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Thirty million workers struggling in...
Low-wage U.S.A.

Review by Elizabeth Schulte | March 19, 2004 | Page 9

David Shipler, The Working Poor: Invisible in America. Knopf, 2004, 319 pages, $25.

Beth Shulman, The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans. New Press, 2003, 255 pages, $25.95.

NICKEL AND Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich's firsthand exposé of the struggle of low-wage workers to keep their heads above water, opened many eyes to a largely ignored section of America's workforce. Two new books on low-wage work--David Shipler's The Working Poor and Beth Shulman's The Betrayal of Work--set out to further this discussion.

Journalist and author David Shipler interviewed low-wage workers from various backgrounds and parts of the country over several years to pull together his book. Among them are migrant workers in North Carolina, Los Angeles garment workers, and men and women struggling with drug addiction, abusive families, lack of decent education and homelessness.

For some, low-wage dead-end work was the direct consequence of the Clinton administration's 1996 law that "ended welfare as we know it." Shipler rightly points out that in the life of each person, a myriad of factors can come into play--from corrupt creditors to battles with addiction--to keep a decent existence out of reach.

But in his effort to illustrate how many factors are at play--and because he wants to portray a neither too conservative nor too liberal opinion--Shipler's book falls flat. His book is a welcome departure from conservative pundits who decry "welfare cheats," but he tries to walk the line between emphasizing government spending on social services and "personal responsibility."

So amid the powerful personal accounts and useful facts about how the cards are stacked against the poor, there are also stories that elevate the importance of "good parenting" and the values of free market. In an effort to find the "middle ground," Shipler wastes many pages empathizing with employers' need to keep wages low in order to compete--and relating stories of individuals who managed to gain access to job-training programs and find moments of stability.

This line of reasoning is what allowed the Clinton administration to get away with gutting welfare spending--by blaming the problems of poverty on the poor themselves. It was easy for the Bush administration to take this a step further, by funneling money to religious organizations to take on work that was once seen as the responsibility of the government.

For a book that offers something more, check out Beth Shulman's The Betrayal of Work. Shulman makes the point that low-wage workers don't always occupy the fringes of society--as they are often portrayed by politicians and the media--but are at the center of the U.S. economy.

Even during the "good times" in the late 1990s, one in every four workers earned less than $8.70 an hour--what the government defines as the poverty level for a 40-hour workweek for a family of four. For 30 million Americans, this amounts to living on $18,100 a year or less--a grossly outdated figure that doesn't take into account the rising costs of housing, health care, transportation and child care.

Shulman argues that the media's talk about a "new economy" that produced millions of "knowledge jobs" hid a different reality--the even larger numbers of low-wage jobs at the center of the new service economy. Between 1993 and 1998, low-end service and retail jobs--where median wages are the lowest in the country--accounted for 30 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.

Contrary to Horatio Alger myth, low-wage jobs aren't temporary work that people go through on their way to bigger and better things. Shulman offers profiles of some low-wage workers to dispel the myth that they all work at fast-food restaurants--which make up just 5 percent of low-wage jobs.

The profiles are of child care workers, janitors, poultry-processing plant workers, home health care aides, room attendants, pharmacy technical assistants and receptionists. They're more likely to work part-time or in temporary jobs; they're less likely to have health care or retirement benefits.

The Betrayal of Work makes the case that instead of focusing on "lifting" workers out of these jobs, the task is transforming how society sees these jobs--that they are worthy of decent pay and benefits. Shulman makes a set of proposals to that end, including upping the minimum wage, protecting the rights of immigrant workers and forcing employers to provide safe working conditions.

The key will be the organizing of low-wage workers themselves. As Shulman points out, "Today's 'good jobs' in large-scale manufacturing were not always good...But factory jobs became 'good' jobs in this country when employers were forced to make them so, through workers' power in unions."

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