The Working Poor in the Inner City

By Katherine S. Newman

Knopf. 388 pp. $27.95

Reviewed by Tamar Jacoby

The experience is familiar to every movie-goer. The star turns in an arresting performance: winning, funny, wrenching, indescribably alive. But still, somehow, the movie disappoints. Maybe it's heavy-handed, or the pace isn't right, but whatever the reason, in spite of the star power, you leave the theater unsatisfied.

The affecting stars of Katherine S. Newman's No Shame in My Game are mostly young people, black and Hispanic, struggling against all odds to make something of their lives in the tough, uncaring crucible of Harlem. They work as hamburger flippers, a dirty, stressful, poorly paid job that earns them intense contempt from their peers. Some are trying to finish school even as they hold down the job. Others are raising children or supporting parents, and whatever the reason, hard as they work, many cannot make ends meet.

Newman and her team of researchers followed 300 such young people for more than a year, interviewing them, working alongside them, chatting at their kitchen tables and tracking their diaries. This allows Newman to quote her subjects extensively, and their voices -- Kyesha's, Carmen's, Jamal's, Kimberly's and William's, among others -- echo poignantly through the pages of No Shame in My Game. "I had to find something to do with my spare time," explains Jamal, "other than come home and listen to my mother, you know, do crack all night. So I found a job and then once I found a job, it really changed a lot of things that I did and do."

Most of these young people lose the friends -- jobless and often drug-dealing -- they used to hang out with. Many have scant time for homework or children, let alone the leisure-time pleasures of other young adults. But along with the money, skimpy as it is, work provides a badly needed sense of structure, a healthier social world, dignity and a goad to do something more with their lives. Though not all succeed, the employees' struggle is deeply heartening, and most come through with a work ethic and proud sense of accomplishment that eventually silence even the merciless taunts of their peers. "I don't care what other people think," Larry says defiantly. "I just do not care. I have a job, you know. It's my job. I will walk tall in my [fast food] uniform."

Newman understands what makes these youths so impressive and, determined to correct what she sees as a scholarly neglect of the working poor, she does her best to showcase it. But her chatty, repetitive and often maddeningly uninformative book hardly does her characters or her important subject justice. What exactly does the average fast food worker do on the job? What does she earn, and how does that compare to a poverty-line income? Newman claims that even full-time McJobs workers do not make enough to get by, but she does not provide the numbers that would prove this. Nor does she convince us that fast food employees are typical of the working poor. She doesn't seem to know the words "some" or "many" and writes instead in sweeping generalizations about how "Harlem employers" and "inner-city parents" and "immigrant families" behave -- as if everyone in each of those groups behaved in the same way.

Most troubling, precisely because she is so devoted to her subjects and rooting so strongly for them, her account comes across as tendentious and unreliable, too committed to praising the working poor to serve as a useful guide to what, if anything, society can do to help them.

About two-thirds of the way through, Newman finally acknowledges something that has been apparent and growing on the reader all along: that alongside the inspiring ethos of the young people she's studying, there exists another, very different, predatory, ghetto ethos. The notion of two warring inner-city cultures, originally advanced by sociologist Elijah Anderson, is now conventional wisdom among social scientists. But even when Newman grants this, she doesn't seem to want to believe it -- doesn't want to cede the possibility that the "oppositional" street culture might be stronger or more pervasive than the decent values of the working poor. In fact, despite her best, Pollyannaish efforts, her book is a devastating portrait of that other Harlem: the blocks where no one but her teenage subject holds a job, the viciousness of the peer pressure not to do well, the universal, unquestioned teen motherhood, etc. etc.

The reader waits in vain for a realistic assessment of which culture is "winning" -- in addition to everything else, our understanding of how to help the ghetto would turn on this. But though she promises to tell us, Newman never comes through. No Shame in My Game is a heartening tale: an important, largely untold part of the story about the urban poor. But in the end, for all its impressive research, it doesn't come across as a reliable guide and raises more questions than it answers about the terra incognita of the inner city.

Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute, is author of "Someone Else's House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration."