No Shame in My Game

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No Shame book coverby Katherine S. Newman
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and the Russell Sage Foundation, 1999

Katherine Newman's No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City is one of those books I've been meaning to read for quite some time. I first encountered excerpts from it about a year ago, while taking a class on Family Policy that focused heavily on urban poverty, but we didn't read the whole book for class, so it found its way to my personal reading list. A year later, I actually picked it up from the library and started reading it.

It's quite good. Newman is an anthropologist at Columbia, and she and her team of graduate students spent the better part of two years talking to hundreds of employees, managers, owners, and job seekers at several fast food restaurants (pseudonymed "Burger Barns" in the book) in Harlem. Newman's goal was to bring the perspective of the working poor into the poverty debate, which at the time of her research and writing (the second half of the 1990s), was heavily centered on welfare reform. She and her students work hard in the service of that goal, logging hundreds of hours of interviews and even, in some cases, taking jobs at "Burger Barn" themselves in order to get a better view of the culture and the employees.

Along the way, in a combination of anecdotes from her interviews and evidence from academic and popular sources, Newman dispels several myths--that anyone can get a job in the fast food industry, that only teenagers who aren't trying to fully support themselves (much less anyone else) work for minimum wage, that people who work full-time year-round make enough to support themselves, and that an education is a magic panacea for all employment ills. Newman painstakingly chronicles the hurdles her subjects must overcome in order to even get a job at Burger Barn, much less move beyond minimum wage, and points out key differences between the unlucky job seekers she interviewed and those who were actually employed. She also makes a strong argument about the moral conservativism of many of Harlem's poor residents, and how strongly work is equated with dignity, just as it is--or is supposed to be--in America's middle class.

For anyone who is interested in poverty studies, this book isn't to be missed. Though the slice of American poverty Newman chooses to focus on is quite specific, narrowed down to just a few blocks in Harlem, many of the arguments she makes can be broadened to include all of the working poor in this country. Where they can't, if you feel you need more perspectives, I'd highly recommend David K. Shipler's The Working Poor: Invisible in America (Knopf, 2004), which takes a broader look at many of the same questions Newman addresses.

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