No Shame in My Game: Working Poor in the Inner City

No Shame in My Game: Working Poor in the Inner City

by Katherine S. Newman

In No Shame in My Game, anthropologist Katherine Newman presents a view of inner-city poverty radically different from that commonly accepted. The all-too-prevalent picture we get of the poor today - in the media, in the political sphere, and in scholarly studies - is of alienated minorities living in big-city ghettos, lacking in values and family structure,…  See more details below


In No Shame in My Game, anthropologist Katherine Newman presents a view of inner-city poverty radically different from that commonly accepted. The all-too-prevalent picture we get of the poor today - in the media, in the political sphere, and in scholarly studies - is of alienated minorities living in big-city ghettos, lacking in values and family structure, criminally inclined, and permanently dependent on government handouts. What Newman reveals, however - as she focuses on the working poor in Harlem, one of the country's most depressed urban areas - is a community of people who are committed to earning a living, struggling to support themselves and their families on minimum-wage dead-end jobs, and clinging to the dignity of a regular paycheck, no matter how meager. For two years, Professor Newman and her assistants followed people in Harlem - from work to school to the streets to their homes - and spent hundreds of hours talking to employees, and their bosses and supervisors, their friends and families. From observations and interviews, we come to understand not only the essential contribution that low-wage earners make to the survival of poor households, but also the ways in which these jobs affect young people's attitudes, prospects, and self-image. Most powerfully, we listen as low-wage earners speak about their jobs, their ambitions, and their values - especially their devotion to family and belief in the work ethic.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal - Library Journal
This the fourth book from cultural anthropologist Newman, a professor of urban studies at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Here she studies the working poor in Harlem, providing readers with insights into the plight of blue-collar workers who persevere at jobs nobody wants. Tragically, they never seem to get ahead, yet their own value structure tells them to continue because they are doing the right thing. Newman takes us on an unforgettable journey inside the lives of many of the people she and her student researchers came to know during her two-year study. Pertinent demographic data and analysis are interspersed with these poignant glimpses. Because education plays such an important role in personal economics, educators should read this book in order to understand how some of their students live on a day-to-day basis. Highly recommended for all students of anthropology, sociology, and social work.--Sandra Isaacson, OAO/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Las Vegas
Jason DeParle
...[S]he is right to recognize that most poor people do work, at least sporadically. The problem is that work alone oftne fails to transform their lives. With tougher welfare laws sweeping the country...even programs that get people into jobs may fail to uplift the ghettos.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Harvard anthropologist Newman (Declining Fortunes: The Withering of the American Dream, 1993, etc.) authors a pathbreaking study of a neglected group of Americans: those who work yet remain mired in poverty. For two years Newman and her research assistants chronicled the lives of 300 workers and job-seekers at four fast-food restaurants in Harlem. Their results challenge many of the assumptions concerning poor people of the inner city. First and foremost, despite the ready alternatives of crime and welfare, this group as a whole cherishes that most American of ideals, working. They do so at minimum wage with heavy demands on them in terms of school, supporting of families, medical needs with no insurance coverage, and so much more. They persevere in the face of ridicule from peers and the public at large, who most often see "burger flipping" as demeaning mindless labor (though the author convincingly shows that these jobs do in fact demand skills that are to be admired). They persevere despite the fact that, while they desperately and actively seek to move on and up to better jobs, most won't. These working poor are presented as a group but also as individuals, as Kyesha, Jamal, Carman, and so many others. None are saints but none fulfill the stereotype of an underclass that has given up on itself and its future. "The nation's poor do not need their values engineered," writes Newman, "they do not need lessons about the dignity of work." What they need is help to overcome the anonymous barriers of race and class, the negative valuation of their work experience, the simple lack of enough good jobs to go around. In her conclusion, the author offers several recommendationsthat might, with minimal cost to government and private employers, help these workers realize some benefit from their belief in the dignity of labor. This is a work of major importance that policymakers and concerned citizens should read, need to read. .

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Product Details

Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
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6.68(w) x 9.59(h) x 1.32(d)

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Jamal's World

From the outside, Jamal's building looks like an ordinary house that has seen better days. Shingles are strewn about the foundation and the cement steps are cracked and broken, but it is not hard to imagine that with a little bit of paint and a thorough sweeping, the place might not be too bad. A family--like Jamal's family--could live in a home like this and be comfortable.

But once you walk through the front door, all resemblance to a real home disappears. For at least a decade, the building has been broken up into separate living quarters, a rooming house with whole families squeezed into spaces that would not even qualify as bedrooms in most homes. Toilets, such as they are, sit at the end of a dark hallway. Six families take turns cooking their meals in the only kitchen and argue with one another about the provisions they have squirreled away in the refrigerator they share.

