Shame in My Game

The book by Katherine S. Newman, who is an anthropologist, shows that many of the portraits painted of the inner city by journalists and social scientists are at best incomplete and at worst flat wrong. Many accounts of the inner city tend to focus on the unemployed, the homeless, and the gang banging boys who never had a dad as a role model. Those things are indeed part of the depressing ghetto. For Newman, though, she sees the vitality in a place like Harlem; even though people going to work aren't making much money, they have the Burger Barn as their destination and their place of economic survival.

They are people like Rosa, Ianna, Jamal, Carmen, and Kyesha, who all work hard and loyally contribute to the lives of their families. They try to improve their lives even though they are trapped in a minefield of loud city noises, drug dealers, killings and sickness. They want to do better and the routine of going to work helps them feel better about themselves. The work they do is really a social activity, Newman writes, it provides them with relationships, a sense of morality, a purpose, and they become attached to a real sense of humanity through their labors and their interactions.

Newman did a good job of studying these working poor; Newman is an anthropologist and she kept track of the movements and attitudes of these people out there working long hours for minimum wage. She found that of those who applied for jobs at Burger Barn, seventy-three percent were still out of work a year after they had first been turned down for work. But of those who were turned down, sixty-five percent were living in homes that were supported by people earning a living; they were not on welfare, as the stereotype would have many believe.

Newman talks about the class struggle in America: "Personal responsibility is not supposed to be a ticket to separation," she writes. "It is an instrument of moral and social inclusion, the chief weapon in the fight to overcome unfairness." The working poor have pride, Newman insists, and they "do not want to sit in some ghetto sideline; they want to be in the middle of the action."

The author also points out that there are social networks, informal networks, that young people are part of in cities like Harlem; finding a job and using the job as a secure employment record is very important to the future of many kids in the inner city. A resume is a resume, even if all you have on it is a few jobs flipping hamburgers.

When facing the racial prejudice that many black and Latino kids face, and being pushed aside by employers who don't care, and coming up against the inconvenience of municipal cutbacks in services - kids have to be strong. Newman's book makes the alert reader realize that there but for the grace of God, go I. those kids at the Burger Barns of the world have to struggle against all the mean things society hands them, plus they constantly are confronted with the burden of their own family's past and the stain of having an image of a lower class person.

But Newman's book isn't all about the depressing struggles of low-paying jobs and the workers stuck in them; there are enlightened corporate policies such as the National Apprenticeship Program. This is not run by the U.S. Government as some token social program designed to get votes for a congressman. This is set up by McDonald's, Walgreen Drugs, Hyatt and others, and it provides help for kids to improve their performance in school. They get summer jobs because they show promise; they have dignity now because they left the isolation that being broke and out of work and out of any chances for a future caused them to experience.

The theme that keeps coming back again and again in No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City is that the middle class misses the point of poverty and what it's like to be a kid in the inner city trying to survive and become somebody important. The images that kids just want gold chains and expensive Michael Jordan sneakers is "misleading," Newman writes. She dislikes "moral exhortations" about sex out of marriage; she regrets that "public perceptions" about jobs in burger joints are all wrong. She moralizes, indeed, and is discouraged that African-Americans are subjected to a "powerful discourse of condemnation" as they try to stay afloat and obtain dignity.

TWO: The working poor are no longer limited to the inner city, according to an article in the Nation (Dreier, 2004). In his article Dreier writes, "Poverty has moved to the suburbs." He sites the fact that 13.8 million poor Americans are living in the suburbs, compared with the estimated 14.6 million poor are living in the "central cities." Those poor who reside in the suburbs make up 38.5% of America's poor people; about 40.6% of America's poor live in the inner city, Dreier explains.

The data from the Census Bureau that Dreier uses shows that the number of people living in poverty - many of whom are working, but only getting minimum wages - jumped from 11.3% of all Americans in the year 2000, to 12.5% in 2003. In the year 2003, an estimated 1.3 million people "fell below the poverty line," Dreier writes. As a way of comparing the changes in where the poor live in the U.S. The author of this article points out that in 1970, only 20.5% of America's poor resided in suburbs. But by 2000, that increased to 35.9%.

Dreier notes that in the suburbs there has been an "explosion of low-paying jobs in the service economy"; in the suburbs the poor are "working poor" because most suburbs lack decent public transportation - and people have a harder time getting to work. "Few of the suburban poor have health insurance" and there are fewer doctors and health clinics in suburbs that accept Medicaid patients. The author concludes his article by asserting, "stereotypes about the 'inner-city poor' and the 'suburban middle class' no longer reflect how we live."

Meanwhile David Jones writes in New York Amsterdam News that many of the working poor in New York City are struggling to survive on as little as $32 per week. Once they pay their rent, the poor in New York City ("the overwhelming majority of which are Black and Latino") are left with "an average of $32 a week per family member" in order to cover basic needs like clothing, medical, food, and transportation. Jones cites a report by the Community Service Society that shows rising rents are "outpacing income" and leaving people strapped for cash.

One trend in New York City that has hurt the working poor, Jones continues, is that between 2002 and 2005 the number of apartments that rented for $1,000 or less "declined by 26%." The average rent throughout New York City rose 21% in that same time frame, but in contrast, the "median annual income of renters rose by only 6%" during those years. It isn't hard to do the math and realize how difficult life is for working poor families.

Jones goes on to mention the proportion of monthly income that is spent on rent; in 1996, the median burden on low-income renters was 39% (meaning, they paid 39% of their earnings on their apartments). But as of 2005, that went up to 44% of household income going for rent. And the proportion of low-income households that were paying "at least half of their income for rent" was 39% in 2005; in 1995, the percentage of low-income people paying half of their earnings for rent was 33%.

The national minimum wage went up in 2007, from $5.15 to $5.85, but that only had a positive effect on people working minimum wage in 20 states. The thirty other states already had state minimum wage levels well above the national wage. An article in USA Today (Armour, 2007) says little about the how the working poor are faring but points to the fact that this modest raise may hurt businesses. Amour quotes Marc Freedman, the director of labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as saying that the 70-cent raise in the minimum wage could mean "fewer hours for employees, fewer pay increases for other employees," reductions in benefits, some job losses and "waning job creation." That seems a very negative perspective for a modest increase in the minimum wage for millions of low-income people and young people who work at fast food restaurants.

In particular," Freedman says, "in the small-business sector where companies have restricted cash flow, any time you have to arbitrarily increase labor costs, they have to cover the costs in some ways." Companies have to pay more "and get nothing out of it," Freedman is quoted as saying. But…