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Fast Track From Poverty?

by Gotham Gazette Staff, Sep 18, 2006
 

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A mayoral commission published its strategy for confronting poverty in New York City on September 18, putting particular focus on the working poor, young adults 16 to 24, and children under 6. Earlier this summer, Gotham Gazette's Reading NYC Book Club met with urban anthropologist Katherine Newman to talk about her work with young, poor fast food workers in Harlem. Such jobs are frequently dismissed as meaningless after-school jobs for teenagers looking for pocket money, or dead end jobs for adults who can do no better. Newman found a much more complicated picture. Below is an edited transcript of our discussion.

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GOTHAM GAZETTE: Our guest this month is Katherine Newman, who is an urban anthropologist who now teaches at Princeton; she has also taught at Columbia and Harvard. The book for this month is No Shame In My Game, a sort of an ethnography of fast food workers in Harlem, with the intention of examining the experiences of the working poor in urban areas.

One thing that you mention in the introduction to the book, Professor Newman, is that at the time you were writing, policy makers and academics were talking about welfare policy, but the people who were working and still stuck in poverty weren't being discussed.

In the last presidential election John Edwards ran a campaign that was largely based on policies addressing the working poor, and in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has also announced that he wants to look at poverty in New York City.

So have things changed? Are people now paying attention to the experience of the working poor?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: I think that people are paying a lot more attention than they once did. In the early 90s when I first got started doing this work, poverty was really synonymous in the public mind and in the world of journalism with people who were out of the labor force, especially those who were persistently attached to the welfare rolls, for whom there was no sympathy, no understanding, and no affection. The working poor were completely invisible in this discussion at the time.

I do think that that has changed, because welfare reform really shredded the safety net that once was represented by welfare, and thrust many people who were high on everybody’s list of the despised into the labor market, into exactly the same kinds of jobs that I focused on.

So it has changed, but there isn’t nearly as much sympathy and understanding as I would have hoped for.

I think that we remain persistently skeptical about people who are out of the mainstream. Where once that meant not working, now we say, "why are those people working at such crappy jobs? What is the matter with them that they are at the bottom of the working heap?"

FAST FOOD WORKERS IN HARLEM

GOTHAM GAZETTE: There are poor people working throughout the country. Why did you decide to focus on Harlem, and why did you decide to pick the fast food industry?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: I was a neighbor in Harlem, and all field researchers want to do their research close to where they live because you spend a great deal of time with the people.

I thought it would be worthwhile for a then-Columbia faculty member to invest some time to study the city that we worked in. And also because Harlem is a historic capital of black America, and black America is what I set out to study in looking at the working poor.

I chose the fast food industry first because I thought that I was going to be studying young people in the labor market; I actually set out to study teenage workers. I discovered subsequently that the labor market was so bad at the time I began the study that teenagers actually couldn’t get these jobs very easily. These jobs were being held down by prime working age adults with families to raise. And that was a shock to me.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Is it your impression that those jobs are still being filled by adults with families to raise, or do you think that the market is better now for teenagers?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Well, I think that the market fluctuated in the period between the time when I began working on No Shame in My Game and the present. So I followed the people in this book and discussed what I learned about them in a book coming out in October called Chutes and Ladders. In that eight-year period the market became much better. Those opportunities began to open up again, and adults moved on to better jobs, moved up the ladder and into better sources of employment. Then after 9/11, the economy began to run down again, but not nearly to the level it was when I began the project.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Do you think that the experience of the working poor in New York City is different from elsewhere in the country?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Not enormously different from other big cities. Of course the dynamics change and the population changes depending on the composition of the city. In New York at the time of No Shame in My Game, if you went a few miles outside of the city to Long Island you would sort of see a totally different population in that type of jobs – and a much more favorable wage structure, by the way. It just reflects supply and demand. The teenagers were too affluent there and weren’t interested in these jobs.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: The major groups of workers in your book are African-Americans, Latino immigrants, and Puerto Ricans. Recently, there has been a lot of talk as part of the immigration debate about illegal immigrants taking low-income jobs taking from native-born Americans. Did you find that to be the case?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: I did. In central Harlem, which at the time was entirely African-American, you did see a steady movement of Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans into this labor force. This was partly because employers were persuaded that immigrant workers – especially immigrant workers socialized abroad – would be grateful to have these jobs, wouldn’t complain very much, and be more compliant, docile workers.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Did that create tension between the two groups?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: It created tension and friendship both. There was friction, mainly when it came to hiring new workers. So when the African-American workers tried to foster their friends and family members into new job openings, and found that their recommendations weren’t taken as seriously as Latino workers' recommendations, that created friction and caused anger.

