Free Essay Sample «Critical Essay: "The Working Poor in America" by David Shipler»

«Critical Essay:


Advocacy and responsible journalism are some of the answers to social issues, including social inequalities and poverty. The Working Poor in America by David Shipler is a detailed journalistic exploration of obstacles facing a part of the American community, which works hard. However, it fails to break their poverty lines due to existing and resultant inequalities. Each story in this book is unique with its assortment of dreams, despair and barriers to breaking the poverty line. These narrations and analyses are significant to increasing the awareness of negative aspects of capitalism, including draining energies and extracting surplus values from workers, leaving them poor. This paper is a critical appraisal of work The Working Poor in America written by David Shipler. To that end, it critically explores the purpose of the book, its significance, contribution to literature on inequalities, as well as its strengths and weaknesses. In the same context, the essay analyzes the author’s thesis and main points from a critical point of view.

Critical Analysis

The Purpose and Significance of the Work

Shipler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. In his book of 2004, he explored the part of the community being almost forgotten, despite supporting the rich and the economy by offering an affordable source of labor as well as paying taxes that support the national budget, yet not improving their lives. The working poor are the individuals whose American Dream is beyond their reach despite their relentless efforts to work hard. As they struggle to survive in the volatile economy, they live along poverty lines. Even minor obstacles including temporary illness and car breakdown can spiral their financial life downwards to the levels, which are almost impossible to reverse. For example, Caroline struggles to provide for her disabled daughter while moving from one job to another, ultimately losing her teeth for failing to see a dentist (Shipler 2005). This book is essential in understanding how people in impoverished communities can formulate collective responses to their socioeconomic issues. Shipler uses the narration of the working poor regarding the economic, structural, cultural, and social barriers that affect their dreams and families.

Author’s Thesis and Summary of Main Point

In a capitalistic environment, societal functions are based on merit. Decadence and wealth are the indicators of brilliance and hard work paying off. Meanwhile poverty is as sign of irresponsibility, laziness, and work ethics or character unworthy as the product of society. It is the logic that propels most social policies, which are founded on the needs and perceptions of few wealthy individuals in power. Observably, one of the facets of the country’s social reality beats this logic. It means that there are people in the community that, irrespectively of working longer hours under dangerous and stressful conditions, as well as being engaged in low positions for the success of the entire economy still live below the poverty line. In addition, these individuals tend to work at more than one job and rely on public aid programs to survive.

The author combines closed and open-ended interviews of impoverished workers with policy analysis, economic insights, statistical data, and the insights of individuals. Their daily experiences are linked to the working poor. In each chapter, Shipler combines the shared practice with interviews from both legal and illegal immigrants employed in American fields and sweatshops, to the psychological effects of the adverse pverty on workers’ experiences at home and in the workplace. Additionally, the author presents economic implications of malnutrition and socioeconomic abuse, as well as how such factors worsen the existing dismal conditions of working people. As highlighted by Shipler, the working poor prove by their experiences that it is not only work (or long working hours) that defines the individual’s fate in a capitalistic society. However, it is work ethic and individual efforts that are shallow concepts when compared against the machination of systems of exploitation.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The core strength of this book lies in real life experiences documented through the mixed research method used by the author to collect data and analyze his findings. A mixed study method relies on the collection of both qualitative and quantitative data to achieve the objectives. Consequentially, Shipler compliments the existing quantitative studies through participant observation, field notes, open-ended questions, and in-depth interviews. In fact, the author serves as a primary data collector. Through a qualitative approach, Shipler collects and analyses textual data from focus groups, interviews, observation, and ethnographies. Through observation and induction, the author generates grounded theory from the observations during the fieldwork. In that regard, the book increases the amount of literature regarding the inequalities among the poor. Therefore, the work is significant to not only social researchers, but also economists and policymakers. As a social research, it meets its exploratory and descriptive objectives. Additionally, the book presents a wide angled perspective about socioeconomic inequality because Shipler explores the depth and breadth of the matter.

