NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 27, 2006

In 1993, Katherine S. Newman, then a professor in the anthropology department at Columbia University, began conducting interviews with 300 or so young men and women who had applied for just about the least promising jobs you could think of: flipping burgers and running registers at a fast-food franchise in Harlem. 

Newman has now been following her subjects for more than a decade.  "Chutes and Ladders," is her second book about them.  It comes at a fortuitous time, as it chronicles a class that has been getting more attention in recent years -- the working poor.

  • About a third of the 40 people she tracked down and re-interviewed in 2002 were unemployed or still making the minimum wage.
  • But most had moved up, and almost a quarter were what she calls "high fliers," making $15.46 an hour or more.
  • The crowd she followed has a strong commitment to middle-class values, she reports, especially regarding work and welfare. 
  • They are, in fact, "closer to a conservative, 'red state' perspective than the liberal, 'blue state' view that most sociologists, myself included, subscribe to." 
  • They moralize about deadbeats on welfare -- even those who have been on welfare put down welfare -- and they are proud of the steps, big and small, that they have taken toward middle-class respectability.

Despite all the disadvantages they faced in the marketplace, they speak persuasively and passionately about the way work, even rotten work, gives meaning to their lives.  Their stories only confirm what they already believe: that anyone can succeed if they work hard enough.

Source: Paul Tough, "Supersize Them," New York Times Book Review, October 22, 2006; and Katherine S. Newman, "Chutes and Ladders: Navigating the Low-wage Labor Market, Russell Sage Foundation/Harvard University Press, October 30, 2006.

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