But the thing that I found most striking was that people created a community of friends out of the people they worked with. Workers had friendships or relationships with each other; they went to the movies together. The workplace is a great generator of cross-racial contact and friendship.

This was important because lots of young people in the workforce would take tremendous hazing or teasing for taking jobs that required them to wear uniforms and to show a lot of deference to customers. The more hazing that they experienced with their friends on the street or in the neighborhood, the more they drew close to the people they shared this stigma with: their fellow workers. They developed a sense of pride in being a worker, not so much in this job, but in being an employed person. That distinguished them from the people they knew on the street who didn’t have jobs.

THE PEOPLE WHO WORKED THEIR WAY OUT OF POVERTY

GOTHAM GAZETTE: So for the research in this book also for Chutes and Ladders, you followed people for about eight years. Are there any stories that stick out?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: There are many stories that stick out in my mind.

Jamal was an African-American young man, and was about 22 years old when I first met him. [The names Newman uses are all pseudonyms]. He had a common law wife and a young baby. This is a troubled situation; they lost the baby to foster care because of a violent incident that he never really wanted to talk about much. And Jamal looked for better jobs, but at the point I first encountered him only once in his life had he held a job that had paid a living wage: he had in his younger years found a job at an auto factory, that was the best job that he had.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: That was out-of-town?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Yeah it was where his grandmother lived. This kid came from a pretty tough background, his mother was a heroin addict. And he had to fend for himself at a very young age, from about thirteen onwards. He had to work part-time and earn his own way, as his mother’s addiction got worse, his life got worse and he would run away to his grandmother’s house and she would put up with him for awhile until she got tired of having him. It was a very unstable life.

At the point that I finished No Shame in My Game. I lost contact with him. I looked for him everywhere and then eight years later for the final follow-up that appears in Chutes and Ladders we found him, way out West. And I almost didn’t pursue this lead, because I was so unsure that it could be him. I just couldn’t imagine how Jamal could have ever found himself to where he was. But, there he was, in a small community in Northern California, where he now earns about $30,000 a year. He is married -- not to the person that he was with when I knew him first – has three kids, a good steady unionized job.

Jamal works at a skilled job in a laminating wood factory. So through a long circuitous train of events he found his way to a place where his lack of education really didn’t matter very much. They don’t care whether you have a college degree in a wood factory.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Should we take anything from the fact that he is not in New York City, that he left the city and ended up in a completely different region in the country?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Well, one strategy for upward mobility is to move where there are better jobs for people who have the characteristics that he had. But, other examples stayed here in New York. Kyesha worked the drive-thru window at Burger Barn. [Burger Barn is a pseudonym for the national fast food chain where the subjects of Newman's book worked]. She was earning 25 cents more per hour than the minimum wage after four years on the job.

Kyesha also had held a job cleaning up around the housing project where she lived in the summer time. She established a good reputation for herself as a good worker and then eventually got hired full-time as a civil servant. Eight years later she is earning about $30,000 a year running the janitorial staff and repair staff in one of the large public housing projects in Harlem.

Kyesha earns a lot of money for someone of her background, and is very motivated to study for advancement in the ranks of the New York City Housing Authority – or may shift over to the New York Sanitation department. If you had told me, when I first met her, that she would have a job that would have any of those benefits, I would have fallen over. But that’s a New York City story, of someone who found her way into unionized employment in the civil service, which has always been an avenue of mobility and security for minorities.

