How the Other Half Works: The Low-End Wages Uptown

No Shame in My Game: Working Poor in the Inner City , by Katherine S. Newman. Alfred A. Knopf, 379 pages, $26.95

In their recent book Myths of Rich & Poor: Why We’re Better Off Than We Think , W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm pointed out that there have always been hamburger flippers. They meant it metaphorically, and the point is inarguable: Ever since we put aside our plows and headed to town in search of regular wages, some of us have had better gigs than others. In Victorian-era New York, the working poor were, among other things, domestics and servants–the hamburger flippers of a century ago.

The arguments of Messrs. Cox and Alm are a conservative retort (some might argue a concession) to the liberal complaint that the bulk of the jobs created during the boom times of Ronald Reagan and, yes, Bill Clinton have been low-wage service jobs. In other words, hamburger flippers. Rather than deny it, which some conservatives have tried to do (at least about Mr. Reagan’s jobs), Messrs. Cox and Alm have concluded that there’s nothing wrong with a burger-based lower-end economy–indeed, they think it proof of the health of our magnificent, reorganized, free-trading, globally based marketplace.

It sounds hardheaded and realistic–until you meet the burger flippers themselves. And that’s when all the general talk about low-wage service jobs takes on the form of a real-life human being who is trying to pay bills, rear children and, sure, have something of a life while working a dead-end, low-prestige, minimum-wage job. The bull market, in case you might have thought otherwise, hasn’t done much for the folks uptown.

In No Shame in My Game , Katherine S. Newman, a professor of urban studies at Harvard University, traces the lives of young men and women from Central Harlem who work at a local fast-food restaurant. What she finds is a remarkable commitment to the work ethic among people often too poor to afford their own apartments, indeed, too poor to venture very far from Central Harlem, where jobs aren’t particularly plentiful. They are proud to hold jobs. Many of them confirm conservative arguments that work, even low-wage work, gives order to their lives. One of the more remarkable mini-portraits Ms. Newman offers is that of a high school student named Kyesha, the daughter of a welfare-dependent mother. Kyesha is determined to avoid her mother’s fate, and her minimum-wage, low-prestige job is showing her the path out of Central Harlem. “Working every day after school, Kyesha developed the kind of discipline and sense of order in her life that she had utterly lacked before she started earning a living,” Ms. Newman writes. “The structure spread into her school life and pushed her to finish what she started.” She developed the “backbone” required to get “over a hurdle thousands of inner-city kids never leap: the high school diploma.”

Because they work, some of them have about as much regard for their neighbors on welfare as Mayor Giuliani has. A burger flipper tells Ms. Newman: “I’m proud of myself that I decided to get up and do something at an early age. So as I look at it, I’m not on welfare. I’m doing something … Even if you were on welfare, it should be like, you see all these dirty streets we have? Why can’t they go out and sweep the streets, clean up the parks?”

The book is the outgrowth of a study, funded in part by the Russell Sage Foundation, of 300 people who either worked for or sought work at four fast-food restaurants in Harlem. Ms. Newman tells us that the idea came to her while she was in a cab stuck in traffic on 125th Street nearly 10 years ago. What she saw, she realized, might shock people (including, or especially, the residents of Manhattan south of 96th Street): The sidewalks were crowded with people going to work. Hardly the popular image of the poverty-stricken inner city.

Who are these people? They are the invisible poor we see every day–yes, people who work at fast-food franchises, but also drugstore stock clerks, busboys and home health-care workers. Legend and Wall Street Journal Economics 101 have it that today’s burger flipper is tomorrow’s night manager, and today’s night manager is tomorrow’s franchise owner. McDonald’s has been aggressively promoting this idea in a recent ad campaign, and Ms. Newman’s findings certainly show a heartening amount of mobility within the industry. “The fast-food industry is actually very good about internal promotion,” she writes. “Workplace management is nearly always recruited from the ranks of entry-level workers.… McDonald’s, for example, is proud of the fact that half of its board of directors started out as crew members. One couldn’t say as much for the rest of the nation’s Fortune 500 firms.”

But remember: Somebody has always flipped hamburgers, and some of the people Ms. Newman follows around may flip hamburgers always. For what is so frightening about the burger-based economy, what sets this generation’s burger flippers apart from their counterparts of a century ago, is that they probably are worse off, both in their immediate situation and in their chances for moving up. Yesterday’s domestics got to live in their employer’s home, not in some lousy, crowded and unsafe apartment in Harlem. Yesterday’s high school graduates, and even dropouts, could make a living wage in a factory job–remember them?

And then there was public employment, which today is regarded as little more than welfare by another name. A look at Kyesha’s complex family tree shows that in the past, many of her relatives moved into the working middle class though public employment–transportation agencies and the Corrections Department, among others. Ms. Newman makes a strong case that cutbacks in public employment have closed off a traditional avenue for striving poor people, although she stumbles when she includes military cutbacks in her argument. In fact, the Army and Navy can’t meet their recruiting goals these days. That path is very much open.

Still, the assertion is critical and vastly unappreciated by all those government-reinventors: The great American middle class owes a sizable portion of its success to government employment (not to mention Government subsidies in the form of the G.I. Bill). But when public payrolls are shrinking and workfare clients are put to work cleaning up parks–replacing the low-skilled employees who used to perform such chores–even that path is made more difficult.

The heart of Ms. Newman’s book is her exploration of a few representative lives. She doesn’t shy away from the flaws of the inner-city working poor, but she does remind us that they are, in their own way, extraordinary.

When the author moves from the specific to the general, she tends to fall flat and indeed becomes downright annoying, relying on broad assertions that almost take away from the vivid individual portraits. She claims that the city has withdrawn services from the inner city, citing the Fire Department as a specific example. Her otherwise assiduous footnotes do not document this assertion, with good reason. The city has not withdrawn Fire Department services (it closed a couple of firehouses more than a decade ago, but at least one has been reopened.) She attributes “resentment” of the long-term unemployed to our “unforgiving” culture and “our puritanical attitudes” about work. Well, three cheers for puritanism and our unemployment rate of less than 5 percent! Europeans should be so unforgiving.

Ms. Newman’s tale could not be told without a discussion of race, and she and her subjects deal with the issue with admirable sensitivity. Once again, however, a single sentence takes away from a good discussion: The author asserts, as a matter of fact, that in America “the racial divide grows sharper by the day.” Perhaps it does, in some places. But The New York Times recently profiled the town of South Orange, N.J., where upper-middle-class blacks live side by side with upper-middle-class whites, and where intermarried couples are common. An exception? Perhaps, but what Ms. Newman sees as a racial divide is really a class divide. The burger flippers in Central Harlem have been left behind not only by the economy, but by other African-Americans who have moved to the suburbs–those places once thought of as a refuge for white people.

Despite these flaws and well-meaning pieties, Ms. Newman has performed a public service, for she has attached a human face to the invisible poor who live among us. While she deploys a few clichés of her own, her sensitive portrait of low-wage workers in Harlem effectively dismantles stereotypes of the left and the right.

How the Other Half Works: The Low-End Wages Uptown