Harvard anthropologist Newman (Declining Fortunes: The Withering of the American Dream, 1993, etc.) authors a pathbreaking study of a neglected group of Americans: those who work yet remain mired in poverty. For two years Newman and her research assistants chronicled the lives of 300 workers and job-seekers at four fast-food restaurants in Harlem. Their results challenge many of the assumptions concerning poor people of the inner city. First and foremost, despite the ready alternatives of crime and welfare, this group as a whole cherishes that most American of ideals, working. They do so at minimum wage with heavy demands on them in terms of school, supporting of families, medical needs with no insurance coverage, and so much more. They persevere in the face of ridicule from peers and the public at large, who most often see "burger flipping" as demeaning mindless labor (though the author convincingly shows that these jobs do in fact demand skills that are to be admired). They persevere despite the fact that, while they desperately and actively seek to move on and up to better jobs, most won't. These working poor are presented as a group but also as individuals, as Kyesha, Jamal, Carman, and so many others. None are saints but none fulfill the stereotype of an underclass that has given up on itself and its future. "The nation's poor do not need their values engineered," writes Newman, "they do not need lessons about the dignity of work." What they need is help to overcome the anonymous barriers of race and class, the negative valuation of their work experience, the simple lack of enough good jobs to go around. In her conclusion, the author offers several recommendations that might, with minimal cost to government and private employers, help these workers realize some benefit from their belief in the dignity of labor. This is a work of major importance that policymakers and concerned citizens should read, need to read.
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