The ability to pursue that kind of chance in life is a function of how large or restricted we make the civil service. Every day we shrink public sector jobs is a day we reduce opportunities for people like Kyesha.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: In Chutes and Ladders you write that a large proportion of people worked their way out of poverty. Do you have a percentage?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: About 25 percent really did work their way out of poverty. About the same number remained more or less where they were. And everybody in between kept ahead of inflation and did migrate to better jobs, but just not enough to make a huge difference in their lives. For that middle group, the fate of their families depends a great deal on their personal relations with other people. If they have partners that are contributing as earners, their families look a lot better. If they don’t, they are still struggling.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: How much do you think these two factors make a difference in the changes: the changes in the economy, and just the fact that they are older and have more experience. What should we make from these changes?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Some ability of upward mobility would accompany getting older and having more experience. But in a very slack labor market it won’t pay off very much. If there aren’t better jobs to go to – or the better jobs are being held by people with much better credentials – then you’ll still get this population at the bottom bumping up against a ceiling. It’s not a glass ceiling; it's more like a brick wall. But what happened in the late 90s and the early part of 2000 and 2001 is that we had record tight labor markets, better than we’ve seen for forty years. It was just about the best economy we’ve seen in generations, and might be the best that we are going to see in some time to come. That did open up opportunities for people.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Were there any things that the people who succeeded had in common?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: They had ways of taking care of their children that were stable, either because they had good day care, or because they had relatives who could share the burdens. This meant that they had stable track records in the labor force. It is very harmful for women in particular to have unstable ties to the labor force.

They did gain experience and gain references by virtue of having the jobs that they had before.

They had contacts or people who could give them advice about where to find better jobs. And sometimes those contacts were as simple as running into someone who had a job as a porter in one of the high-rise buildings and he said 'hey there is an opening here'.

There is nothing like a union card to give you a higher wage, even for a job that does not require a vastly higher skill set.

The union story is very important too. Not just civil service, but private unions also, which have traditionally not been that open to minorities. When they are, there is nothing like a union card to give you a higher wage, even for a job that does not require a vastly higher skill set.

One of the characters in the book, Reynaldo, this was his experience. When we first met him he was working at Burger Barn and doing a lot of other things on the side. His father had this kind of business as an unlicensed contractor. Reynaldo’s dad had taught him how to do wiring and plastering. He could renovate an apartment on his own, even though he never had any credentials in a union. Eventually he found a job as a unionized porter in an East side building. His wages jumped threefold, and he had the benefits that often come with union jobs.

DIFFERENT PATHS FOR MEN AND WOMEN

MARTHA SOFFER: Was there a statistical difference of how successful men and women were rising out of poverty?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Their pathways for mobility were different. The men were more likely to get blue-collar, unionized jobs. Women did better in the service industry, in part because women tend to get more education.

So we see men and women not necessarily rising up in unequal numbers, but in different routes. Women are the ones who are likely to be burdened with childcare obligations, and if someone is going to stumble for family reasons, it almost always is going to be a woman. But that said, I was struck by the consistent contribution that men made to their children even if they didn’t live with them.

In general, women are outpacing men in their enrollment in higher education across the country in all racial groups. The numbers are much more skewed in the African-American community. But this is a serious problem across racial lines, because the kinds of jobs that permit you to earn a good living because you're strong are disappearing in large numbers, or are being exported overseas. This is a big policy issue that we need to address, because we are losing a lot of young men.

POVERTY AND PUBLIC POLICY

GOTHAM GAZETTE: What are some of the other policy issues that should be addressed?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Well, I don’t think of myself as a policy expert. But here are some things that matter:

First; I think access to higher education is absolutely critical. That’s an issue where I think we are marching backwards very quickly, including here in New York City. The City University of New York has always been a gateway for low-income families and immigrants into higher education, but every time that we raise tuition by $1,000 there are 40,000 people who drop out of the university. It's really penny wise and pound foolish to do this.

