“The Working Poor: Invisible in America” by David K. Shipler discusses the lives of many people that belong to a group of people known as “the working poor” that we don’t typically consider. The working poor is in an unfortunate situation because while they are able to gain employment and continue to work long and hard hours, they are unable to change their social status in the United States. Although many people are considered to be a part of the working poor due to various factors, characteristics that place them in this group can include their status as migrant workers, their psychological state, family needs, and cultural and religious values. However, the most striking category of the working poor is the migrant workers because while some solutions could be offered to other members of this community, migrant workers have very little chance of advancing their lives beyond their current situation on their own. As a consequence, it is essential to understand the culture of the group of people that typically become migrant workers and how we can possibly intervene to improve their quality of lives.
The term “migrant workers” can be broadly defined to include any group of workers who left their home country to work in a new one. In the United States, the most prime example of migrant workers is those who leave South and Central America to come to the United States in hopes of earning more money. When these people come to the United States, they typically land jobs that American citizens would prefer not to have because they are usually dangerous, require long hours, and involve a lot of physical labor. These jobs range from farming to working in kitchens, factories, and housekeeping. Although in some situations migrant workers have an improved quality of life compared to the one they had in their home country or have the increased ability to support their families, the quality of life they are experiencing are significantly lower compared to other workers in this country. Often, people who were skilled laborers in their home countries are unable to find skilled jobs in their new locations due to the reduced value of the college degrees that obtained back home. Furthermore, the jobs that are more readily available in this country are the ones that typical Americans would prefer not to have. As a consequence migrant workers land positions in these difficult and labor intensive fields and are often unable to find better positions even as they increase their experience.
According to David K. Shipler, there are many cultural values and beliefs among the migrant worker population in the United States that contribute to their position. First and foremost, South and Central American culture has a significant emphasis on family. When living in South and Central American countries, many families typically live with the entire extended family and a lot of emphasis is put on togetherness and respect as a consequence. Therefore, when a person from this geographic region decides to become a migrant worker, he does so mainly to provide a better life for his family. In many cases, the worker will leave his home country and send his family money so they will be able to support themselves. Occasionally, money will be sent to bring the entire family to the United States where they believe they will be able to live a better life. Whether or not a better life is actually achieved is defined by the individual, however it seems that as long as these families are able to be together again, migrant workers are able to remain happy with their situation.
In the book, David Shipler writes “Nobody who works hard should be poor in America” (Shipler xi). Despite this, migrant workers have a strange social stigma surrounding them that allows people to believe that they’re poor because they don’t work hard. It is therefore important to understand their definition of success compared to the typical American’s view of this same concept. When we are raised, we are given many of the things we need to survive. As a consequence, we are pushed hard to do well in school so that we may one day go to college and eventually enter a respectable and high-paying field for our career. While we work hard to achieve these goals by studying and possibly gaining hands-on experience through internships, these are a completely different set of expectations compared to those set forth for South and Central Americans. Since their countries are mostly impoverished, they are praised based on the level of work they do. Children who start working younger and work for long hours are thought to be an excellent example of success. Therefore, when we look at migrant workers and think they’re lazy because they were unable to get jobs as doctors or lawyers, we must consider that the cultural expectations for both of our societies are different. While ours emphasizes education because we have the comfort of doing so, theirs emphasizes hard work and instant cash benefit. When migrant workers move the United States for work, it is important for us to understand that they are not at liberty to improve their situation because they need to make the most amount of money possible in order to support their families. Although education would allow them to eventually work less for more money, they do not see this as an option.
A second social stigma against migrant workers in the United States is the idea that they are taking American jobs. However, it is fact that many Americans do not want the type of jobs that migrant workers take on. According to Shipler, they are “paid low wages, offered no benefits, and led nowhere” (Shipler 40). Even American citizens who were laid off from their higher up positions and need to resort to working minimum wage jobs to get by typically find better positions compared to those worked with migrant workers. Since a portion of migrant workers did not legally enter the country, they are offered wages that are lower than the federal and state minimum requirements, they are sometimes required to work more than 40 hours a week without overtime, they receive no medical or other benefits, and could live in constant fear of losing their job if they become ill and are unable to adequately perform the tasks that their employers expect. Culture also plays a major role regarding this aspect of migrant workers in this society; despite the fact that they are aware they aren’t being treated well, they know that they need their job to support themselves and their family. Being let go due to an injury or inability to work for extended hours would therefore embarrass them because they would feel as if they were letting their families down if this happened.
To improve the lives of migrant workers, it is essential that we find ways to alter current legislation that works against them. Shipler says that the government has the responsibility of protecting its citizens through a safety net and has an obligation to “blend its power in creative interaction with the profit and nonprofit worlds, with private industry and private charity” (Shipler 290). As a consequence, it is everyone’s responsibility to provide aid to these people because when people suffer in this country it ultimately impacts the entire populations. The responsibility needs to begin with the employer’s however; many recognize that their employment of migrant workers in subpar standards is both morally and legally wrong, yet they continue to take advantage of these people to make a profit. Therefore, we must firstly persuade politicians to allow the migrant workers who are here and working to be able to remain here and continue this work and we additionally must have tighter regulations to ensure that their working standards are equal to workers elsewhere in the country. For example, a payment of at least minimum wage is necessary, overtime should be provided for excess of 40 work hours per week, and there should be safe working conditions. Institutions who are unable to meet these conditions should be met with fines and shut down if conditions do not improve. Although it appears that the migrant workers could potentially lose out if their workplaces were to shut down, the supply and demand of their industry would result in more job opportunities arising in a better place of work.
Although Shipler discusses the culture of the workers to more fully explain the context of their situation, he also discusses the culture of the American people because our culture dictates how we react to the presence of these workers. For example, he says, “As a culture, the United States is not quite sure about the causes of poverty, and is therefore uncertain about the solutions”. On this basis, it is clear that we need to educate ourselves more efficiently on this topic so we don’t fall to unjustly discriminating against the working poor. Since it is no one’s fault they are stuck in their situation and they are trying hard to come out of it, we would help them most by doing our best to change the cultural standards in this country that keep them in this position. Regulating immigration policies and tightening workplace laws would benefit migrant workers greatly.
- Shipler, David K. The Working Poor: Invisible in America. New York: Knopf, 2004. Print.