Laboring Below the Line

Laboring Below the Line: The New Ethnography of Poverty, Low-Wage Work, and Survival in the Global Economy

Frank Munger Editor
Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Laboring Below the Line
    Book Description:

    As the distribution of wealth between rich and poor in the United States grew more and more unequal over the past twenty years, this economic gap assumed a life of its own in the popular culture. The news and entertainment media increasingly portrayed the lives of the poor with such stereotypes as the lazy welfare mother and the thuggish teen, offering Americans few ways to learn how the "other half" really lives. Laboring Below the Line works to bridge this gap by synthesizing a wide range of qualitative scholarship on the working poor. The result is a coherent, nuanced portrait of how life is lived below the poverty line, and a compelling analysis of the systemic forces in which poverty is embedded, and through which it is perpetuated. Laboring Below the Line explores the role of interpretive research in understanding the causes and effects of poverty. Drawing on perspectives of the working poor, welfare recipients, and marginally employed men and women, the contributors—an interdisciplinary roster of ethnographers, oral historians, qualitative sociologists, and narrative analysts—dissect the life circumstances that affect the personal outlook, ability to work, and expectations for the future of these people. For example, Carol Stack views the work aspirations of an Oakland teenager for whom a job is important, even though it strains her academic performance. And Ruth Buchanan looks at low-wage telemarketing workers who are attempting to move up the economic ladder while balancing family, education, and other important commitments. What emerges is a compelling picture of low-wage workers—one that illustrates the precarious circumstances of individuals struggling with the economic conditions and institutions that surround them Each chapter also explores the capacity for economic survival from a different angle, with ancillary commentary complementing the ethnographies with perspectives from other fields of study, such as economics. At this moment of governmental retrenchment, ethnography's complex, nonstereotypical portraits of individual people fighting against poverty are especially important. Laboring Below the Line reveals the ambiguities of real lives, the potential for individuals to change in unexpected ways, and the even greater intricacy of the collective life of a community.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-416-3
    Subjects: Business, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Contributors
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Frank Munger
  5. Introduction Identity as a Weapon in the Moral Politics of Work and Poverty
    (pp. 1-26)
    Frank Munger

    During an era of plenty, and despite intensive and often sympathetic reporting in the mainstream media about the persistence of poverty in the United States, public discourse continues to invoke negative stereotypes about the lives of the poor and the effects of dependence on welfare payments and other government-funded benefits on their families. Economists, sociologists, and ethnographers tell more complete and nuanced stories about poverty, Herbert Gans laments in his recent book,The War Against the Poor, but to no effect: despite research and scholarly argument, false stereotypes persist as journalists in all media tailor their accounts of poverty for...

    • Chapter 1 In Exile on Main Street
      (pp. 29-44)
      Carol Stack

      We know very little about what life is like for teenagers today in America who start out at the bottom: their motivations for work, the way they find jobs, what motivates them to toil for low pay when many of their friends and neighbors have given up on paid work, the demands on their income, or where their work ethic comes from or might take them.

      This chapter uses data from a large ethnographic study of fast-food workers in Oakland, California, to examine labor market dynamics for fast-food workers. These data include who gets hired and who doesn’t, how scheduling...

    • Chapter 2 Lives on the Line: Low-Wage Work in the Teleservice Economy
      (pp. 45-72)
      Ruth Buchanan

      Cindy is twenty-three years old and works full time at a call center in New Brunswick, Canada, taking reservations for hotel chains in Canada and the United States.¹ She has worked there for two and a half years, at a wage of $7.50 an hour (Canadian). At the time of the interview, she earned almost $8 an hour. Cindy began working part time while she was going to school, but when she graduated from college with a degree in marine biology, she could find no jobs in her field. So she stayed on full time with the call center, describing...

    • Commentary Deconstructing Labor Demand in Today’s Advanced Economies: Implications for Low-Wage Employment
      (pp. 73-94)
      Saskia Sassen

      To what extent are employment-based economic insecurity and poverty features of advanced economies? This commentary examines major changes in the organization of economic activity over the last fifteen years that have emerged as a source of general economic insecurity, low-wage jobs, and new forms of employment-centered poverty. Several chapters in this ethnography emphasize the extent to which poverty and economic insecurity are not simply functions of an individual’s failings (see Cintrón-Vélez, ch. 4; Edin, Lein, and Nelson, ch. 3; Henly, ch. 5 herein). This volume also examines the extent to which many low-wage workers in dead-end jobs take their jobs...

    • Commentary Understanding the Unemployment Experience of Low-Wage Workers: Implications for Ethnographic Research
      (pp. 95-110)
      Philip Harvey

      One characteristic of low-wage work that is particularly important to the ethnographic research reported in this volume is its insecurity. As shown in figure 2C.1, average unemployment rates for persons with fewer than four years of high school are more than four times as high as corresponding rates for persons with four or more years of college. This means that even in periods of relative prosperity, low-wage workers experience levels of unemployment normally associated with recessions; during recessions, their unemployment rises to depression levels.

      The negative personal effects of this joblessness on individual workers are likely to be significant. Unemployment...

    • Commentary Looking for Stories of Inner-City Politics: From the Personal to the Global
      (pp. 111-122)
      Carl H. Nightingale

      Ethnography is suffused with politics. Ethnographers cannot divorce themselves from the complex consequences of their power to shape the stories of others. At the same time, the very concept of culture— ethnography’s Holy Grail—is a deeply contested one, forever in political play. Indeed, ethnographers who specialize in the culture of the urban poor inevitably enter into some of the most critical debates in contemporary American politics. The idea that inner-city residents’ culture causes their poverty is a central article of faith for the contemporary advocates of restrictive welfare reforms that emphasize driving recipients into low-wage job markets. The concept...

