David Shipler, Pulitzer Prize winning author and former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, liked to play connect the dots as a child.
For the perhaps unfamiliar technological era, connect the dots is a children’s game where one connects the dots on a page to form a complete line drawing of something.
That is exactly what Shipler did among the working poor in this country in an attempt to understand their circumstance.
Shipler gave a speech addressing issues in his book, “The Working Poor: Invisible in America,” to a standing room only crowd in the UAA Fine Arts Building recital hall, which holds 250 people.
He said those living in poverty in America, legally defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as a single person earning $11,170 or less, are hiding in plain sight.
They’re the cashiers at local store, people who work in restaurants and cashiers.
He said all of these people, and society in general, fall victim to what he calls the American myth: the idea that those who work hard will succeed economically in this country, and that those that are poor do not work hard.
Shipler talked about the culture of poverty, coined by American anthropologist Oscar Lewis in 1961, as usually being thought of as the traditions of a lifestyle passed from one generation to another.
But he said he disagrees with that idea and instead observes poverty similar to an ecological system.
He said poverty operates through failures within the interconnectedness of schools, government programs, neighborhoods, friends and family that perpetuate a cycle limiting upward social and economical mobility.
Shipler said he interviewed impoverished school children about what their plans were for their future, and many said they wanted to be astronauts, doctors, lawyers and sports stars.
When he interviewed impoverished high school students about the goals for their future, the high aspirations were gone.
“Somewhere between elementary and high school, the dreams die,” he said.
He said one of the successful actions he’s seen to connect people to means for helping themselves is the creation of gateways to multiple services.
For instance, Shipler told a story about a child who suffered from chronic asthma.
The child lived with his family in an apartment unit with old carpets, heavy drapes, roaches which shed their skin into ventilation systems and a leaking pipe that was causing mold growth.
The resident of the apartment had little luck with the landlord fixing the problem. That was until the doctor spoke to the landlord about the problem.
That physician’s office now employs five attorneys on staff to work with low-income patients to ensure they have suitable housing.
The interconnectedness of that service has created long-term health benefits for the doctor’s patients.
“Poverty is not just that still photograph of income,” Shipler said.
In addition to creating health problems, poverty also effects people’s ability to succeed in job markets.
For instance, he said there is an embedded self-perception in people who have failed repeatedly in life that suggests they cannot succeed outside of the world they are familiar with.
He said in work training programs, he’s seen success where those teaching the courses teach not just job skills, but people skills as well, such as looking someone in the eye when speaking.
He said the claim by many that there are not a lot of skilled workers in this country is generally true.
He cited statistics for the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy data file that indicate 55 percent of people read the directions on a medication bottle clearly or pick items from an office supply catalog and total the price of the items; 33 percent of people could not summarize job expectations in the want ads of a publication; and 22 percent could not calculate what their weekly earnings would be, given the hourly rate of pay and hours worked.
The test is administered every 10 years.
“The alarm bells should be sounding,” said Shipler.
As a country, he said there needs to be a way to view the realities of poverty and create policy to combat it as a whole.
“We have to keep remembering to connect the dots,” he ended.
After the speech, Shipley answered questions from the audience.
Writer Caroline Bolar told an anecdote rather than asking a question.
She said in 1956, when she was 12 years old, she went out on Halloween night to collect money for a charity. She said when she walked through the well-to-do neighborhood, her pitch that every cent buys a glass of milk for a needy child grudgingly eared her charity a dime from a woman in one of the houses. The same pitch, she said, earnef her a dollar from a woman in a low-income neighborhood wearing a dress she recognized to be made form a flour sack.
“At 12, I saw a huge discrepancy of spirit between those who have and those who didn’t have,” she said.
In her opinion, the country cannot continue to sustain itself on the, “To hell with them; I have mine,” mentality.
Shipler confirmed her suspicion that the middle and low economic classes give more to charity than the wealthy, though many do so through church organizations.
While not a religious person, Shipler said he observed a sense of wellbeing and belonging among low-income people who belonged to a church over those who did not.
He also said churches help people in need through food drives and sometimes in monetary ways.
“It makes a big difference,” he said.
Dawn Macon, peer support specialist at Alaska Mental Health Consumer Web, compared low-income people from low-income education systems being released into the workforce to a time when slaves were freed but unable to work because they weren’t educated.
“At some point people just need to eat,” she said, and then asked Shipler what should be done to help people help themselves.
Shipler said he advocates vocational schools and work training facilities. “That’s the key here.”
Bethany Brunelle, journalism and public commutations and music junior, asked, “I want to know what happened to the American dream?”
She said she sees many people in poverty who are there because they have an
unwillingness to work hard.
“If more people would be determined (to work hard), we wouldn’t have so much poverty,” she said.
“I disagree with you on every point,” Shipler said. “This sweeping generalization about people in all categories is really not accurate.”
Brunelle disagreed and recounted her story of being stricken with cancer and bouncing back enough to work two jobs and take 14 credits this semester.
There was a smattering of applause for Brunelle and a student in the crowd said she completely agrees because she is in a similar situation.
However, when Shipley asked how she could hold those views steadfastly after hearing about his research into the ecology and relativity of poverty, she said she was not in attendance for the speech because she was taking a midterm.
After the question and answer session, Shipler signed books and took photos with people in the main entrance of the fine arts building.
Megan Olson, Vice Chancellor for University Advancement, said Shipler was able to come to the university as part of the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows program.
According to their website, the program encourages its fellows, writers and XXX, to visit campuses for a week to discuss complex social issues in an in depth way.
She said Shipler was an obvious choice to bring to campus because his book, coincidentally, is also a UAA and Alaska Pacific University book of the year.
Olson also said Shipler has, throughout the week, met with students and various clubs, spoke in classes and lectured in the community.
Current Issues and Perspectives
In an interview after the lecture, he discussed his experience as a journalist for The New York Times in Moscow from 1975-1979.
He said the time spent in a country that radically suppressed its people opened his eyes to some aspects of American life.
“You see your own country more clearly and more vividly,” he said.
After reporting out of Moscow, Shipler served as the Bureau Chief of The New York Times in Jerusalem form 1979-1984.
He went on to write “Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land,” which explored the relationship between the two cultures in Israel and along the West Bank.
The book won a Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction in 1987.
When the Arab Spring took place in the winter of 2010, he said, “ I felt excited and hopeful and worried all at the same time.”
He said when a country is ruled by a dictator for a long time and has a movement to overthrow that dictatorship, it’s a lot harder than just replacing a leader because the ideology of the ruling class still lingers.
According to Shipler, those countries will face a long, hard struggle before they’ll have a democracy, if they ever have create one.
His opinion about last year’s Occupy Wall Street movement was twofold.
On one hand, he said he appreciated it because it touched on an important part of wealth disparity in this country.
On the other, he said it was frustrating because it was formless.
He said he talked to some of the protesters in Washington D.C. for an afternoon, and while they were interesting people, they did not want to put faith into a leader or rally for specific policies.
“What do you do with all that sentiment?” he asked.
Shipler said, there needs to be, “an intersection between the street and policy.”
For more information about Shipler and to stay up to date with his work, visit his blog at http://shiplerreport.blogspot.com/.