When Chevy Chase, Md., author David Shipler started reporting for his new book Working Poor: Invisible in America more than six years ago, he didn’t envision himself eventually devoting an entire chapter to the seemingly tangential topic of sexual abuse. But once he started hanging out with scores of poor laborers around the country, the very intimate roots of poverty in America—child molestation among them—began to reveal themselves to him.
“I never asked about [abuse],” says the 61-year-old Shipler, a former New York Times reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for his nonfiction book Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land. “I just said, ‘Tell me about your childhood,’ and it came up again and again.”
Shipler writes in Working Poor that, for many poor people, sexual abuse has obliterated the “soft skills” of self-esteem and conversational abilities needed for success in the workforce. From the slums of L.A. and Southeast D.C. to the crop fields of North Carolina, Shipler heard the impoverished list myriad similar personal traps—alcoholism, drug addiction, poor English, depression, learning disabilities—that they thought had led to their destitution. “They gave reasons that were not macro,” says Shipler.
So while Working Poor sprawls thinly across such topics as race, immigration, welfare, government policy, and globalization, Shipler always keeps it grounded in the detailed struggles of people who chronically hover near the poverty line, where a broken-down car or sudden toothache can spell catastrophe.
He draws an especially provocative portrait of Willie and Sarah Goodell, names that might soon be dropped on the U.S. House floor by conservatives looking to slash government programs. When Shipler asked the Goodells to account for their expenditures for a month, he reports, these destitute New Hampshire parents of three small children realized they spent over $50 in movie rentals and nearly $800 in what they could only call “miscellaneous” items. And they spent their tax refunds on tattoos.
But the Goodells come off in Working Poor as real people rather than cartoonish stereotypes, because Shipler also narrates the violence, sexual abuse, and alcoholism with which the pair grew up. Although he describes himself as politically liberal, Shipler says both conservatives and progressives have “some pieces to the puzzle” for alleviating poverty. “If people want to use [the book] to bolster their own [political] viewpoint, then they’ll do it,” says Shipler. “But that’s not gonna help the people who need it.”
Shipler says he kept in touch with his subjects throughout his five years of research for the book—watching them find jobs and lose them, struggle to provide for their kids, and remain always too low on the economic ladder to be affected by either the boom economy or the subsequent bust. And he’s pessimistic about their futures. “I spent enough time with the families to see the next generation begin to fail,” says Shipler. “Or at least not succeed to extent they might have been able to.”
But even after completing Working Poor, Shipler is still mapping his topic’s pervasiveness. Appearing on radio talk shows nationwide to plug the book, he says he’s been hearing from callers who know just the kind of people he’s written about. “They call in and say, ‘This is me,’” says Shipler. —Dave Jamieson