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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
In the national dialogue on poverty, what gets lost beneath the media images of drug raids, welfare moms, and gang wars are the people who go to work every day, struggling to make ends meet (and often failing) on the earnings from a minimum-wage job. Katherine S. Newman has gone deep into the heart of one inner-city neighborhood, New York City's Harlem, to study one fast-food restaurant (pseudonymously referred to as Burger Barn throughout the book) and the hundreds of people who worked there over the several years of her research. Newman and her assistants interviewed the employees, their families, friends, and teachers, and the owners and managers of the restaurant to find out what makes people keep working at a hard job with no benefits and meager pay, a job most believe to be a dead end. What separates them from their friends and neighbors who live on welfare or sell drugs? The result of the research is this book, a fascinating compilation of individual stories and overall conclusions that Newman came to, many of them surprising.
For instance, teenagers who take jobs at fast-food restaurants have often been accused of neglecting their schoolwork in favor of a job that will keep them in gold chains and sneakers but has little hope for future advancement. But Newman found that among Burger Barn workers, there was actually a real belief in the value of education; nearly everyone she talked to was either going to school or planning to go to school or making sure their kids went to school. Slaving over a hot grill or in front of a boiling vat of oil served only to convincetheseworkers that they had to get more schooling in order to get better jobs. For many, a civil service job at $10 an hour sounded like a dream. Those who eventually were able to complete advanced studies or technical training to become electricians or paralegals were Newman's success stories.
She also found that Burger Barn managers encouraged (if they didn't demand) academic achievement from their employees. In much the way a suburban basketball coach might take an interest in her players' schoolwork, these managers checked report cards, followed up on tests, and threatened to cut a worker's hours if he started to slack off on his homework.
Often, the double burden of schoolwork and a job got to be too much for these workers. Many found themselves falling asleep over books, on the train, in class. Some were barely able to get four hours of sleep a night in between classes and work shifts and family responsibilities. But for many, not having a job was simply not an option. Newman stresses the difference between inner-city teens who work at Burger Barn and their suburban counterparts. The teens she interviewed, African-American and Latino kids from Harlem and Washington Heights, were not working for spare money to spend on CDs or new stereo equipment. Most often, they were working to help pay their family's bills and rent. Eating at Burger Barn helped save money on groceries. Many of them helped support extended families or sent money back to relatives in the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico. Those in the most dire circumstances were actually trying to support a family on $150 a week, nearly impossible in a city with such a high cost of living.
What makes them do it? Newman found that the work ethic is so strong among these fast-food workers that they are somehow able to resist the jeers of their peers, the abuse of some of the customers, the humiliations of the job, just so they can remain in the ranks of the employed. Flipping burgers may be the lowest job you can hold, but there is a chasm between that and not having any job at all. It may or may not be surprising that most of these employees hold extremely conservative views. One woman named Ianna says, "I know people that are on [welfare] that can get up and work. There's nothing wrong with them. And they just choose not to.... I don't think it's right, because that's my tax dollars going for somebody who is lazy, who don't wanna get up."
Newman credits the workplace with bonding the workers together; they give each other support when the customers grind them down, and the managers become mentors to their underlings, encouraging them through dicey situations. Because fast-food work has a high turnover rate, many Burger Barn employees find themselves moving from one restaurant to another; thus, the workers have a loose network of hundreds of people. If things get rough at one restaurant, an employee can use his or her connections to find work at another one.
Although she discovered many surprisingly positive things that a Burger Barn job can provide, Newman steps gingerly around the negatives. Because there is such high demand for jobs in a neighborhood like Harlem, Burger Barn raises its minimum wage only when it is forced to by law. Raises are small and hard to come by. There are no sick days, and there is no health insurance. Most Burger Barn employees are one serious illness away from financial ruin. Ironically, at an hour (the research for this book was started before the minimum wage was raised to ), Burger Barn employees make too much money to qualify for Medicaid. And what should be a stepping-stone job on the way to greater things turns out to be a dead end for many; unable to complete their education, many employees find themselves behind the counter well into their 30s.
Not content to simply observe, Newman has included a chapter called "What We Can Do for the Working Poor" in which she details some suggestions, such as school-to-work programs and apprenticeships. But the real beauty of this book lies in the voices of its subjects, voices Newman allows to ring out on their own. Caged in by circumstance, these people work long hours for little pay and the dignity that work provides. Many have little hope for themselves; instead, they place all their hope in their children and pray that they will have better fates. Patty, the mother of five children, moved to New York from Tennessee to look for better work after her husband left her. She has been at Burger Barn for five years. She makes $150 a week and cannot afford to go back to school herself. But she is determined to give her children a better future:
"I got the encyclopedia, the dictionary, the 'hooked on phonics' factory, language charts, math, reading and comprehension, and all that stuff. And we play school every day. And if they don't have homework [from their school], they have homework [from me]. 'Cause we read like five stories and then they take the words from the five stories and they define them. 'Cause I'm gonna have some college students. And they have to get scholarships, don't they. So don't I have to have A-plus students to get scholarships?"