Friday, January 22, 2010

The Working Poor

I have just finished reading a new non-fiction book, Lisa Dodson's THE MORAL UNDERGROUND: HOW ORDINARY AMERICANS SUBVERT AN UNFAIR ECONOMY. Dodson is a professor of sociology at Boston College. She spent several years conducting the interviews that make up this book.

Her basic premise has two parts. First, that people working minimum-wage jobs cannot, if they have kids and no partners, make enough to support their families, not even by working hard and full-time at a job (or, more usually, one full-time and another part-time). That this results in work absenteeism, frequent firings, unsupervised children, and an inability to find time to better themselves through more education. And that much of corporate and academic America, instead of doing the math of both dollars (income vs. heat, rent, food, transportation) and time (work + commute vs. kids' needs), blames these single parents for "lacking a work ethic," even as it seeks to pay them too little for decent survival. Some of the interviews with managers and CEOs with this attitude are chilling to read. However, much of this ground has been covered before, in books such as Barbara Ehrenreich's NICKLED AND DIMED.

What's new here is the second half of Dodson's research. Work, school, and health care are the places where the middle-class most often meets the working class because the former supervises or employs the latter. And a growing number of managers are breaking the rules -- and often the law -- to help the employees they see as being in deeply unfair positions. These managers are padding employees' hours, putting in regular hours as overtime, filling out the paperwork to declare families eligible for social benefits that their low-income wages miss by a few hundred dollars a year, allowing flexible work schedules so that mothers can pick up a sick child from day care, looking the other way when employees cover each other's shifts in disregard of corporate rules. "As long as the work gets done right," one supervisor said, "it's not decent to penalize people because they have kids to care for." The other side retorts, "They shouldn't have kids if they're going to work minimum wage jobs."

Dodson's "compassionate managers" know they're risking their own careers, even legal charges for fraud. "But it's that or let kids go hungry," one person says starkly. "I can't look at myself in the mirror if I do that."

How widespread is this helping the working poor by raiding the corporate coffers or bending the government rules? Dodson can't say, of course; she can only report the interviews and focus groups she conducted. But her book makes for compelling -- and disturbing -- reading. Recommended.


Miki said...

Sounds interesting -- just added it to my Amazon wishlist.

annie said...

Speaking personally, I had principals, fellow teachers and even a few doctors, nurses and social workers breaking rules to make life possible for me and my daughter when my late husband was ill and after he died. It's a real, but I think the American idea that some people in need are more deserving than others keeps it from happening on a scale that might start a revolution.

Peggy Lewis-Toney said...

It's on my to read list. Have gone from poor to working poor to middle class and now retired back to working poor. Sometimes disspiriting.