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Term Paper- "No Shame in My Game"

In: Social Issues

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Term Paper In No Shame in My Game, Katherine Newman presents a view of inner city poverty radically different from that commonly accepted. The all too prevalent picture we get of the poor today in the media, in the political sphere, and in scholarly studies is of alienated minorities living in big-city ghettos, lacking in values and family structure, criminally inclined, and permanently dependent on government handouts. What Newman reveals, however, as she focuses on the working poor in Harlem, one of the country's most depressed urban areas, is a community of people who are committed to earning a living, struggling to support themselves and their families on minimum wage dead end jobs, and clinging to the dignity of a regular paycheck, regardless how meager it may be. Newman champions poor workers and seeks to reorient the poverty debate. She wants to deemphasize self defeating behaviors like teenage pregnancy, and to stress what she sees as the larger issues, the injustice of low wages and the apathy of more prosperous citizens. These low income workers “are not people whose values need re-engineering,” she writes. “They work hard at jobs the rest of us would not want because they believe in the dignity of work.” The author works to dismiss the stereotype that everyone who lives in Harlem does not want to work and is either on public assistance, selling drugs or both. “The largest groups of poor people in the United States are not those of welfare. They are the working poor whore earnings are so meager that despite their best efforts, they cannot afford decent housing, diets, health care, or child care” (page 40). Newman shows that while people who resist work and drug dealers do exist, including members of the worker’s families, there are plenty of working people in Harlem who share the same mainstream views and values, with regard to work, as the middle class. The workers Newman interviews in her study desire either higher education or the opportunity to acquire more skills through training so that they can earn higher wages in order to get themselves into a better neighborhood, support their families and live more comfortably. Moreover, most of the workers resent their family members if they do not work and instead rely solely on public assistance. Newman addresses the challenges of poor families and injuries and illness, poor families are more likely to experience chronic health problems such as asthma due to their poor living conditions and their lack of access to preventative medicine. “Regular doctors are a luxury in most poor communities, where the emergency room at the nearest hospital is the closest one comes to medical care” (page 205). Furthermore, the poor are more likely to engage in behavior that is linked to chronic disease, such as smoking. Because of their lack of access to healthcare and childcare, the poor often have to stay home from school or work to care for their sick children, siblings or elderly relatives. As a result, many become poor students or even drop out of school, which, in the long run, perpetuates their low economic status, since with a limited education, they will only have access to low wage work. The working family members lose income or even their jobs, perpetuating their low economic status, as their lack of dependability at their jobs surely works against the prospect of any upward mobility. Newman also explores the cultures of African American, Dominican, and Puerto Rican families and how it is a collective effort for the workers and their families to make ends meet. Her studies show that in order for the families to survive, all of the family members have to contribute money from their paychecks or public assistance in order to pay for rent, utilities, food and other living expenses. Virtually none of workers reside with only their nuclear families. It is impossible for individuals working low wage jobs and individuals receiving public assistance to survive on their own. Many of the workers Newman surveys were brought up by single mothers or are themselves single mothers. The poverty rate of families supported by single mothers is four times higher than that of married couples with at least one worker. “Single-parent families with mothers at the helm are almost twice as likely to be poor as families maintained solely by men, a reflection of the weak position of women in the labor market” (page 43). The young working mothers Newman interviewed generally had family members who cared for their children while they were at work. Newman discusses the negative impact this has on their children, as most do not receive the same early instruction in colors or numbers or the alphabet that their middle class counterparts do. The mothers cannot afford daycare and do not have time to teach their children, or even to spend much time with them. Instead, in one of Newman’s examples, those who watch over the children attempt to protect them by patrolling the housing project for potentially dangerous strangers and training the children to be wary of these people. Newman also examines how it is more difficult for the poor to find work, because the labor market in poor neighborhoods is so saturated. In Long Island neighborhoods, Burger Barns always have “Hiring” signs and pay their workers three dollars above minimum wage, because “no one who has a choice” will take the job at Burger Barn. “The thick forest of help-wanted signs one sees on suburban Long Island attests to the difficulty more affluent communities have in finding workers, especially for the least