Book Review: No Shame in My Game

By Katherine S Newman

My wife is a sociology major so a lot of her books get passed down to me.  The sub-heading on this one is The Working Poor in the Inner City.  Published in 1999, the book follows the lives of several workers at an unnamed burger chain, bringing their stories together with economic data and interviews with management and their peers.  The author is a professor at Columbia and has a team of grad students doing research for her.  I was really impressed at how well she puts the data together and dispels some of the more common misconceptions people have.  Among her findings:

Poor people want to work

The idea that the poor are just lazy is one that is hard to kill.  And it’s funny, in a tragic sort of way to me, because it’s based on people’s sense of fairness.  If you work hard, you should be rewarded.  If you’re not being rewarded, then you must not be working hard.  I hate this line of thinking.  Life’s not fucking fair people.  Some people are working hard and not getting rewarded.  It sucks to be them, and it’s no excuse for the better-off to be smug.

Newman highlights dozens of interviews with workers to show that they’re proud of the fact that they have a job.  Having a job means having money, having a social life with other workers, having self respect.  There’s a lot of commentators who would like you to believe that poor don’t have a job because they lack the same work ethic that overpaid newspaper columnists have.  I suspect it’s due to the fact that:

Poor people live in places that have high unemployment

Have you ever seen Help Wanted signs in the ghetto?  I don’t know, I’m not in the ghetto that often, but since this book pointed it out, the answer, for me at least is- actually no, and now that you mention it that is pretty weird.  According to Newman, most burger joints don’t even advertise, because they’re flooded with applications.  Hundreds of applications for every opening.  This sounds like the rest of the USA around 2009, except that in poor neighborhoods, this is every year, forever.

People on welfare aren’t actually doing nothing

Sure, some are.  But a lot of the time they’re acting as a support network for people who are working by providing childcare for children whose mothers and fathers are working.  This seems like a reasonably good alternative to providing every working parent with daycare, but opinions may differ.

Poor people hate drug users and the lazy as much, or more, than the rest of us

Because poor people are tired of getting stereotyped as drug users and/or lazy, and they’re tired of dealing with these people.  I suspect the author is right- middle class liberals are probably way more forgiving of drug abusers than the poor because middle class liberals don’t have to deal with their shit every day.  One time I gave a homeless kid $50.  I later realized that the kid was a junkie.  Back in my working poor days, I would have been devastated.  If I were still poor and that kid had lived down the street, I might have been tempted to beat him up.   But I wasn’t hurting for money anymore so I laughed it off.  It made for a good story.

As for the lazy- shit, I can’t stand the lazy people I know.  I’m not talking about the people who have messy houses.  I’m talking about the handful of people I know who have made it to adulthood but manage to go years without having a job because they just don’t feel like it and their parents and/or funemployment supports them.  I’m not one to stereotype, but these people are sociopaths.  There’s no way someone with human emotions could stand the kind of societal stigma attached to being an able-bodied adult without a job.  Thankfully, the people are rare.  Much rarer than the TV would have you believe.

I’m starting to sound cranky, so I’ll pause right here.  There’s a lot more I want to say about this book, I’ll try to continue tomorrow.

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