Using First Person Accounts to Understand the Realities of the Working Poor

I have long been a believer in the power of first person accounts. My Masters-in-Teaching thesis began by focusing on all the problems of history textbooks and then morphed into a 200-page alternative U.S. History textbook that relied entirely on first person accounts. Not only do first person accounts put regular people smack dab in the middle of the story, but they also offer a window into their emotions and allow for us to connect with others in a much more authentic way.

My researching for Zoey and the Screaming Monkeys followed a similar path. A friend of mine who is a counselor in one our neighborhood schools (all of the schools in our town face high levels of poverty) was bemoaning the fact that there aren’t many books dealing with the kind of reality that these children are facing. That sparked the idea for this book, and soon I was diving into first person accounts about small town and rural poverty and the working poor. I spoke with one of my friend’s colleagues who not only worked closely with these children but grew up with the same issues herself — and I took furious notes.  I got stacks of books out from the library and bought even more. When you read and read and read, you are faced with this:

So many people facing nearly insurmountable obstacles.

So many people working to pull themselves up anyway.

So many people who are forced to be fearless.

Here are some of the highlights:

Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America

By Linda Tirado

“As the haves and have-nots grow more separate and unequal in America, the working poor don’t get heard from much. Now they have a voice—and it’s forthright, funny, and just a little bit furious.

Here, Linda Tirado tells what it’s like, day after day, to work, eat, shop, raise kids, and keep a roof over your head without enough money. She also answers questions often asked about those who live on or near minimum wage: Why don’t they get better jobs? Why don’t they make better choices? Why do they smoke cigarettes and have ugly lawns? Why don’t they borrow from their parents?

Enlightening and entertaining, Hand to Mouth opens up a new and much-needed dialogue between the people who just don’t have it and the people who just don’t get it.”

 

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

By Barbara Ehrenreich

“Our sharpest and most original social critic goes “undercover” as an unskilled worker to reveal the dark side of American prosperity.

Millions of Americans work full time, year round, for poverty-level wages. In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that a job — any job — can be the ticket to a better life. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered. Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, she worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. She lived in trailer parks and crumbling residential motels. Very quickly, she discovered that no job is truly “unskilled,” that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors.

Nickel and Dimed reveals low-rent America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity — a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate stratagems for survival. Read it for the smoldering clarity of Ehrenreich’s perspective and for a rare view of how “prosperity” looks from the bottom. You will never see anything — from a motel bathroom to a restaurant meal — in quite the same way again.”

 

Working Poor: Invisible in America

By David Shipler

“From the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Arab and Jew, an intimate portrait unfolds of working American families struggling against insurmountable odds to escape poverty.

As David K. Shipler makes clear in this powerful, humane study, the invisible poor are engaged in the activity most respected in American ideology—hard, honest work. But their version of the American Dream is a nightmare: low-paying, dead-end jobs; the profound failure of government to improve upon decaying housing, health care, and education; the failure of families to break the patterns of child abuse and substance abuse. Shipler exposes the interlocking problems by taking us into the sorrowful, infuriating, courageous lives of the poor—white and black, Asian and Latino, citizens and immigrants. We encounter them every day, for they do jobs essential to the American economy. 

This impassioned book not only dissects the problems, but makes pointed, informed recommendations for change. It is a book that stands to make a difference.”

Without a Net: Middle Class and Homeless (With Kids) in America

By Michelle Kennedy

“Michelle Kennedy had a typical middle class American childhood in Vermont. She attended college, interned in the U.S. Senate, married her high school sweetheart and settled in the suburbs of D.C. But the comfortable life she was building quickly fell apart. At age twenty-four Michelle was suddenly single, homeless, and living out of a car with her three small children. She waitressed night shifts while her kids slept out in the diner’s parking lot. She saved her tips in the glove compartment, and set aside a few quarters every week for truck stop showers for her and the kids.

With startling humor and honesty, Kennedy describes the frustration of never having enough money for a security deposit on an apartment—but having too much to qualify for public assistance. Without A Net is a story of hope. Michelle Kennedy survives on her wits, a little luck, and a lot of courage. And in the end, she triumphs.”

 

Ghostbread

By Sonja Livingston

“‘When you eat soup every night, thoughts of bread get you through.’ Ghostbread makes real for us the shifting homes and unending hunger that shape the life of a girl growing up in poverty during the 1970s.

One of seven children brought up by a single mother, Sonja Livingston was raised in areas of western New York that remain relatively hidden from the rest of America. From an old farming town to an Indian reservation to a dead-end urban neighborhood, Livingston and her siblings follow their nonconformist mother from one ramshackle house to another on the perpetual search for something better.

Along the way, the young Sonja observes the harsh realities her family encounters, as well as small moments of transcendent beauty that somehow keep them going. While struggling to make sense of her world, Livingston perceives the stresses and patterns that keep children―girls in particular―trapped in the cycle of poverty.

Larger cultural experiences such as her love for Wonder Woman and Nancy Drew and her experiences with the Girl Scouts and Roman Catholicism inform this lyrical memoir. Livingston firmly eschews sentimentality, offering instead a meditation on what it means to hunger and showing that poverty can strengthen the spirit just as surely as it can grind it down.”

 

World’s Apart Poverty and Politics in Rural America

By Cynthia M. Duncan

“First published in 1999, Worlds Apart examined the nature of poverty through the stories of real people in three remote rural areas of the United States: New England, Appalachia, and the Mississippi Delta. In this new edition, Duncan returns to her original research, interviewing some of the same people as well as some new key informants. Duncan provides powerful new insights into the dynamics of poverty, politics, and community change.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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