The Public Interest

Work and poverty

Joel Schwartz

Fall 2004

MORE than a decade ago, the political scientist Lawrence .Mead predicted that the passage of workfare legislation would move American politics to the left, because mainstream Americans would be more receptive to easing the lot of “a poor population working at higher levels.” To the extent that welfare reform transformed the idle poor into the working poor, the poor would be viewed with greater sympathy. The publication of David Shipler’s study The Working Poor: Invisible in America † shows Mead’s prescience. In the book, Shipler tells the stories of “working people who ha[ve] been left behind” while American prosperity soared—people whose “wages do not lift them far enough from poverty to improve their lives.” The premise underlying his book is that the term working poor “should be an oxymoron. Nobody who works hard should be poor in America.”

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