PW: You've made a career writing about foreign policy. What made you decide to shift your focus to domestic economic policy in The Working Poor?
David Shipler: After I came back from overseas, I spent some years writing about foreign policy and began to feel that it was rather vicarious. I came to the conclusion that I really liked interviewing ordinary people and writing about the country I'm living in. And since I was living in my own country, I decided it would be fruitful to try to examine the most vexing problems that afflict my own society. So I started with race, and I've done poverty and am now starting to work on a book about civil liberties.
PW: How many years did you spend on this book?
DS: It was about five and a half years. I started in the fall of 1997. The advantage of that was that I was able to observe, myself, many people over that long period of time and it gave me a much richer and deeper perception of what families in these circumstances go through than I would have had if I had depended only on their own memories.
PW: Because you actually saw it?
DS: If I wasn't physically with them, I talked to people on the phone all the time, and they would give me blow-by-blow accounts of what was happening on their jobs, in their child-rearing issues, with their children's schools and medical problems and other things, and when you watch that unfolding, you get a vivid sense of how vulnerable families at the low end of the economic spectrum are to crises or reverses or afflictions that would be minor in a middle- or upper-middle-class family.
PW: When you talked to the garment company owners and farmers, they didn't strike me as being much more secure than their employees.
DS: I think there's a sense of vulnerability in those two industries that may not exist in large organizations, but certainly does when you have proprietor-owned enterprises. Margins are thin and people don't feel fat and happy enough to take risks with providing high salaries or ample benefits. That was a revelation for me and important for people to realize. That doesn't mean that there's not an obligation on the part of the private sector to pay a living wage if they possibly can, but it does, I think, explain some of the cost-cutting wages that take place at the bottom of the economy.
PW: Who do you want to read this book? Did you have an intended audience?
DS: I think a lot of people would be interested, because the success of Barbara Ehrenreich's book [Nickel and Dimed] indicates that that's the case. I would like as many ordinary Americans to read this as possible so there's a consciousness-raising process that goes on. Somehow the society needs to structure gateways through which families that need help can pass into a whole array of services and address an entire range of issues that they face. So the second group I hope will read this and take it seriously are policymakers and people in political life. It's a huge issue for the health of this country and we do have it within our capacity to really make inroads into the problems.
PW: You started this book when Clinton was president. Have things gotten better, worse or stayed the same for the people you talked to?
DS: I began the book in the boom time when people were doing very well, but not these folk, and as the recession set in, interestingly enough, it didn't change the lives of people at that level very much.
PW: Wouldn't it make sense to educate children as to what poverty is so they could start to be aware of it?
DS: I think that's a very good point. It may be that with a good curriculum tracing the roots of poverty and demonstrating the factors that lead to it, people could see that, I could fall into this pattern and I need to make sure I don't, so it could have an impact. If kids could grow up being informed and understand the dynamics, they'd be much better citizens when they became adults.