This past week I was in Colorado with my grandmother, escaping the terrible Kansas City heat. We hiked during the day and watched my boyfriend Ryan compete in the Olympics at night. At home, I don’t watch much TV outside of my Netflix shows, so I never see commercials, or, more specifically, campaign commercials. I’m sure you can imagine my supreme irritation when I saw the “Obama shipped jobs overseas! He is a socialist!” or the “I am a woman! Romney is so out of touch!” commercials four times each in the three minutes between swimming and volleyball.
I’ve been lucky enough to have been shielded from much of this election’s political rhetoric up until now. I know it’s going to get much, much worse in the coming months and the remarks made by both sides are going to get crazier as time goes on. With our nation’s economic situation the way it is, Barry and Mittens are obviously going to have to have solutions to make the people happy, and they’re of course going to be different. One thing they both seem to agree on, though, is that people need to work hard to be prosperous. That’s kind of been the American Dream forever. The problem is, it isn’t true.
In The Working Poor: Invisible in America, David K. Shipler tells the stories of those people trying to fulfil that American Dream. They have four kids, work three jobs, live off welfare and WIC, and are saddled with thousands in debt with no foreseeable end. They’re more stories of struggle and hardship like a lot of the books I’ve been reading lately, but it feels different when you read these ones. These are in your own back yard. They’re people you know, that you buy your gas from, wash your dishes, and watch your kids (or watched you when you were little).
The difference between the struggles that I’ve read about before and the struggles in The Working Poor is that these people are on the cusp of struggle, whereas the women in, say, Half the Sky are really destitute. If you’re a member of the working poor class, you’re straddling the government-set poverty line; for those who work hard enough to go just over it, the government gives them less aid. For those who aren’t quite there yet, they can receive more aid, but it means they’re still poorer than poor. That limbo-like situation is anxiety-inducing.
The book is full of stories of people living in these situations. People who can’t afford things like fixing their cars put it on credit cards and the credit card companies rob them blind. People get desperate and have to take out payday loans, which in the end they have to pay back with interest. Immigrants come in and are promised jobs, as long as they can pay a contracting fee. They are fired almost as soon as they make up the difference from that fee. In the second chapter, Shipler tells how one woman, Christie, uses her paycheck: “Immediately, $172 went for rent, including a $10 late fee, which she was always charged because she never had enough to pay by the first of the month.” If you think about it, that’s $120 (almost a month’s rent) extra a year that that woman has to pay because her payroll isn’t synced with her rent schedule or she’s just unable to save.
You expect stories like these in developing countries, where governments are corrupt and wars are being fought and people are more susceptible to be taken advantage of. You don’t expect this from a society where 11-year-olds have iPhones, and you shouldn’t. People should not be barely scraping by on a day-by-day basis while others are vacationing at their homes in the Hamptons. I’m not saying those Hamptonites shouldn’t be able to do that– they’ve probably worked hard to get those homes and they deserve them. I’m just saying that as a society we can’t let these people who are working equally as hard have that work be in vain.
Fairly recently, I had a teacher tell my class very matter-of-factly, “Poor people don’t want to work.” Before I read this book, that comment made me mad. Now, I’m fuming. For some lucky people, working is a want, a choice that they are allowed to make. For those less fortunate, and those whose stories make up The Working Poor, not working isn’t an option if they want to survive off the little that the government can give.
This book doesn’t affiliate itself with any party, and rightly so, as neither party has come up with solutions for these people for a while now. It’s a great read for any citizen of the Greatest Country In The World, because it shows how much farther we still have to go. This election cycle, the economy is going to be discussed ad nauseum. Hopefully people who have read this book will have the working poor’s perspective on their side.