Part II of my review of Katherine S Newman’s No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City
I mentioned this briefly in my previous post on this book, but I had a couple of years of being working poor. I had a full time job that paid so little I could barely feed my family. We had junk health insurance. Every crisis like an extra doctor visit or a repair to our car meant more money coming out of our savings until our savings were gone.
Poverty is a trap. Once our savings was gone, I was stuck in my job. I had little time off to do interviews, and since I had no money saved up even if I did get new job, having a break in paychecks was a frightening thought.
Eventually I did escape that job by using my ability to read and write Japanese to find a part-time job so I could save some money. Then a friend of mine helped me get a good job with benefits and I have, hopefully, left poverty behind for good.
I learned a few things from this. Poverty is not fun, and not romantic. It sucks. I have a skill that I was privileged to learn (Japanese) because my parents paid for me to go to college and I could then move to Japan and get a job that required a college degree, and a college degree only. And, finally:
Connections are a huge factor in how well we do in life.
The book stresses how much working people rely on friends and family to get them jobs, just like I did. Most businesses don’t even put out want ads, because they get plenty of applications already. And because they rely on recommendations from employees. Having a working friend or relative can make all the difference in a poor person’s employment prospects.
The problem for poor people is that most don’t have connections with anyone doing anything better. Whether people want to admit it or not, fast food jobs teach the things that actually matter most- show up on time, do your job. I know some middle class jobs require special skills, but there are plenty that require not much more than the modest ability to accept training and to use a computer. Plenty of the working poor could handle office jobs if they had the chance to. The book touches on some of the cultural barriers to the working poor finding better employment, but I don’t feel particularly qualified to comment on this.
Katherine Newman has published several books since this one and I’m going to start reading them. One thing that seems to have happened since this book was published is that the hollowing out of our major cities has been reversed in all but a few of them. The inner city is now the place to be. This has pushed the poor into older suburbs. I wonder how this has affected their lives. Also, no matter how much the TV tells you otherwise, crime has been dropping steadily for decades, especially since the peak of the crack epidemic (though I wonder if meth has similarly peaked, or if it will continue to grow). Unemployment, however, is up. The working poor and the lower middle class were some of the hardest hit by the financial crisis of 2008-2009.
But to sum it up, great read, looking forward to some of the author’s more recent books.