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Hard Work At The Bottom -- A review of No Shame In My Game

by Paul H. Rosenberg Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2000 at 12:08 AM
rad@gte.net 562-436-3113

The myth that people are poor because they’re lazy gets a sharp, swift kick in the pants in this book’s study of inner city youth struggling to survive in the low end of the service economy. The third of 3 books reviewed that testify against the blaming of the poor for their suffering.

error Hard Work At The Bottom
    By Paul Rosenberg
    rad@gte.net

The myth that people are poor because they’re lazy gets a sharp, swift kick in the pants in this book’s study of inner city youth struggling to survive in the low end of the service economy.

No Shame In My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City
    by Katherine Newman / Alfred A. Knopf
    388 pages; $27.95

A few years ago anthropologist Katherine Newman discovered the working poor. It was unavoidable. Her taxi from Columbia University slowed to a crawl as they clogged Harlem's 125th Street on their way to work. Stuck there, she wonder how so many people could be so utterly ignored in policy debates that routinely portray the poor as either criminals or shiftless layabouts.

No Shame In My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City is the eventual result of that wondering, based on a two-year research project Newman conducted exploring the life experience of young fast-food workers in a handful of Harlem-area burger joints. Newman's book is extremely valuable for the strength of testimony it provides in shattering stereotypes that appear utterly ludicrous in hindsight. It's also extremely engaging, as she illustrates most of her findings through a few compelling individuals and families whose stories thread throughout the book.

The working poor she writes about have a much stronger work ethic than the middle class. They begin working much earlier--often between ages 13 and 15--and for much less--typically the minimum wage (then $4.50/hour) versus as much as $7.50/hour in suburban Long Island for identical jobs. They face stiff competition--14 applicants for every opening--and racial discrimination, even in black-owned businesses in central Harlem. The work they do--the hallmark dead-end, "no skill," "no respect" job--involves considerable hidden skill. Although individual tasks are ultra-simplified and standardized, the real-time demands of handling so many different tasks simultaneously in a stress-filled, fast-paced team setting requires higher-order skills nobody seems to recognize or respect. Furthermore, while long workhours generally correlate with declining academic performance, the reverse is true among the working poor Newman studied: work provides a template for organization, motivation and accomplishment that transfers to the schoolroom, backed by management's active encouragement and support.

This isn't to say Newman discovered eager battalions of Horatio Algers. Her subjects live precarious, often chaotic lives, frequently intertwined with others--hauntingly similar to themselves--who've utterly given up. They are, in short, much like America's working poor have always been: tormented from without and within, shortchanged dignity and respect as much as money.

Newman's anthropological approach reveals patterns that escape convention statistical methods used in economical analyses, such as the ways kin and quasi-kin relationships produce patterns of mutual assistance. Women on welfare provide indoor childcare for working kin and outdoor surveillance protecting neighborhood children as a whole. The end of welfare transforms these supports for the working poor into competitors in already-overcrowded job markets. Anthropological methods are also well-suited to exploring the importance--and limitations--of social networks in securing employment. Here Newman finds a relative plenitude of contacts for more established workers, but almost none can lead to higher-paid employment. A few older relatives working in the shrinking public sector-- the post office, public hospitals, etc.--have no influence over hiring, but serve as examples that a better living is possible--or at least that it was, not long ago.

Where Newman falls short is in situating her findings in a larger framework--such as the history of massive inner-city disinvestment which leaves her subjects with so much less opportunity than their elders. Her suggested remedies tend to the small-scale, fit to help small groups, but utterly unequal to the scale of need. The hardworking, beleaguered, disrespected young adults she portrays deserve much, much more: something commensurate with their daily struggle and sacrifice.

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