    • Chapter 3 Taking Care of Business: The Economic Survival Strategies of Low-Income, Noncustodial Fathers
      (pp. 125-147)
      Kathryn Edin, Laura Lein and Timothy Nelson

      As states try to figure out how to implement time-limited welfare without disadvantaging millions of poor single women and children, their focus increasingly turns to noncustodial fathers. Many federal lawmakers and private foundations seem convinced that fathers must be economically reconnected with their families for welfare reform to work. In 1998, Clay Shaw, one of the authors of the welfare reform law, sponsored legislation to increase federal spending on education and training programs for noncustodial fathers. Dozens of private foundations also are funding work and training programs for men in this group. Several states are planning to spend millions of...

    • Chapter 4 Custodial Mothers, Welfare Reform, and the New Homeless: A Case Study of Homeless Families in Three Lowell Shelters
      (pp. 148-178)
      Aixa N. Cintrón-Vélez

      Findings from a 1997 survey of households conducted by the Urban Institute show that, compared to the nation as a whole, families in Massachusetts are doing relatively well: they are less likely to be poor, more likely to include two parents, and have greater access to health care. In the wake of welfare reform and the shift of important social programs from the federal government to the states, however, the news is not uniformly good. Massachusetts had a relatively smaller percentage of low-income families, but lowincome families in the state had a harder time coping than their counterparts nationally (Wong...

    • Chapter 5 Informal Support Networks and the Maintenance of Low-Wage Jobs
      (pp. 179-203)
      Julia R. Henly

      The labor market activity of welfare recipients has attracted considerable interest in recent years. This attention is largely due to passage of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which increased the employment obligations of parents receiving welfare benefits, emphasized “work first” strategies over education and skills development, and established time limits on the receipt of benefits. Embodied in the welfare reform law is a clear message that recipients are expected to find work as quickly as possible—regardless of individual characteristics and circumstance—and use cash assistance only as a last resort in times of significant...

    • Commentary The Low-Wage Labor Market and Welfare Reform
      (pp. 204-210)
      Sanders Korenman

      According to the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research, the 1990s economic expansion began in March 1991. In February 2000, it became the longest expansion since business cycles were first marked in the mid-nineteenth-century. What has been the effect of this expansion on the low-wage labor market? Have the benefits trickled down to the poor? Have sufficient employment opportunities been created for welfare recipients? For less educated workers? For minorities?

      First, let us consider the labor market in general. In March 1991, nonfarm payroll employment was 108.3 million (all employment and unemployment figures are seasonally...

    • Chapter 6 Care at Work
      (pp. 213-244)
      Lucie White

      This chapter is based on ethnographic research conducted in a Head Start program in South Central Los Angeles in the early 1990s. Project Head Start is a popular and reputedly successful federally funded preschool program for low-income children and families that was launched by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 as part of his War on Poverty. My research focused on women who were involved in Head Start classrooms on a daily basis, either as parent volunteers or as low-wage workers who had begun their involvement in the program as parent volunteers, and regarded that involvement as a significant positive force...

    • Chapter 7 Who Counts? The Case for Participatory Research
      (pp. 245-270)
      Frances Ansley

      Scholars who study and write about poverty and low-wage work in early twenty-first-century America face important challenges in conducting and disseminating their research. The growing divide in wealth, life chances, and basic security that has become so pronounced in our country in recent decades increasingly distances university-based poverty researchers from some of their most important “subjects.” Meanwhile, the academy’s scramble to reinvent itself in the changed post–cold war funding environment means that scholars’ ability to command respect within their institutional settings frequently hinges on how successful they are at marketing their projects and capacities to external entities that are...

    • Commentary Quiescence: The Scylla and Charybdis of Empowerment
      (pp. 271-280)
      Joel F. Handler

      The essays in this book are part of a long tradition of ethnography of the poor. Being somewhat arbitrary, the more recent period could start with Elliot Liebow’sTally’s Corner(1967), which reported on the lives of African American men who would gather on a street corner in Washington, D.C. The book is important because its subject is the African American male, usually ignored in academic research (or when discussed, usually in severely negative terms). Moreover, the men come through as people who try to cope in the face of a harsh society and, contrary to the popular stereotype, care...

    • Commentary Taking Dialogue Seriously
      (pp. 281-289)
      Michael Frisch

      The conference that led to this volume took on a profound problem. Deeply rooted cultural stereotypes of the poor, despite decades of critique, have continued to control the discourse and politics of poverty policy, even as the focus shifts from inner-city welfare to the broader contours of low-wage and marginalized labor in a globalizing economy. These have constituted a formidable barrier to policy and political action, and inhibit, more broadly, the very research about poverty and the poor so necessary to any strategy for change. The conference sought to transcend these barriers through an unusual approach: focusing on how narratives...

    • Conclusion Democratizing Poverty
      (pp. 290-312)
      Frank Munger

      By now, studies of poverty policy have examined in detail the incidence, causes, and consequences of the behaviors that, according to underclass and culture-of-poverty theories, keep people poor. Mainstream research, however, doesn’t try to evaluate the identities attached to poor persons by such theories, nor does it question the assumptions that individualize responsibility for poverty.¹ Ethnographers set out to counter the norms of such policy research and redeem the poor by uncovering complex interactions between individuals and institutions that illuminate their motivations and their instrumental decision making. Interpretive studies show that poor persons make appropriate use of cultural and material...

  9. Index
    (pp. 313-324)