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Pulitzer winner weighs realities of grass-roots economy

Mike Dunham

"I'm really not an expert in the economy," said Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Shipler. But his to-the-point sentences, command of details and clear expositions that conforms with observed realities leave no doubt that, on the subject of grass-roots economics, this man knows what he's talking about.

Shipler is visiting Alaska as a fellow from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation of Princeton, N.J. The foundation sends scholars, journalists and others to speak at universities around the country. Shipler will make a number of classroom appearances because his book, "The Working Poor: Invisible in America," is being used in several college courses this year. He will also have public appearances in Anchorage and the Mat-Su.

While some speak of a "culture of poverty," Shipler prefers the phrase "ecology of poverty."

"The problems that families, who are in or near poverty, face are interrelated. They interact with one another; they tend to magnify one another," he said, similar to the way that biology and environment form complex relationships in nature.

He gave as an example a family with a single worker making minimum wage, unable to get housing assistance.

"In most parts of the country, rents can be so high that they soak up to 50 or 70 percent of a working poor family's income -- and it's not an optional payment. Neither are electricity or transportation. Those expenses can't be squeezed. What can be squeezed is the part of the budget that goes to food. But food stamps only go so far; the people I write about say food stamps will take them two or three weeks into the month, and that's being frugal."

Shipler cited a study showing a correlation between the lack of housing subsidies and childhood malnutrition. When the money runs low, people may have to choose between eating and getting to work -- which for most people means paying for a car.

"Alaska's not unique," he said. "There are very few places in the country where public transportation can get you to work. People wind up buying a car they can't afford. Or the car that they can afford isn't reliable."

People who can't pay for car repairs tend to have jobs in which they are considered expendable, Shipler explained. Employers are less willing to excuse the absence of an unskilled worker than they might be for a professional. That's true whether the absence is due to a broken down vehicle or illness.

For a minimum wage hourly worker, missing work to stay home with a child means less income. Less income means squeezing the food budget further. Less food may mean malnutrition. Malnutrition is an undisputed cause of childhood illness.

"It's like chain-reaction, a vortex that you get sucked down into," Shipler said.

At the bottom of the vortex is getting fired.

"The Working Poor" came out in 2004 and has gone through repeated editions as Shipler adds recent data. The latest update is just now coming out. One reason he speaks with such authority is that he keeps looking at this information over and over again, putting it in context with the shifting times.

"Two things have happened in the midst of the economic crisis that began in 2008," he said. "The first is that a lot of problems we've associated with the working poor have now been experienced by people in what we loosely call the middle class," a ill-defined part of the population, he admitted.

"Many, even with professional credentials, have lost their jobs and spiraled into a pattern not unlike that suffered by people below the poverty line. There's a loss of self-esteem and a sense of incapacity, which is as much a problem as the lack of money. It paralyzes you. There's real emotional hardship when you keep applying for jobs and keep getting rejected."

Recent unemployment figures, which suggested an uptick in jobs, were widely discounted by those who noted that the reduction in joblessness was due to people who were no longer looking for work, he said.

"People just throw up their hands in despair and give up trying. Housing becomes an issue for people who get foreclosed or are underwater. For much of the middle class, the sense of what is possible becomes smaller than it was.

"The fear is incalculable and is responsible, I think, for the political discontent you see in the country."

The other calamity wrought by the current economy is that, while low-skilled labor continues to be needed, middle level jobs have been eroded.

"Those are jobs where you might have the chance to move up to a more lucrative and responsible position. Entry level jobs are dead end jobs; that's one of the problems of the welfare-to-work program."

The situation is exacerbated by a job market that favors employers.

"When you have a good economy, employers generally try to keep their labor force as stable as they can," Shipler said. "Turnover is a disadvantage. Finding people who are reliable can be difficult. Retraining is a pain. Employers will be a little more solicitous of employees' needs in an economy that's booming.

"In this economy, the opposite is the case. A lot of good people are looking for work, so employers don't have to be quite as accommodating to personal problems or issues in the home lives of their workers. And people who work at low wage jobs often have disrupted family lives."

Framing the problem is one thing. Finding a solution is another.

"When politicians talk about creating jobs, they never talk about what kind of jobs," Shipler said.

The global economy is ruthless, he said. Low-skill jobs that can be done elsewhere will be.

The answer is not try to prevent those jobs from going overseas -- one familiar political proposal -- he said, but to "upgrade the skills of Americans to do jobs here that have to be done here.

"The proper response to the economic collapse would have been an enormous program of job retraining, and it would have to come from government funding. The failure to do that on a massive scale means a missed opportunity, I think, to create a recovery that's not just a short-term recovery.

"It's a huge challenge."

Shipler's most recent work, "Rights at Risk: Limits of Liberty in Modern America," came out this spring.

It's the second of two volumes addressing civil rights. (The first is "Rights of the People.")


With his wife, Debby, Shipler has been sightseeing in the state for much of this month.

"We'd never been to Alaska before," said the former New York Times reporter previously assigned to Moscow and Israel. "We spent most of our time on the Kenai Peninsula, but we're planning to catch the ferry to Whittier and drive back from Valdez," he said in a phone call from Girdwood.

Most of their photos show them bundled in rain gear, he admitted. "You can't even see who we are. But it's still a spectacular part of the world."

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.


• Anchorage Chamber of Commerce Make it Monday forum at noon Monday at the Egan Center. Admission is $30 for nonmembers. Doors open at 11:30 a.m.

• Mat-Su College, 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. At this event Shipler will address the conflict in the Middle East, the subject for which he won the Pulitzer prize in 1987.

• UAA Arts Building, Room 150, at 7 p.m. Thursday Shipler's topic will be "Understanding Poverty by Connecting the Dots." Admission is free.

Online: David Shipler's posts can be read here.

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