Crime of Being Hungry and Poor

The Working Poor: Invisible in America
David K. Shipler

I commited crime lord I needed
Crime of being hungry and poor
I left the grocery store man bleeding
When they caught me robbing his store
-Work Song
Oscar Brown, Jr. and Nat Adderly

Try this simplest of  experiments: For an entire day greet everyone you encounter with a ‘Hello’ or ‘Good Morning.’ And then ask them, with as much conviction as you can muster, how they’re doing.

The only rule is to interact with everyone you encounter, not just the people you normally acknowledge. You should ask similar questions, in as similar a manner as you can, of the person handing you your coffee and your boss and everybody in between.

While you’re doing that I ask you to pay attention to a few things. One is the response you get. Is it perfunctory? Is it genuine? Does the respondent seem surprised you asked? The other amounts to a self-inventory. How are you reacting to the answers? Or even the task itself? Do you find yourself not caring? Or are you surprised at the number of people you’re talking to?

This is hardly rigorous ethnomethodology but it’s a task that just might heighten your awareness. I’m pretty sure that David K. Shipler hoped to achieve the same result in writing this book.

I came to this title in my usual sideways fashion, which is to say I heard an interview with Shipler (probably on NPR) and confused it with something else. I was certain (and correct) that the book was about the working poor. For some reason, though, I got the idea that Shipler was a labor economist. Maybe I mixed that up because he’s a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow.

That’s my limitation. Scholarship–with its implied commitment to truth and larger purpose–has always appealed to me. Journalism–with its first draft of history ethos and unavoidable bias–has always served a different purpose, usually just getting ideas in front of me or providing a sense of the current mood.

David K. Shipler

Shipler is really a journalist. And if that sounds dismissive, in this case it probably is. That’s not because of what journalists do. It’s more a reaction to style. Shipler spent a good many years at the New York Times and his writing reflects that in structure and manner.

I don’t like the Times and find it virtually unreadable. Its prose embodies a tone of knowing-better that rankles. Pre-Murdoch, the Wall Street Journal was always the better read, with a noticeable zip to the feature writing, and a demonstrated ability to keep opinion–truly wacky opinion at times–on the editorial pages where it belongs.

Shipler is a Timesman with all that implies. What he gives us s a series of portraits. Each focuses on a different person at the lower end of what mainstream sociologists like to call the socio-economic spectrum. All of them work, some more regularly than others. No one has any security. In fact, all are one small step away from disaster and some of them encounter it.

The causes are the usual travails of life–job loss, illness, inadequate education, financial mishap. Every one of the tales is meant to illustrate how precarious life is for people who work and are nonetheless poor. Shipler and I would agree on one thing: we ignore these people at the cost of our own humanity.

Yet in the end Shipler’s book is unsatisfying. Like reading the Times, you’ve been scolded and been told, repeatedly, that someone has to do something about this. Left unexplored is whether the life lived by his readers requires an economy that creates such a class of people.

One thing did strike me as under-remarked upon although it repeatedly cropped up and that was just how much help individuals got from other individuals. The undercurrent of Shipler’s book is that we need a programmatic response. Perhaps we do, but a little old-fashioned neighborliness would help, too.

It has been shown over and over again that lower-income Americans are the group most supportive of charities. When you live close to the edge, you realize just how crowded a place it can be. We’d all benefit from remembering that, and acting as though we do.

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