In 1989, Katherine Newman discovered a gap in our sociological, economic and anthropological understanding of the working poor in the inner city and sought to fill that gap with a personal, two-year study of over 200 African-American and Latino fast-food workers that culminated in “No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City.”
In “No Shame in My Game,” the Harvard anthropologist described the working poor of Harlem as “perpetually at risk for becoming the poor of the other kind: they are one paycheck away from what is left of welfare, one sick child away from getting fired, one missed rent payment short of eviction” (Newman, pg. xiv). With the help of a team of researchers, she sought out to find out how these workers pursued employment, what their daily schedules consisted of and how they deal with the stigma of being at the bottom of the employment latter.
Newman prefaced the book by clearly highlighting the juxtaposition between what is reported on by news outlets— and even documented by researchers, and the reality of work life for inner-city dwellers. Specifically in the bustling streets and buildings of Harlem, N.Y., workers struggle to find jobs that pay around $25 per day. And in the case of Jamal, employment opportunities are almost entirely based on your network of “associates.” Jamal only stays employed because he makes a continuous, conscious effort to seek out connections that might lead to part-time employment.
What makes stories like Jamal’s so compelling are the ages of these young people. At 22, Jamal already feels like he knows what his life will look like, jumping from dead-end job to dead-end job only making enough to support himself and his girlfriend without losing their home. This is happening all while others Jamal’s age are taking college courses, selecting careers from a catalog of opportunities entirely unavailable to Jamal, despite Jamal’s matched mental capacity.
Carmen’s story seems even less possible. Coming to the United States at age 16, she had hopes of making enough money to not only be independent, but to send some home. But her limited command of the English language (she’s Dominican) made that difficult. With help from her school counselor, she got a job in fast-food and worked full shifts. She would go to school at 8 a.m. then go straight from school to work at 4 p.m. And then she would work until 2 a.m. and study and do homework until she fell asleep. Fortunately, Carmen had a network of loved ones who were willing to support her when things grew overwhelming.
Stories like these give a different perspective from what laypeople imagine when they think of the poor. In “No Shame in My Game,” Newman acknowledges the common misconception that the working poor are unmotivated and inclined to choose public assistance over job opportunities, despite what is frequently suggested on the news and even by researchers. A study published earlier this year called “The Work versus Welfare Trade-Off” showed that welfare pays more than minimum wage work in 35 states (Tanner, 2013). Studies like this one are commonly reported (with harmful insinuations) by news outlets like Fox News to stigmatize the working poor as lazy and self-entitled. But of course, Jamal, Carmen and Kyesha are anything but lazy and self-entitled.
Graphic from The Atlantic published earlier this year about the motivations of Americans aged 18- 64 who live under the poverty line and did not work in the past year (Weissmann, 2013).
In chapter two of “No Shame,” the racial issues behind the working poor are put into historical perspective. Newman compares modern-day Harlem to the end of the Great Depression after the coal boom, when poor miners were given national attention when they struggled to make ends meet. A notable difference, Newman notes, is the race of the ones affected by poverty.
“The public impression is quite clearly the reverse: poverty wears a black face and is presumed to follow from an unwillingness to enter the labor force,” (Newman, pg. 39).
Newman also notes age greatly affects employment opportunities in inner cities. While in cities like Charlotte and the suburbs, young people are able to find employment in the fast-food or service industry before moving up the employment latter, seventy percent of workers in fast food are over 19 years old. Thirty-five percent of workers are well into adulthood, which leaves far fewer opportunities for young people (Newman, pg. 49).
Fighting the stigma of having a “McJob”
In chapter four “No Shame in (This) Game,” Newman notes the growing stigma of fast-food workers and the fast-food industry’s efforts to put the stigma to bed. Especially in the United States, job titles can define an individual. “No other dimension of life—community, family, religion, voluntary organizations—qualifies Americans for this designation of citizens in the same way,” Newman writes (pg. 87).
This stigma is further engrained by policies that forbid workers from reacting to rude or insulting customers. Because those with “McJobs” are labeled as poor and worthless, customers in Harlem who may be unhappy with their own lives will often take the opportunity to demoralize fast-food workers for their employment status.
Five-year Burger Barn employee Roberta recalls customers screaming at her, “Bitch, that’s why you work at Burger Barn.” The calm and composed African-American admits that it can be hurtful, especially when she’s being yelled at by someone who probably doesn’t even have a job. In the case of immigrant workers, this can be even more difficult when you don’t have a firm grasp of English.
According to a study published in 2013 called “Not Just Robo-Students: Why Full Engagement Matters and How Schools Can Promote It,” two-thirds of students are not regularly “fully engaged” in their academic schoolwork. They do not regularly report high levels of affective, behavioral and cognitive engagement. Although most students report working hard, few enjoy their schoolwork and find it valuable. This lack of full engagement, particularly the absence of affective and cognitive engagement, is associated with more frequent school stress, higher rates of cheating, and greater internalizing, externalizing, and physical symptoms of stress (Connor, 2013).
Newman notes that for millions of inner city youth, getting a job can mean the difference between staying in school at all and dropping out.
In “The War Against the Poor,” Herbert Gans argues that journalists should challenge other journalists in their use of stereotypes and information about the poor that is not based on journalistically reliable and credible evidence, and social scientists should do the same. He adds that social scientists should focus on the forces, processes, agents and institutions that “decide” that a proportion of a population will be poor (Gans, pg. 125-128).
Newman seems to share a similar perspective.
Transition from school to work is also a major contributor to the employment issue. Other countries invest in initiatives that help connect students with career opportunities, usually in the form of internships. This ideology, which to many outside of the United States likely seems like common sense, is enormously effective in making these transition from education to practice seamless.
It seems in the United States, there is an assumption that high school and college students have the responsibility to purposefully search out internships and part-time jobs that will lead to full-time employment at graduation. Maybe so. But many students struggle to connect to these employers. Education and work experience are usually thought of as two separate ideas. If policy-makers were to initiate programs that better merged education with job outlook, students like Jamal might not fall through the cracks. And many high school students may think twice before choosing work over classes.
VIDEO: Foster parenting at the National Youth Advocate Program:
Many organizations like the National Youth Advocate Program (NYAP) helps students find employment opportunities. It is not federally funded, but instead is a private-industry consortium, training for private-sector jobs, using strategies developed by industry specialists and teachers. Organizations like NYAP show what happens when job training initiatives actually work.
In most instances in “No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City,” the employed had jobs because they knew someone who helped them get their foot in the door. Jamal had his network of “associates,” and Carmen had her school counselor. Unfortunately for those without connections, job opportunities are slim.
Newman also promotes the importance of internal mobility. She notes many companies that she encountered in making this book were skeptical to promote common workers who possibly lacked fluency in math or some other essential experience. Many unions have establish progressive programs that help provide on-site job training to help lesser-educated workers earn the skills to be promoted.
Fixing the issues associated with the working poor begin with shifting our public focus away from those on welfare. Arguably, the working poor have a greater appreciation for their work ethics than occupants of the middle class. One could make this argument solely for the reason that the working poor who are struggling to make ends meet choose working dead-end jobs for almost no money over welfare.
“The fact that millions of people—including the African-Americans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans of central Harlem—slog it out every day in jobs like these and continue to believe that the future will hold something better is a tribute to their own tenacity. But there is also evidence for the way in which our mainstream work culture has penetrated every nook and cranny of American life—including the inner-city ghettos,” Newman wrote (pg. 297-298).
Newman’s analysis and conclusion about her experience with the working poor in the inner city is both heart-breaking yet hopeful. With an open mind and historical perspective on her side, “No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City” is wonderfully insightful and unapologetically critical of all the harmful stereotypes that stigmatize the working poor.