Tragically, many people in No Shame in My Game were very well aware that they needed more education. They just didn’t have the money. They were constantly enrolling in school, and then dropping out. Some of them took ten or fifteen years to complete their bachelor’s degree. To their credit they stuck with it. But they would have been able to have access to much better employment, if they could have done that faster. But our financial aid policies are not set up to accommodate adult workers. We don’t provide childcare to make it possible for adults to continue school.

Second, funding training is very important as well. One of the things that I wrote about in the book, which subsequently got picked up by some mayor's offices around the country, was trying to provide better linkages between employers. An employer who has a crew of fast food workers cannot do that much for them. There are only a certain number of people that you can push up into management. But someone who has proven themselves in a job like that – which is a tough job that requires a lot of stamina and a lot of sticking power – should be able to connect to a better job. If employers were able to do this through what I call an employers consortium, a kind of a trading link between employers who only have minimum wage jobs to offer and employers who have more skilled better jobs to offer, I think there would be benefits for both. For the low wage employer, it gives him something to hold out to a potential worker as a reward for sticking with the job, which is typically quite high turnover.

For the employer that has the better jobs to offer, there are benefits as well. It is amazing to me how difficult it is for employers to judge the people who come before them as job applicants. What do they know about them? Actually, surprisingly little, one of the reasons why prejudice runs as rampant as it does.

Third, we certainly need to do better in our public schools. I give a lot of credit to Mayor Bloomberg for this. There was no serious effort going on before and nothing to look forward to improvement.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Do you think that raising the minimum wage makes any difference?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Well, everyone is in favor of raising the minimum wage, myself included. But, the minimum wage would go to my seventeen year old son, who doesn’t need an increase in the same way that Kyesha needs one. We call this a blunt instrument. The value of the blunt instrument is that it is politically popular. It is politically more sustainable, and this is one reason why Republicans actually vote for increases in minimum wage.

A more targeted and efficient way to deliver money to poor workers is the Earned Income Tax Credit. This credit is not given to everyone; my son would not get it, because the Earned Income Tax Credit is only available to families with children who are on the very bottom of the labor market. It is targeted at working poor families. Now that means that it is more efficient, in the sense that it is delivering resources to the very people that we think need them the most. But, very efficient, very targeted benefits are politically less sustainable. The Earned Income Tax Credit has actually been pretty popular – it was a Nixon administration idea. Periodically though, conservatives attack the EITC and argue that there's fraud involved, and try to start to dismantle it if they see the uptake rate in EITC growing.

TOM MCFALL: When it comes to people from inner cities that have a difficult time getting employment, many, especially males, have been incarcerated. Then there are the mothers who are losing the welfare benefits. Do you find that there are bridges to these groups as a route to get to mainstream jobs?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: I was not focused on the incarceration question, but that is a crucial policy problem, and we are shooting ourselves in the foot with respect to this issue.

The employers that I studied were more positively disposed towards people who had prison records than most employers, and they were willing to make use of wage subsidy programs that others have rejected entirely. But I can’t really advocate that as a major policy because I know that in general it hasn't been very successful.

Honestly, we are building a time bomb there and it's not just a problem for men who have been incarcerated; it’s a problem for the neighborhoods in which they are being released. Something like 600,000 men a year are released from prison, and they are settling in very poor neighborhoods where the options for employment aren’t very rosy, and where we can probably expect high rates of recidivism. We have cut training budgets, and we have made it more difficult for them to pursue higher education, while incarcerated. All of this is just stupid beyond belief.

We cannot afford continuing to expand the prison system as we have been. It's actually economically unsustainable, and that is probably the only thing that is going to help reverse this. The states that pay attention and invest in this problem are going to eventually be shining beacons that the rest hopefully will turn to.

Time-limited welfare was something that I was worried about when I came to the conclusion of this book, because I thought that this would lead into a huge influx of people into the labor market who had much of the same characteristics as the people that I was studying. I was starting out in Harlem neighborhoods with high unemployment, I thought this is just going to get worse. But, what Chutes and Ladders shows is that this was not the case, because the economy roared in the late 90s. It was able to absorb not only people coming off of welfare, but young entrants into the labor market. We have seen a massive number of women going into the labor force, especially women with young children. If that was what we were trying to accomplish, then welfare reform worked very well. What we didn’t accomplish was a great decline in poverty. What we did was exchange welfare dependent poverty for working poverty.