By largely relying on qualitative techniques, the research is likely to have been inclined towards the author’s understanding of inequality and the emotional experiences during data collection. Although Shipler points that poverty is traced to personal choices, he fails to present a detailed explanation of the factors. These agents influence the undesirable choices that lead to poverty. In other words, the authors should have linked options such as dropping out of school, leaving work to tend to children, and walking away from parental responsibilities to the issues such as poor government support and low wages. However, credit should be given to the writer for highlighting domestic violence, drugs and substance abuse, and unwanted pregnancies to be correlating to the poverty among the working poor. In support of these observations, Shipler exposes the pattern of exploitative employers and even some of their colleagues blaming the working poor for their dire situation. Additionally, some of the working poor also present self-blame for their hardship. Unfortunately, the author falls into this trap at the end of the research. He points that the villains are not just exploitative employers, loan sharks. However, they are  also incapable employees, unruly pupils, and the unrealistic poor. (Shipler 2005, p. 285).

Contribution to the Inequality Discourse and Evidence of Critique

One aspect of Shipler’s book is that he documents an array of various factors. It helps readers to understand factors that entangle the working poor into an incessant cycle of poverty. For example, in the chapter titled “Money and its Opposite,” the author reveals the exploitative measures used by check-cashing entities and corporate loan sharks to drain huge sums off the working poor. It is related particularly to those who cannot afford to hold bank accounts. For example, few families among the working poor are aware thatt they have the right to claim the earned income tax credit. It is ripped off by greedy employers. Shipler likens poverty to a bleeding wound that lowers resistance, weakens defenses, and attracts predators (Shipler 2005, p. 18). In this context, the predators are the exploitative individuals and entities taking advantage of the dire situation of these poor workers. To that end, the author manages to prove that the unending cycle of poverty among the working poor is largely caused by the companies they work for and the exploitative middlemen between the workers and their employers. For instance, the loan sharks operate from street corners, bars, and legally set offices. Arguably, due to their capitalistic tendencies, they are ubiquitous in storefronts and check cashing points in working-class and poor neighborhoods.

In an effort to present the notion of inadequacy in social programs and policies to offer sustainable solutions to the problems facing the working poor, Shipler cites as follows. He writes about how the welfare reforms in the 1990s contributed to the difficulties experienced by workers. Some of the factors that contribute to the hardships in accessing paychecks to survive include deceptive measure and inadequacies of dated formulas. In an agreement with the author, the definition of poverty requires a redefinition to ensure that minimum wage is reasonable to improve the lives of working people. That is to say, the figures should be increased. The reason is that they are misleading, largely because they rely on the 1964 formula designed by the Social Security Administration (Shipler 2005, p. 9).

Individual choices and barriers are not the only factors that contributed to socioeconomic inequalities or poverty in America. The book’s illustration of this issue among the working poor demonstrates that more factors create or aggravate socioeconomic inequalities. However, the working poor experience an array of these agents. For example, inadequate or ineffective government-based public assistance programs have a direct impact on such workers. The reason is that it contributes to homelessness, which, in turn, translates to school dropouts, burglary, gangs, rape, drug and substance abuses, as well as poor health among others. In agreement with Shipler, the crisis of food insecurity among these individuals leads to economical strain to parents, as well as an illness and slow development of their children (Shipler 2005, p. 202). Such a problem can be addressed through subsidized housing, supportive services, direct financial aid, and generous food stamps.


Despite Shipler’s flaw as a qualitative researcher or being more inclined to the theory than empirical evidence, The Working Poor in America deserves a praise. The author documents first hand experiences of the people working hard, yet failing to break their poverty lines. Shipler’s journalist account is detailed, combining the observed practice of low wage American workers from various backgrounds and situations with valuable references to existing statistical data, social policy, and various events that have altered the life direction of working people. Ideally, no one who works hard should be poor. Therefore, the American society should strive to eliminate inequalities where possible. The reason is that such disparities limit the social and economic power of the most hardworking individuals in the community. Through comprehensive socioeconomic policies, the working poor can get the needed threshold support to break the poverty lines withholding their efforts. In agreement with Shipler, the American poor world requires the comprehensive strategies, policies, and programs to break the noted cycle of unending poverty.


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