23:56:00, by admin   . Categories: books, poverty, Northern America

Interview: Anthropologist studied poor fast food workers in Harlem

The Gotham Gazette has interviewed Urban anthropologist Katherine S. Newman about her research and the situation of the urban poor in New York.

Newman has written No Shame In My Game, an ethnography of fast food workers in Harlem. In October the follow up called Chutes and Ladders will come out.

First, a few words about No Shame In My Game:

Her major findings are the strong work ethic among these minimum-wage workers and the value they place on personal responsibility; to blame their difficulties on personal shortcomings would be too simplistic.


An excerpt from a review in The Progressive:

In No Shame in My Game, she argues that social science research has disproportionately focused on the plight of the unemployed ghetto-dweller or mothers on welfare. The media, too, depict welfare dependency as the natural state of poverty, while neglecting the majority of inner-city poor people who work.
She writes, "The nation's working poor do not need their values reengineered. They do not need lessons about the dignity of work. Their everyday lives are proof enough that they share the values of their mainstream, middle class counterparts."

She talks in very positive way both about the workers and the employers ("Newman sees everyone she meets in a similarly flattering light, as if she is afraid to make any judgments", The New York Times remarks). She is asked if there have been conflicts between "illegal" immigrants and native-born Americans at the work place. She answers that the work created both tension and friendship:

But the thing that I found most striking was that people created a community of friends out of the people they worked with. Workers had friendships or relationships with each other; they went to the movies together. The workplace is a great generator of cross-racial contact and friendship.

The employers, she writes, were "more honorable people than most readers would ever think":

Now, I don’t want to say that they were saints. They were business people, and they were looking to make a profit. But they were much more invested in the lives of their workers then most people realize. They helped people get eyeglasses; they helped people get ID; they cosigned leases; they were offering young people money if they got good grades; they paid for their schoolbooks. (...) Very often these employers were the only ones who were paying a good deal of interest in the school performance of these kids.

So one of the things that I argue in the book is that really contrary to common wisdom school and work are not antithetical to one another. These young people were doing better in school than the young people who weren’t working, because the discipline that they learned on the job and the oversight the business owners and mangers exercised over them was having a positive effect on their school performance.

(...) I must say that I was surprised at what I found in the businesses that I did study. And that has taught me as a social scientist that you shouldn’t prejudge anything. It's all open for investigation.

>> read the whole interview

The blog A Constrained Vision quotes from another interview with her:

It was also important to me to show how qualitative research could give us a deeper understanding of the daily lives and real values of inner city workers. Most of the information we have on labor markets and the workforce naturally comes from economists or sociologists who work with large data sets.

That research is crucial, especially for explaining the big picture. But it doesn't help us understand how ordinary people in poor communities view their lives, their options, or how they put the resources together to survive, to raise their kids, to balance going to school and keeping a job.

You need a different approach for that and it seemed to me that anthropology has something important to add to the picture. Besides, a good anthropologist can communicate with a larger audience that won't sit still for statistical arguments, but will listen to a well-crafted account of real lives.


An unusual view of poverty- Review in The Progressive

Flipping Burgers - Review in The New York Times

Pennies From Hell - Review in The Village Voice

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