desirable jobs” (page 272). On the opposite side of the spectrum, workers in the inner city are struggling just to find jobs, and those who are fortunate enough to get hired at Burger Barns earn minimum wage and often stay at minimum wage. In her final chapter, Newman makes a series of recommendations for improving the lives of the working poor. She begins by stating that no one who works full time should live below the poverty line. With the current system in place, she states that employment alone will not solve the poverty problem, because the wages are too low. Newman suggests increasing minimum wage and granting government wage subsidies to firms who employ low wage workers. As a model, she cites employers who get near a fifty percent tax break for hiring rehabilitating criminals. “Even though they had many more job-seekers at the door than they could accommodate, and therefore could be quite choosy, they often picked people living in criminal halfway houses because there was a nearly 50 percent wage subsidy attached to hiring them” (page 270). This, she believes, would act as an incentive and improve the high unemployment rates in Harlem. She also recommends expanding summer youth programs to connect more directly to private sector employment. Next, Newman praises what Earned Income Tax Credit has done already for the working poor; it provides a supplementary refund to parents who make very little money. She recommends expanding the program. Newman also recommends moving people to jobs. She cites a Philadelphia project using subsidized transportation to transport the poor to job rich areas. Finally, she suggests a government expansion of subsidized daycare and healthcare not just for children, but for adults too. As alternatives to increased government contribution, Newman suggests increasing low wage worker’s participations in unions. However, she acknowledges that organizing the low wage labor market is very difficult. She also suggests that schools should play a larger role in connecting students to the working world. In Japan, teachers recommend their top students to employers and largely determine which students get jobs. “Employers maintain long-term hiring relationships with certain high schools, conditional on teachers providing dependable evaluations of student’s academic achievement and on employers offering good jobs to the school’s work-bound students” (page 277). This provides more of an incentive for children to do well in school. In Germany, apprenticeship programs are very common and are available in many more fields than in the United States. With regard to Newman’s suggestions for correcting the poverty problem, while her ideas for increasing minimum wage and expanding health care and child care subsidies are plausible, some of her other suggestions, such as busing workers to jobs and increasing low wage worker’s participation in unions, are hopeful, but unlikely, solutions. Newman’s suggestion to increase the interconnectedness between work and school is excellent, especially in communities, like Harlem, where it is more likely that students will enter the working world rather than college at the end of their high school careers. Overall, the best and most obvious suggestion Newman made would be to increase minimum wage, because, as she states, “No one who works full-time should live below the poverty line” (page 272). For two years, Professor Newman and her assistants followed people in Harlem. From work to school to the streets to their homes, she spent hundreds of hours talking to employees, and their bosses and supervisors, their friends and families. From observations and interviews, we come to understand not only the essential contribution that low wage earners make to the survival of poor households, but also the ways in which these jobs affect young people's attitudes, prospects, and self-image. This book was quite informative as it shed light on the working class poor who are often ignored in the media and by the government in favor of the non-working poor who rely solely on public assistance. Prior to reading this book, I had no idea that a weekly wage of just $150 could be too much to receive most forms of public assistance. It made me realize that those who are working may be better off on welfare, and I developed an increased respect for their efforts and perseverance. Many, but not all, ghetto residents share the ideology of the larger society that says that there is dignity in work and in the independence from heavy handed public assistance that work confers. They view work, even low wage work, as morally superior to criminal activity or to unemployment. They want good jobs, not bad ones. But in the face of constricted choices, many ghetto residents take on bad jobs instead of unemployment. They gain a sense of moral satisfaction out of working, even for low pay. This book was a great read and an adequate addition to the class curriculum as it expanded on various topics that were covered in this course. Newman’s poignant portrayal of the workers and their tenacity convinced me that no one who works full time should be living below the poverty line. Her case study made it quite apparent that living in poverty for these Harlem families could become a vicious circle, being impoverished contributed to the very conditions that prevented the workers from getting ahead. It was frustrating to read about the workers who have children and families to support but who just cannot seem to keep their head above water and about those who have the drive but do not have the means to get an education or to access training so that they can move up in the working world.

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