term “the poor”, but it is necessary to talk about the topic in a general sense. It was easy for me to pass by the invisible members of our society before I knew any of them. That’s where things change. As Christians and members of the Church (big “C” here) we have taken to both effective and ineffective methods in loving our neighbor. Giving money to anti-poverty programs and doing occasional ministry events for the poor and homeless are great, but it’s only a start, not the ideal destination. What we really need is a paradigm shift in how we view and love our neighbor.  Instead of being organic and natural, we have turned this second greatest commandment into a church program where we can safely keep our distance while simultaneously doing something good. True life change happens when relationships form and two separate lives intersect into a shared life with one another. This is how we go beyond the physical needs and provide healing to emotional and spiritual pain and thirst. This may require going to the apartment next-door or going across the train tracks to another part of town. The instances in this book where the cycle of poverty was most effectively broken were when people simply helped people because they were friends and neighbors. So many of the problems and crises mentioned earlier could be avoided by a good support system.

As my good friend Brian Wooddell writes, “I think people (me included) often like to refer to those who live in the rough areas of town as “they.” “They” are poor. “They” have a problem with gang violence.” This is an easy and convenient mindset to fall into, and chances are, we don’t have to enter into it because we are already there. What we have to do is erase the line. In reality, the line shouldn’t exist at all in the first place. Brian goes on to conclude and say, “We in Fort Worth face issues such as poverty, gang violence, abuse, drugs and high drop-out rates. We—in community, as cohumans and equals—must find solutions. We must spur each other forward. We must do what we can to help each other. Only then will we be able to make a difference.” Only then will people cease to be invisible.

Buy the book here:

Read the NY Times book review:

“First Person Plural” – Brian Wooddell: