Poverty in America: Book Reviews

By Rafi Rom

The Upside Down World News


Flat Broke With Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform
Sharon Hays
Oxford University Press, 2003

The Working Poor: Invisible in America
David K. Shipler
Knopf, 2004

David Schipler spent several years witnessing poverty in America, but nothing prepared him for his tour of a typical migrant labor camp in North Carolina, which he compared to “visiting a memorial at the scene of a crime.” He saw men living together, isolated from society, at the mercy of their employers and an inhospitable government; he saw entire families invisible to the American public. He and his son, translating for him, were

suffused with the same recollection, which we learned later by comparing notes: of another kind of camp where the greatest crime occurred. And then we apologized to ourselves for feeling the parallel, which of course was no parallel at all. No injustice that happened here approached what happened there. And yet the sensation of standing where something terrible had taken place was not dissimilar. Even in the emptiness, you were somehow a witness.

Sharon Hays and David Schipler have joined an endless number of authors who have published essays, reports, books, articles, and research papers on the state of poverty in America. Some analyze how many eligible poor people receive food stamps county by county. Others, like the two authors reviewed, synthesize all of this information to make a more sweeping point: American bureaucracy, private and public, constantly antagonizes both the working and non-working poor.

There has been no lack of people “witnessing” the terrible trauma poor
Americans are put through, such as degrading employment opportunities, segregated, sub-par schooling (as if the two don’t already go hand in hand), and nightmarish housing standards. They are the victims of ruthless capitalist organizations, such as H&R Block, which exploit poor people for the little money they have via ridiculously high interest rates. The invisible poor are also more susceptible to medical problems like asthma or depression because of the lack of adequate treatment and overall awful living conditions. The infinite barriers poor people face operates as an open prison, trapping people within its endless web. As Schipler puts it, "working poverty is a constellation of difficulties that magnify one another."

Hays, a Professor at University of Virginia, focuses on the welfare system's treatment of women with children since Bill Clinton spearheaded the welfare reform effort in 1996. She interviewed hundreds of welfare "moms" and the result is a staggering, wide-reaching examination of this country's value system and how it affects the poor. She argues that the “work requirements” and “family values” goals of the welfare system are contradictory and punish poor women. In essence, the welfare state in this country simply imposes a set of government-regulated beliefs onto those who seek help. Poor women are expected to work, a lot, while raising children on their own with grossly inadequate assistance and a multitude of barriers. Many states, for instance, have instituted "family caps," which prohibits any welfare recipient from receiving more assistance if she has another child while on the dole. Bush’s proposed welfare reform, expected to reach the senate early this year, is raising the current work requirement from 25 to 40 hours a week, while giving no additional money to childcare or other supportive services. Both Hays and Schipler offer ample evidence of why these demanding schedules are impossible for people whose "opportunities" are strictly low wage service jobs: McDonalds, Burger King, Wal-Mart. The employees are treated as expendable business expenses. As one Wal-Mart “team” manager explained to Schipler, if wages were raised “We’d have to cut corners on other things like, you know, we may not be able to put all the pretty balloons up all over the store. The non-necessities we’d have to cut back on.”

Wal-Mart is under constant scrutiny for its employment practices. A recent NY Times article reported that Wal-Mart employees were discouraged to use emergency exits even for true emergencies, and were made to work before and after clocking in and out. Yet all this scrutiny, all of these reports, don’t seem to be the answer. Reform after reform after reform, where are we now?

I think these are the questions Hays and Schipler grapple with in their respective books. It’s impossible to read these books without feeling at least a pang of defeat. Obviously things are so screwed up, the intentions of the government and the American people warped, that there is no recourse. Yet both of them choose to dwell on the alternatives, all of which broadly fit under empowering poor people with the right to happiness. Both writers, in the end, see an even stronger, more encompassing state as the answer to these problems, a powerful but inherently problematic argument given how hard they dwell on its current pitfalls.

For instance, both writers talk about universalizing benefits programs such as medical assistance, so it will no longer have the scarlet letter of poverty attached to it. "As it is true in many Western European nations where more family friendly, income-equalizing policies are already in place, many of these programs should operate as universal programs, available to all people and all levels of the class system. No one need think of them as 'charity' or 'handouts' to the unworthy."

This is probably a good place to mention that at my day job I help people get food stamps, medical, and cash assistance, which puts me in a position to agree wholeheartedly with this wishful thinking. The current state of affairs requires recipients of welfare benefits to suffer an unnecessary level of defeat before becoming eligible for benefits. On top of that, during the application process, those in need are subjected to an often hostile bureaucracy that further enforces the impression that they are simply leeches of the American system.

Confidentiality rules prohibit me from going into any specifics about how strong-willed and good-hearted people I have met have been constantly mistreated by various government functionaries and employers, but that’s ok, because in their respective books Hays and Schipler offer plenty of anecdotal evidence to back up their condemnations of how poor people are abused. And we're not just talking about the fact that low-income people are subjected to a lesser standard of customer service than other, better-off folk, but are also the brunt of ideological experimentation and work place exploitation at a grand scale.

Let’s go back to Schipler's description of migrant labor camps. At Burch Farms in North Carolina, he was introduced to Pedro, a 25 year old Mexican, who like most of his colleagues, sent most of his wages back to his family in Mexico. Although it was census season, all Pedro knew was that it was time to harvest sweet potatoes. He, like the scores of other undocumented workers in this country, are invisible to the American public they serve, yet they pay Federal and State taxes (via black market social security numbers). Yet they live in constant terror from being "discovered" by the INS and subsequently deported back to Mexico.

This is where the heart of the matter lies. Undocumented workers are invisible, and well-planned, terorristic government policies keep them that way. Enough undocumented workers are deported to scare the rest of them into quiet submission. They are constantly referred to as "illegal," a widely accepted but revolting label that smacks of slavery.

Less than two hundred years ago black people were considered one-third of a normal white person by census rules. Now, as Schipler cannily points out, Pedro and his compadres don't even exist. They have no access to any of the rights afforded to others that live in this country, even though they are an important element of the labor force.
There is a clear demand for cheap labor in the agriculture, garment, and service industries, and so the government tacitly allows "illegals" to live off the fat of the American land in exchange for go-nowhere jobs and isolated lives in a foreign, hostile country.

Hays' study of another disenfranchised segment of the American population--poor, single moms, with little education and support networks--further reinforces the insidious relationship between values and labor demand. She spent most of her time interviewing welfare recipients from two "typical" welfare offices, renamed "Sunbelt City" and "Arbordale" to protect the privacy of those involved. Hays likens the "model used to train low-income mothers" to Pavlov's theory of "conditional reflex," first observed in the behavior of drooling dogs, as "a system of rewards for proper behavior and punishments for improper behavior [meant to] teach people to behave in the desired way."

Just like the presence of undocumented workers mirrors the demand for cheap labor, the ever-shifting world of welfare rules and regulations are dictated by the needs of the market. Hays writes, "There is also a real danger that the more valuable versions of the principles of independence and citizenship have been debased by this process, transformed into a demand for a new form of wage slavery, where the lives of welfare mothers and their children are treated as worth far less than those of the American middle class." The women Hays' spent time with are flung from one skill-less job to another, while dealing with non-stop obstacles, such as lack of transportation, inadequate health coverage, and punitive "sanctions" by welfare caseworkers. In one life sketch Hays shares with us, Carolyn, a Sun-Belt City native, spends her entire life working service sector jobs, only to end up on welfare in the aftermath of an abusive relationship. After leaving her husband (and having a nervous breakdown), she was left caring for three children by herself. At this point she was subjected to the multitude of welfare restrictions, forcing her to work even after her doctor told her to rest, at the same, dead-end jobs. Obstacles, some the fault of the government, others her ill luck, seemed to trap her at every corner.

In the end, to put it for more bluntly and less eloquently than the authors reviewed in this article, poor people in America are essentially beaten into submitting to the demands of the market, while simultaneously being the brunt of America's anger towards the "terrorists" or lazy "Welfare Queens" (a term coined by Ronald Regan and long discredited by any self-respecting academic but still a powerful stereotype for public policy). What I find both hard and easy to accept is that a stronger state is the answer. Hard, because as the state stands now there is no way any legitimate reform will ever come to surface. Take Bush's "compassionate" immigration plan, which allows people to take cheap paying jobs with no benefits "legally," but only for a three year time period. Under this plan these laborers would now be "documented," making them far easier to kick out and replace with a fresh batch of desperate workers who in advance know that they will never have access to the "American dream." However it is clear that besides universalizing state programs for the poor and labor regulations, things can only get worse. What will be the catalyst for this change remains unanswered.

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"If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn't we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?" ---Eduardo Galeano