A damning report on poverty in America.
In The Mystery of Capital (2000), economist Hernando de Soto wondered why the Third World’s poor lack the fungible assets that their American counterparts hold—assets that keep them from being, well, so poor. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Shipler (A Country of Strangers, 1997) reveals that this may be illusory: for many of the men and women he portrays here, any property of worth has been mortgaged and remortgaged, and when it is sold, often in a hurry and for less than it’s worth, any proceeds go to paying down the mountains of debt that the poor accumulate. These American poor—natives and immigrants alike—“suffer in good times and bad,” writes Shipler. They are sometimes the victims of addiction, ignorance, and bad choices; in most instances, however, the working poor are single mothers and single wage-earners with several children and few options. The larger culture misunderstands the causes of poverty, Shipler argues, “and is therefore uncertain about the solutions,” though the solutions are there: in a surprising moment, a Wal-Mart manager in rural New England reveals that the store could easily afford to pay its employees two dollars an hour more. (One of his interview subjects made $6 an hour in a Vermont factory in the mid-1970s; 25 years later, now a Wal-Mart clerk, she was up to $6.80.) Traveling from big box stores to Los Angeles sweatshops to farms to public-housing projects, Shipler offers memorable portraits of the women and men who figure as afterthoughts in just about every politician’s vision of the American future—even though, Shipler notes, had the poor voted, Al Gore would have been swept into office in 2000: “an upsurge in low-income numbers would have overcome even Florida’s biased registration and balloting system.”
A sobering work of investigation, as incisive—and necessary—as kindred reports by Michael Harrington, Jacob Riis, and Barbara Ehrenreich.