Journalist discusses poverty
Marcela Berrios | Friday, October 27, 2006
A cardboard roof and blanket of newspapers are quintessential images of poverty, but when the U.S. government counted more than 37 million people living below the poverty line in 2005, that figure encompassed a much larger segment of the population than the homeless.
Pulitzer Prize recipient David Shipler, a renowned journalist and scholar, spoke Thursday night in the Jordan Auditorium about the millions of families who may sleep in brick houses, but are nonetheless on the breadline – and overlooked – in a lecture bearing the name of his latest book: “The Working Poor: Invisible in America.”
“The first step is to see the problem, and the first problem is the failure to see the people,” Shipler said. “I’m talking about the guy who washes the cars but doesn’t own them, and just stands on the edge of an affluent society.”
The cause of this phenomenon can be traced back to Benjamin Franklin’s promise and the deeply embedded myth that in the U.S. dedication and integrity will lead any man to prosperity, Shipler said. While this mentality can be a source of motivation, he said, it may also be detrimental and biased against people who aren’t able to succeed despite their efforts.
Poverty, he said, is not merely the result of laziness or lack of enthusiasm among the lowest class.
“Poverty behaves like an ecological system, where the fate of the individual depends on his interactions and his relationships with the community and the economic environment and other institutions,” Shipler said.
He illustrated his explanation with the story of Lisa Brooks, a woman he encountered when he was conducting his research.
Brooks was a single mother earning the minimum wage who couldn’t afford to make significant improvements to her house.
As a result of the mold and dust bites in her home, her son became ill with asthma and was rushed to the hospital a couple of times.
Brooks’ health insurance took care of the hospital bill but didn’t cover the ambulance expenses. She was unable to pay them out of her pocket, and soon her credit record was stained.
When she tried to take out a loan for a new car, she was rejected numerous times – forcing her to buy a dubious used car within her immediate budget.
Shipler said that in many cases like Brooks’, “Housing can actually contribute to malnutrition and illness.”
In fact, when families are pressed to make the obligatory rent, insurance and utilities payments, the only expenses that can be reduced and squeezed are those related to nutrition.
“When the children aren’t properly fed, you will begin to see learning problems develop,” Shipler said.
He said approximately 25 to 50 percent of the children he interviewed while preparing “The Working Poor: Invisible in America” admitted they usually didn’t understand what their teachers said during class.
Soon, a cycle begins, Shipler said.
“When you don’t understand what is happening in the classroom, you won’t find joy in learning, and you will feel stupid and inadequate in school, and soon you will be asking yourself what is the point of staying there,” Shipler said.
He said a person without a high school diploma will earn approximately $260,000 less over his lifetime, which means he will also pay about $60,000 less in taxes than someone who graduates from high school – which only places heavier burdens on the rest of the taxpayers.
Shipler once again reminded the audience that the poverty of one is in reality the poverty of many.
“When someone succeeds [and improves his standard of living] everything has to line up perfectly.”
He spoke of another woman he knew, a drug addict who was able to overcome her dependence with the simultaneous help of different institutions – including the court that decided to give her the opportunity to change instead of locking her in a prison cell, the federal government that sponsored her rehabilitation program, the company that decided to hire her and train her despite her marred police records and the Church that helped her regain confidence in herself.
“If any of these factors hadn’t worked out perfectly, I think she would’ve fallen back,” Shipler said.
But he recognized the difficulty in aligning those key players in favor of the underprivileged.
“I’m waiting impatiently for business leaders to invest heavily on public education, and public health and housing programs,” he said. “… Employers keep complaining they don’t have enough skilled workers, and that some of their workers can’t even find intersections on maps or calculate a 10 percent discount.”
While that may not be the path towards sustaining a competitive advantage in a global economy, Shipler said the country’s business leaders were slow to see beyond next quarter’s earnings and invest in the future of their workforce.
The responsibility to make poverty history in the U.S., however, also falls on individual citizens, Shipler said.
He asked his audience how many people would be willing to pay slightly higher taxes if they were sure that money would really improve a public school or hospital.
More than half of the people in the auditorium raised their hands.
Shipler then asked how many of those people had informed their congressmen or their senators of their willingness.
Just 10 people in the room raised their hands a second time.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Shipler said, “this is a time and a situation that requires civil action.”
Junior Nate Serazin appreciated Shipler’s take on the poverty issue.
“So often we view poverty as being merely a problem of lack of wealth,” he said. “It’s nice to be reminded that poverty is so much more complicated than that … it’s a problem that requires a complicated solution – a team effort to address issues such as health care, education, and housing.”
A panel of three professionals responded Shipler immediately following his lecture.
Jennifer Warlick, chair of the economics and policy studies department, praised Shipler’s conclusion that the ingredients of poverty in North America are “part financial, part psychological, part societal, part personal, part past and part present.”
Dawn Chapla, a community service liaison from United Way, spoke about poverty in St. Joseph County. There are currently more than 2,000 grandparents acting as sole caregivers, putting children in vulnerable positions and unstable home environments.
Chapla said the number of single mothers has also increased in the last decade, from 6.9 percent to 8.6 percent of the population.
Joe Holt, director of the Executive Education Program in the Mendoza College of Business, commented on the relevance of Shipler’s studies in light of “Economic Justice for All,” a pastoral letter on Catholic social teaching and the U.S. economy prepared by U.S. bishops in 1986.
The lecture, in recognition of the 20th anniversary of that letter, was sponsored by the Center for Social Concerns, the department of theology, the department of economics and policy studies, and the Masters in Nonprofit Administration.