Shipler ‘64 addresses American poverty
By Anya Perret
Published on Friday, October 19, 2007
Pulitzer Prize-winner David Shipler '64 addressed issues concerning American poverty in his speech in Dartmouth Hall Thursday night. Shipler's speech was part of this year's first Dartmouth Centers Forum Lecture Series which will focus on class divisions in America.
Shipler came to Dartmouth to discuss his most recent book, "The Working Poor: Invisible In America," a 2004 and 2005 national best seller that tells the stories of many different low-income Americans. In the book, Shipler said, he tries to "connect the dots" between the many causes and manifestations of poverty.
"The federal poverty line is $20,650 per year for a family of four, but poverty is not just income," Shipler said. "Income is just a still photograph of the present. Poverty includes debt, and debt is a moving picture of the past, carried into the future."
Shipler described what he terms the "American myth," which he says is a commonly held belief that anyone living in poverty simply is not working hard enough because of the abundance of opportunity in the United States.
"The working poor are the car washer without cars, the assistant teacher who can't put her kids in the daycare where she works," Shipler said. "Fruits of their labor are in our lives every day, but they are not full people to us; we do not see their poverty which is hidden in plain sight ... and we don't see them as poor because they have jobs, and we often say that if they're poor, it's their fault."
Shipler added that this myth is prevalent even among low-income American workers.
"Poor people internalize this myth," Shipler said. "I rarely did interviews in which someone didn't blame their circumstances on themselves."
According to Shipler, some also embrace the opposite belief and decide that society and its failings, including inequalities in the educational system, are responsible for all poverty. He added that Democrats often embrace this theory, while Republicans blame lack of personal responsibility and initiative.
"It's actually hard to put any individual person in either box," Shipler said. "Neither a person nor society are responsible for any one person's circumstance."
Shipler called for a bipartisan, holistic approach to the improvement of social services.
"I would like to see liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, each of whom has their own pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, sit down at a table and assemble the pieces and develop a full picture of the causes and manifestations of poverty," Shipler said.
Throughout his speech, Shipler stressed that the causes and manifestations of poverty are complex and intertwined. He gave numerous examples in which a seemingly small or addressable issue became incredibly challenging for a low-income person or family. He gave the example of a family struggling to make ends meet that had both fixed costs, such as rent, utilities, and car payments, and some areas in which they can "squeeze," such as food. He said that this can often lead to children being malnourished. In moderate to severe cases, poor nourishment can cause many health problems. These include cognitive disorders in young children, which can affect their performance in school, increasing the likelihood that they will drop out of school or perform poorly, which often perpetuates a cycle of poverty.
"The less we invest in children now the more we have to invest in prisons and social services later," Shipler said.
Shipler also wanted to make the audience aware of what he believes to be a disturbing socioeconomic trend in the United States.
"In the last ten years, economic disparity in America has greatly increased," Shipler said. "Today, the top 10 percent of families have an average income of $1.3 million, but the bottom 25 percent end the year in debt at an average of -1400 dollars."
After the lecture, Shipler answered questions from the audience. When asked about the connection between educational achievement and poverty, he said that many of the low-income individuals he interviewed for his book were extremely frustrated in school, leading them to drop out, do poorly, and possibly develop low self-esteem. He was also asked about national healthcare, immigrants' income levels and quality of life and the degree to which legal and illegal immigrants seeking unskilled labor negatively affects U.S. laborers with similar skills. After noting these topics could be deemed "campaign issues," Shipler encouraged members of the Dartmouth community to talk directly to the presidential candidates who visit the campus and make it clear that people from many different backgrounds are concerned about poverty in the country.
"Raise your hand if you would be willing to pay more taxes to address the issue of poverty," Shipler said, and almost everyone present did.
"Now raise your hand if you've told a politician so," he said, and almost every hand fell.