The plumbing breaks down without warning--the bane of everyone's existence. Most rooms sport windows that are cracked and broken, pieced together by duct tape that barely blocks the steady, freezing draft blowing through on a winter evening. Jamal is of the opinion that for the princely sum of $300 per month, he ought to be able to get more heat. But the landlord isn't buying his argument, so a feeble electric space heater hums away in the corner of his room, providing just enough warmth to get through the night, if you huddle under the covers and wear a lot of clothes.

Jamal's room, which he shares with his common-law wife, Kathy, is big enough for their bed, the television (tuned, always, to a shoot-'em-up western or a kung fu video), and a few shelves that hold cannedgoods and pasta. The walls are covered with posters of their favorite stars--Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur--which is just as well, because the wallpaper is peeling underneath, an unsightly mess that resists any attempt to smooth the surface. The room is a major step up from the basement they used to occupy in the same building; its only windows were up near the ceiling, making fresh air scarce.

A hot plate in the corner of the room gives Kathy the freedom to cook in her "own space," even though the super would throw a fit if he knew she uses it. Fires have erupted in the past when hot plates were left on, so they have been banned for some time. Still, Jamal and Kathy are hungry for a modicum of privacy, the illusion that they live in a real home where an ordinary family can cook a meal without the hovering intrusions of neighbors who live on the other side of the bedroom wall.

Despite Kathy's best efforts to keep their clothes in good order, Jamal hates to put his things away; she gets tired of picking up after him, and they argue, a lot, about whose job it is to clean up the room. It is important to clean thoroughly, they have discovered, because among their unwanted roommates is a pack of rats. Especially in the dead of winter, when the pickings are slim outside, the rats make their way through the cracks and holes in the walls to Jamal's and Kathy's floor. Finding a rat among the shoes, Kathy notes, is among life's most repulsive experiences.

Peace and quiet are rare in the rooming house. Little kids, like two-year-old Amara next door, have nowhere to play. So they roam around and visit the families who live in the rooms nearby until their mothers, momentarily distracted from their cooking chores, come to find out where their charges have wandered. Arguments are constantly breaking out among the tenants in the house, loud voices spilling out into the hallways and through the thin walls. Close quarters breed discord, for no one has the privacy or mental space to cool off when tempers flare.

Jamal feels the walls closing in on him, on his relations with Kathy, because they are so cramped. They can barely turn around at the same time without running into each other. Jamal would like to be able to do separate things at home, like watch his favorite TV show, without getting on Kathy's nerves. He even thought about getting a divider for their room, but rejected the idea because it would simply accentuate the confinement. It does not help his temper, which has its explosive side, to be stuck in such a dump.

And he needs his rest, because at the age of twenty-two, he does a full shift whenever Burger Barn, (a pseudonym for) the fast food joint where he works, will give him the hours. In the winter of 1993, when I first came to know him, Jamal was having a good run, piling up many an eight-hour shift. At the minimum wage--then $4.25 an hour--he was earning only $34 on a good day. But if he could get enough days like that, he could keep the family's head just above water. Trouble was, he was usually only able to persuade the manager to put him on for five hours and then he'd be sent home. "Everyone wants more hours," the boss told him, "but this is all I got to give you." So Jamal would board the bus for the hour-long journey across the Bronx, glad to get off his feet, but worried about how they were going to pay this month's rent, much less the back rent he already owed.

In some ways, he was glad to leave work early. For in order to get to the job on time, he had to wake up at 4:30 a.m. and board the bus by 5:00. That was a struggle in winter when it was dark and bitter outside. Tired and freezing-cold in his thin maintenance uniform and his green khaki duffel coat, Jamal had to struggle against his own exhaustion just to make it to work. He was usually late, but not late enough to rankle the manager, a Jamaican woman who, truth be told, was often a bit late herself. Still, there were many days when all he wanted to do was jump back under the covers and forget about the job. There were all too many people in the neighborhood, God knows, who thought he was crazy to work so hard, travel so far, for the grand sum of $25 on a typical short-hour workday. Why bother?

Jamal can see their point of view. "I hate this damn job," he complains, "but it's a job. The people at [Burger Barn] are real jerks, always acting like they're better than me. But it's hard when you have no real good work experience." He allows that he'd like to find a job "where I can really be somebody who has something." If his experience of the past three or four years is any indication of what he can look forward to, this dream is a very long way off. Having pounded the pavement all over Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx, Jamal has never been able to do better than a minimum-wage job in the fast food business.

Even these opportunities have come to him because of his "associates," young men he has encountered on the job who have helped him find new positions. Without their help, Jamal would not have done as well as he has. He would be out on the street in no time. Knowing this, he makes it his business to get to meet people. "You never know when you might need them," he points out, and in a high-turnover industry, where people are always losing hours and then losing jobs, you have to stay on your toes and keep the lines of information open.

