City Lit: The Serving Poor

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If you have a few dollars in the bank, try this exercise. Put pencil to paper and work out living on $5.15 an hour. Just how would you pay New York rent, get a sick child to the doctor, or even spend the occasional evening relaxing with friends? What kind of life does $200 a week, $800 a month, $10,000 a year buy? Give yourself a $2,200 raise to the poverty line, and then try to understand what almost one in four of all white women workers, one in three black women workers, and two in five Hispanic women in the work force have to do every day.

The reality is that minimum-wage work, even with the Earned Income Tax Credit, cannot keep a family out of poverty. When year-round, full-time workers are still living poor, sermons on the culture of poverty and the inner-city work ethic add insult to the economic injury already endured by Gap sales clerks, Duane Reade stock “boys” and burger-flipping McJobbers.

In her excellent new book, No Shame in My Game, anthropologist Katherine S. Newman follows the lives of workers in four central Harlem fast-food restaurants (here aliased “Burger Barn”). She not only explores how the working poor survive on so little, but also shows what kinds of lives they lead and the kinds of lives they hope for. Many of the stories in this rich ethnographic study are those of poor people who work hard to do better in their lives, who take pride in their work even while others demean it and who aspire to finish college to avoid getting trapped in low-wage work.

The concept of the deserving poor runs deep in the American ethic: Those who work hard, the ideology holds, should get ahead, or at least stay in place. Newman asks what happens to workers who, for all their trying, still make only $6 an hour after nine years, like Burger Barn’s Kyesha, or who, like Jamal and Kathy, can’t afford an apartment big enough to hold their young family on their combined $9 an hour wages.

Newman and her research team interviewed 200 workers and 100 unsuccessful job-seekers at Burger Barn. She then followed a dozen workers closely for more than a year in the workplace and at holiday celebrations, birthday parties, in college and high school classes, and around their kitchen tables.

These 12 also kept personal diaries that Newman uses to have the fast food workers themselves describe what it is like to live as an adult, raise a family and take care of poor or sick parents while earning at or near minimum wage. With these entries, Newman is able to show how their survival strategies–so frequently demonized as exploitation of public aid–are a necessary way to make ends meet.

She found that extended families pool their resources to form a “private safety net” of babysitting time, food stamps, housing subsidies, welfare payments and cash from low-wage jobs. Kyesha can’t afford child care on $6 an hour, but her mother, a welfare recipient, can stay at home and watch the kids for the extra cash that Kyesha brings her. Newman watches welfare reform blow like a malodorous wind through such family arrangements. Because welfare recipients and the working poor are so interdependent, policy directives aimed at pushing welfare recipients to work can shred fragile survival networks.

Newman’s graduate assistants went to work behind the counter for four months to understand what goes on at the job. By the time one drops five buns in a row, they’ve disproved the notion, held by some of the workers themselves, that “any fool could do this job.” Getting the chance is even harder: The Harlem franchises turned away 13 people for every one they hired.

Newman proposes some promising solutions. Business consortia, she suggests, could help graduate low-wage service employees into companies that offer better jobs, providing tax credits for the fast-food firms that help move their workers into a more lucrative career. Industry-wide cooperation on training and career development, as well as improvement of internal promotion programs, could help end the “dead-end” job.

But a policy visionary she’s not. The book’s real contribution lies in the clarity with which Newman presents the crushing dilemmas of low-wage workers’ lives. If the people who’ve been putting a whole nation behind Burger Barn counters understood that world this well, maybe we’d see the end of “welfare reform” as we know it.

Gina Neff is a freelance writer and a student in the CUNY graduate program.