The new, old poor

Jobs for the downwardly mobile

When I was a recent college graduate, I was fired from my job at an upscale Manhattan wine shop. (My boss's diagnosis was correct: I did have an attitude.) With rent to pay and no job prospects, I entered a Midtown messenger firm and started delivering packages for minimum wage. At week's end, I had scarcely more money than I had begun with. As a student, I had been enterprisingly frugal, cooking on an upturned electric iron when my (illegal) propane stove in my (illegal) apartment was spent. That sort of poverty had its youthful charm. But working full-time for nearly nothing was something else — a depressing, even terrifying, experience.

According to a new study, three quarters of the jobs created in the first half of 2010 were low-paying — from $9 to $15 per hour. I suspect that many of the Americans who hold such jobs — especially those with children — could teach me a thing or two about what depression and terror feel like. The plight of the poor is, of course, a perennial topic, but its contours change according to the prevailing ideological light. Looking back, we see the earnest, striving immigrants of the early 20th century, those teeming urban masses yearning for fresh air and a chance to make good. In the 1960s, we had the grim, explosive underclass, which was replaced in the 1980s by a sketch of Cadillac welfare mothers. Now, in the wake of the Great Recession, a new poor is taking shape — the desperate, downwardly mobile. Betrayed by markets, forsaken by government, they seem to look different this time. But their harrowing vantage point is the same as ever.

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