Does the American Dream still exist when nearly 30 million Americans live in families in which workers find a paycheck and poverty in the same envelope? Just as Michael Harrington's The Other America shocked the nation with its disclosure of poverty in the 1960s, John E. Schwarz and Thomas J. Volgy's The Forgotten Americans exposes the breadth of poverty that exists today among responsible, hardworking Americans. At the end of the prosperous 1980s, the number of Americans living in working-poor families equaled the combined populations of the nation's 25 largest cities. Contrary to conventional wisdom, this situation is not largely confined to minorities, women, the undereducated or young adults. It is commonplace for workers from nearly all segments of society to be employed in low-paying jobs even during good economic times. The Forgotten Americans reveals the betrayal of the hopes and expectations of these industrious people through broad-based factual evidence and the real-life stories of individual families. Their hardship has been ignored at enormous cost to them and the country. Numerous problems at the forefront of national debate-welfare dependency, crime, and the inadequate performance of many American school children-are closely connected to the existence of working poverty on a large scale. Unless corrective action is taken, the country risks the creation of a deeply fractured society arising from the despair of millions of employed people who have discovered that practicing the work ethic yields little reward. The problem is staggering and often misunderstood by politicians, the media, and the public. Once Schwarz and Volgy have outlined the implications of this social and economic tragedy, they propose effective solutions that require simple changes to existing policies-solutions that are politically feasible and can be accomplished without new taxes.
An arresting appraisal of America's working poor. Drawing on anecdotal evidence as well as statistical data, Schwarz (Political Science/Univ. of Arizona) and his colleague (mayor of Tucson from 1987-91) limn the hard lives of the industrious individuals whose paychecks are too low to provide them or their families with basic necessities - adequate housing, food, clothing, medical care, transport, etc. During 1989, they calculate, 56 million Americans resided in households that could not make ends meet despite one or more breadwinners with full-time jobs. By the numbers, the authors estimate, an income at least 155% of the federal government's official poverty line is necessary for households to reach the threshold of self-sufficiency. To bring the needy employed up to these subsistence levels, they propose that Washington increase the minimum wage to $4.85 per hour and expand earned-income tax credits on a sliding scale. In the course of investigating the hand-to-mouth existence of the working poor, Schwarz and Volgy made some discoveries that go against the grain of conventional wisdom - e.g., that capitalism's low-profile casualties are neither uneducated nor unskilled: In fact, two thirds have high-school diplomas, and approximately one million hold college degrees. While white males account for the single largest segment, moreover, the ranks of the working poor encompass all age, ethnic, and racial groups in the US. Nor, the authors determined, has either the putative decline in domestic manufacturing or decelerating gains in industrial productivity contributed measurably to the impoverishment of these wage-earners; and the writers argue that the public sector's job-creation programs, however successful, cannot solve what is a problem involving shortfalls in income. Accordingly, Schwarz and Volgy conclude, an affluent society owes its working poor an affordable helping hand. A heartfelt and persuasively documented reminder that all isn't well at home. (Kirkus Reviews)