Now is that a good thing or a bad thing? At the risk of alienating all of my politically correct friends, I actually think it's a good thing for people to be working. People who work for a living feel better about themselves. You cannot be a non-working able-bodied adult in this society and have a shred of honor. It just doesn’t matter whether you are an uptight right-winger or a woman on welfare. The women on welfare had exactly the same point of view. And once they took jobs – even if they were workfare jobs – they felt better about themselves.

While I am convinced that work is beneficial for the adults, I am not convinced that it is beneficial for their children. The consequence of going to work for long hours is to leave your kids often in substandard childcare settings or just unsupervised after school. We may see the next generation repeat the problems of the parent generation, even if the parents look better.

So one of the questions that I am concerned about is that when we formulate policies we tend to think about them in these little silos: the adult woman on welfare, the young man who is incarcerated. We don’t think about what policies moving in one direction will do to the other people in the households who are affected by the consequences.

EXPLOITATION OR OPPORTUNITY?

JOHN GUZMAN: I told a friend about the book, and I told him the title, and he said "well, there's no shame for the worker, but there's shame for the owner." But I think the owners fared well in this book.

KATHERINE NEWMAN: I have an interesting story to tell about that. When I first began this research, I had the cooperation of the franchise owners whose businesses I was studying. When the corporate level eventually found out, it was alarmed. I found myself in corporate headquarters, because they actually wanted to put a break in this study. It turned out that they couldn’t, because franchise owners are actually independent business owners and they could do whatever that they want. But I found myself in this fancy big operation with these corporate big shots. I told them that at the end they would be really sorry [that I didn't use the] real name of this firm. My observations suggested that this was a far more positive work experience, and that the employers themselves were more honorable people than most readers would ever think.

Doing business in the center of a very poor, high crime community is very risky. It requires a certain kind of almost missionary zeal. You could be on Long Island with the same business and make more money and have an easier time. You wouldn’t need all of the security guards and you wouldn't have all the problems that you face on the shop floor. These employers had elected to be in Harlem because they were committed to Harlem.

Now, I don’t want to say that they were saints. They were business people, and they were looking to make a profit. But they were much more invested in the lives of their workers then most people realize. They helped people get eyeglasses; they helped people get ID; they cosigned leases; they were offering young people money if they got good grades; they paid for their schoolbooks. A lot of the people think that they are totally exploitative and that the owners are despicable people. I went into this with many of the same forms of skepticism, and I came out thinking it's too bad we don’t have a lot more people like this.

Very often these employers were the only ones who were paying a good deal of interest in the school performance of these kids. So one of the things that I argue in the book is that really contrary to common wisdom school and work are not antithetical to one another. These young people were doing better in school than the young people who weren’t working, because the discipline that they learned on the job and the oversight the business owners and mangers exercised over them was having a positive effect on their school performance.

I think it would enormously helpful if public officials approached employers and encourage them to do these things. Probably many more employers would be willing to do the kinds of things these men and women were doing if they knew they were worthwhile. You get a better labor force if you connect with people beyond the wage you're paying them – which isn't a very good wage – offer them incentives, and show an interest.

MARTHA SOFFER: You have to keep in mind that the non-franchise business owners in poor neighborhoods tend to hire illegal aliens. It's only the franchises with the corporations behind them that have to hire documented people. So you have two distinctive business communities.

KATHERINE NEWMAN: I did not study undocumented workers. I am sure that there is less scrutiny over them and that is maybe a more shadowy labor market. Without studying those employers I wouldn't want to hazard a guess how they conduct their businesses. I must say that I was surprised at what I found in the businesses that I did study. And that has taught me as a social scientist that you shouldn’t prejudge anything. It's all open for investigation.

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