Book Review: The Betrayal of Work
From time-to-time, as we receive career-related and job-hunting books from publishers, the staff of Quintessential Careers will review them to help you make better decisions about the best books to use in your career and job search.
The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans, Beth Shulman. Hardcover, 255 pp. ISBN: 156847334.Publisher: The New Press. Pub. Date: September 2003. $25.95.
Reviewed by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.
The Betrayal of Work is one of the best books in a growing field that examines the plight of one-quarter of the U.S. workforce -- some 30 million workers -- who are stuck in low-wage, low-benefit jobs. These jobs are described as low-skill jobs, but as Shulman aptly points out, all these jobs require skills, whether the job is as a retail clerk or a hotel maid. This book is about the workers who earn less than the federal poverty level, currently about $9 an hour for a family of four.
This book is a comprehensive collection -- an amazing literature review -- of all the studies on the working poor. Her footnotes alone cover 55 pages! But The Betrayal of Work is far from dry, scholarly reading. It's provocative and just a bit chilling, a myth-busting examination of how we allow employers to treat these under-educated, under-skilled, and under-valued members of the workforce. If you were to only read one book on this subject, The Betrayal of Work should be the one.
Interwoven with the facts and figures are some real-life tales of the working poor. And after reading these accounts, you may never eat poultry again, never take for granted the aide who watches over your mother in assisted living, never treat the housekeeping staff in your office as if they were from a different planet.
Why should we care? We should care because fairness and equality are at the heart of this country's beginnings. And as Shulman notes: "Without change, a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots will continue to challenge our national solidarity and stability and will strain an already divisive America... If we honor work, we must reward it. For generations, Americans shared a tacit understanding that if you worked hard, a livable income and basic securities were to be yours. That promise has been broken and as a nation we are living a lie."
Shulman goes on to give facts and figures on the types of jobs most typically low-wage (such as retail clerks, home health aides, child-care workers, call-center operators, security guards, janitors, agricultural workers, meat processors, and more) as well as the demographic profile of low-wage workers -- typically white, female, little formal education, and with family responsibilities. But most compelling is her review of the vicious cycle of low-wage workers whose children are more likely to also fall into poverty and low-wage jobs.
Shulman also discusses the four myths that dominate the debate about low-wage work:
- Myth: Low-wage jobs are merely a short-lived step on a ladder to a better job. The reality? "Low-wage jobs, historically, have had few career ladders. Today they offer even fewer."
- Myth: Improving worker skills is the primary solution to problem of low-wage work. The reality? "The 'skills mismatch' theory is a significant overstatement of the demand for high-skilled workers... The overwhelming majority of occupations require only a high-school education or less."
- Myth: Because of global competition, U.S. companies are unable to do anything to improve the lives of low-wage workers. The reality? "Very few low-wage jobs are now in globally competitive industries... most lower-wage jobs are and will continue to be in the non-tradable service and retail sectors."
- Myth: Volunteerism is a substitute for social policy. The reality? We wouldn't need so many volunteers working in shelters and soup kitchens if jobs actually paid a living wage.
By far, Shulman's greatest feat in The Betrayal of Work is her last chapter in which she discusses a compact for working Americans. She states, "This society needs to agree on a new set of principles -- a compact with working Americans -- that establishes obligations and responsibilities of employers and government to workers. This compact has a simple and clear purpose: workers should be assured that if they work hard they will be treated fairly and have the resources to provide for themselves and their families."
Shulman's Compact With Working Americans includes:
- Providing a sufficient income to meet a family's basic needs
- Affordable healthcare coverage
- Flexibility and support for family issues
- Opportunities to gain new skills
- Affordable and safe housing
- Safe and healthy work environment
- Security in times of economic adversity and retirement
- The right to organize and collectively bargain
- Fair trade and immigration policies
Bottom line advice: some may see this book as just another liberal spouting liberal doctrines and policies that will unfairly burden employers, but if you put aside the politics and focus on the people -- the 30 million low-wage, near-poverty workers -- you come away with the idea of this book as the textbook for changing how we view and treat these vital members of the workforce -- these vital humans and fellow citizens. This book should be must-reading for all students, business leaders, and politicians.