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The Views of David Shipler on the Causes of Poverty in America

David K. Shipler presents many viewpoints across the political spectrum regarding the causes for poverty in the United States in The Working Poor: Invisible in America. Shipler states in his introduction, “This book is about [the working poor], their families, their dreams, their personal failings, and the larger failings of their country” (Shipler 4). While he presents multiple viewpoints, he tends to favor explanations for the causes of poverty that are embraced by those who adhere to left-wing ideology. Shipler states that the working poor are “buffeted and bruised and defeated” and “when an exception breaks this cycle of failure, it is called the fulfillment of the American Dream” (Shipler 5). The “American Myth,” as Shipler calls it, is embraced by those on the right and denounced by those on the left. While Shipler does not offer many solutions to poverty, he diagnoses the problem of poverty that is consistent with the manner many of those on the left would diagnose as well. Shipler attempts to persuade the reader by favoring left-wing positions over right-wing positions and approaching the issue of poverty by presupposing the problem of poverty from a left-wing perspective.

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One of the ways that Shipler persuades the reader to agree with his position is by using appeals to pity in order to gain sympathy for illegal immigrants or the working poor. At the beginning of almost every chapter, there is an anecdote of a migrant worker, minimum wage earner, single mother, or others. By presenting these stories before examining the problem with poverty in that particular chapter, Shipler allows the reader to see a “human side” to poverty. Americans who adhere to right-wing ideology usually do not have sympathy for illegal immigrants. In fact, many of those on the right believe that illegal immigrants aren’t the victims of the United States, but the other way around. Shipler tells the story of Candalaria, a Mexican immigrant to the US who struggles to keep up with the demand of her job in order to make minimum wage. If she didn’t make the demand that day, she would have to pay back the difference to her boss (Shipler 78). Even though she started work at 7am, her boss did not let her punch in until 9am. This anecdote allows the reader to connect with Candalaria and could convince the reader to feel sympathy. This sympathy influences the reader to believe in adopting legislation that helps migrant workers, which is a common belief in left-wing ideology. Ron Suskind, a writer for the New York Times, compares Shipler to a “behemoth at the county fair,” whose appeals to pity “wear down the giant” that is the reader (Suskind, Can’t Win For Losing).

The language Shipler uses in the book heavily favors left-wing explanations for the causes of poverty vs. right-wing explanations. From the very start of the book, Shipler places more of the blame on society than he does on the individual. Shipler’s statement about the focus of the book being about the working poor’s “personal failings and the larger failings of their country” is an example of this (Shipler 4). While he does acknowledge the individual plays a role in their own personal situation of poverty, he believes that the country has failed them even more. Shipler portrays the poor as a victim in society throughout the book. He compares tax preparers to predators that operate from “sleazy check-cashing joints” (Shipler 15). He uses similes to compare migrant workers to seed and fertilizer, portraying to the worker how society treats migrant workers more like product than people (Shipler 99). This shows how migrant workers are victimized by the American system of capitalism.

While Shipler does indeed try to influence the reader to adopt left-wing viewpoints regarding poverty, he does attempt to call for a dialogue between liberals and conservatives regarding poverty. Shipler states, “The troubles of the working poor will not be relieved by this ideological debate. Political argument is vital for democracy, but solutions must finally transcend the familiar disagreements” (Shipler 299). Roger Gathman, a writer for The Austin Chronicle, calls this “A very liberal misunderstanding of conservatism.” Gathman states that “liberals imagine both sides are for the ideal of abolishing poverty; they aren’t.” This may be the key piece of evidence as to how The Working Poor contains left-wing bias. Those on the left want to abolish poverty, while those on the right do not see it as an issue. Those on the left see poverty as a problem affecting society, while those on the right see poverty as an issue affecting individuals.

While David K. Shipler attempts to bridge the gap between liberals and conservatives regarding poverty, he approaches this issue from the left-wing position that presupposes poverty as a problem that deserves to be fixed. He does this through using appeals to pity, figurative language that favors left-wing explanations for the causes of poverty, and promoting the idea that poverty is a problem facing society rather than the individual that deserves attention.

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