The need for "associates" is especially strong for a young man like Jamal because employers don't exactly rush to open the door and let him in. His very physical presence is intimidating, especially to those who don't know him. The day we first met, on the campus of Columbia University where I was teaching, it was easy to pick him out from a distance. The sea of young white students parted right down the middle of the stately brick walkway to let him pass. At six feet and 220 pounds, he had the look of a pro football linebacker. With the hood of his gray sweatshirt pulled down low over his brow and a slight scowl on his face, he probably looked dangerous to this crowd. And that is exactly what most employers see coming in the door: a young black man with an attitude. What they don't see is Jamal's rounded face, almost a child's face, his luminous brown eyes, and the doting love he has for his young wife.

Over the two years that I got to know him, the Jamal I came to see was bright, perceptive beyond his years about the motives and ambitions of the people around him, and very, very depressed. At twenty-two, about the same age as many of my effervescent, optimistic undergraduate students, he was sure that he knew what his future would hold: an endless series of dead-end jobs that would condemn him, and Kathy, to life in a rat-infested tenement. He had the brains to be one of those college students, but he knew he would never, ever have that kind of chance. Instead, he was going to have to slog it out on the crosstown bus at 5:00 a.m. and spend his days cleaning out french-fry vats, catching hell from a manager "who acts better than other people." Yet the fact that he could speak so articulately and forcefully about the world he lives in and write his heart out in the diary he kept for me for over a year, told me that such a fate was a waste of a young man who could have switched places with any number of my students had his biography been different.

Still, Jamal realizes that he has a lot to be grateful for. He has a woman who loves him, even though they fight a lot over nothing. She takes care of him, fusses over him, and waits for him to come home from his job so they can share some popcorn and watch C-grade movies from the local video shop. Kathy ran away from her home in Florida, at the age of sixteen, just to be with Jamal. Her white mother was none too keen on her daughter's marrying a black man, so Kathy severed all ties to her family, save for the occasional heartbreaking call to her little brother from a pay phone. She is given to staring down at her long, shiny red fingernails when she talks about leaving her brother behind. But Kathy hardens when she talks about her mother, not just because she disapproved of Jamal but because she has been appropriating the money Social Security has sent every month since her father died. Kathy figures that money belongs to her; Mama down in Tallahassee sees the situation differently.

The money would be a big help. Kathy especially could have used it when she found out she was pregnant with Jamal's child. When their daughter was born, about six months before I met them both, the young couple had nothing to live on besides Jamal's part-time wages from Burger Barn. Kathy worked at the Barn too, for a time, but finally gave it up when the baby was born. They wedged the crib into their single room in a Brooklyn tenement and struggled to manage the piles of Pampers and a squalling child in this tiny, claustrophobic space. But Tammy developed colic and became difficult to handle. Neither Jamal nor Kathy had ever taken care of an infant before, and they didn't know what to do to make her stop crying. To his eternal regret, Jamal lost his temper one day and lashed out at the helpless child, an incident he never did quite confess to. He insisted that he had accidentally pushed the baby's crib and the little one fell out. Social Services didn't buy this, though, and they removed Tammy from her home, charging Jamal with abuse and Kathy with neglect.

When I first began spending time with the couple, you could tell that there was a hole in their hearts, a kind of grief and nervousness. They were absolutely determined to get their baby back. Every week they visited her in a family center run by the city Social Welfare Department, supervised closely by the foster mother who had temporary custody of Tammy. They attended parenting classes, trying to learn how to take better care of the little girl--how to change diapers, hold a bottle, and tolerate the mind-numbing cries of a newborn. Just the sight of Tammy, now six months old, turned them emotionally inside out. Jamal marveled at "how big she is getting to be." Kathy just wanted to hold her, give her toys to play with, make sure she remembered what her real mother looks like.

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What People are saying about this

William Julius Wilson
Katherine Newman has written a timely book. No Shame in My Game impressively spells out the incredible obstacles confronting the working poor in high-risk urban neighborhoods. It is a sensitive and moving portrayal of people struggling in low-wage, dead-end jobs to meet the social norms of citizenship. No book provides a greater awareness of the need to link discussions of work obligations and family values with access to opportunities for advancement.
— Author of When Work Disappears
Robert B. Reich
Anyone wanting to understand the plight of America's working poor--a group far larger than those on welfare, posing a problem far more challenging than just getting people into jobs--must read this penetrating account. With the eye of a talented anthropologist and the ear of a gifted writer, Katherine Newman shows us people who are playing by the rules yet failing to make a living--and tells us what America must do to give them a second chance.
— Author of Locked in the Cabinet and The Work of Nations, University Professor and Hexter Professor of Social and Economic Policy, Brandeis University
Herbert Gans

The working poor do most of the dirty jobs in our society; they also work far harder, with less security, and for much smaller paychecks than the rest of us. They work equally hard, however, trying to retain their dignity, self respect, and pursuit of the American dream, even if most will never be able to afford it.

Katherine Newman, a talented anthropologist, looks at their jobs and their lives in this story-filled and surprisingly hopeful book. Written for the general reader and social scientist alike, No Shame in My Game should be required reading in every corporate and governmental executive suite.
— Author of War Against the Poor, Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology, Columbia University

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