OVERVIEW OF THE LESSON PLAN
In this lesson, students will consider their
own notions of poverty, examine the lives of people classified
as “working poor” from a variety of perspectives,
and present their findings to the class. Then, students will synthesize
their knowledge in a paper examining poverty and hardworking people.
Grades: 6–8, 9–12
Subjects: American History, Civics, Economics, Language
Arts, Social Studies
Suggested Time Allowance: 3–5 classes or
In this lesson, students will:
1. Explore their own ideas about poverty.
2. Examine the complex causes of poverty among
low-income earners by reading and discussing The Working Poor.
3. In groups, research a particular aspect of
poverty as it relates to a chapter in the book and prepare oral
presentations with visual aids. For instance, “Money and
Its Opposite” looks at the challenges the poor face in managing
their money and their vulnerability to financial scams; the plight
of immigrant farm labor is examined in “Harvest of Shame”;
and the impact and importance of job training is reviewed in “Work
4. Individually, write
a paper speculating on how one of the lives discussed in the book
(for example Caroline Payne, Kara King, or Leary Brock) could
have been different if she had known about alternative options
or had more information to help her make decisions.
Resources / Materials:
• classroom board
• Student journals
• computers with Internet access
• resources about cost of living, social services, etc.
(Economics, Health, and Sociology textbooks, encyclopedias, periodicals,
computers with Internet access, etc.)
1. Warmup/Do-Now: In their journals,
students respond to the following questions, written on the board
prior to class: “How do you define poor? How does someone
become poor? How does someone leave poverty and enter the middle
class?” After a few minutes, allow students time to share
2. As a class read and discuss “Work Doesn’t
Work” focusing on the following questions regarding Caroline
Payne (pp. 50–76):
a. What personal characteristics of Caroline
Payne embrace the ethics of America?
b. How is Caroline Payne one of the “forgotten”
Americans (p. 53) or “invisible in America” as the
subtitle of the book suggests?
c. How does David K. Shipler describe the year
d. What is the difference between what Caroline
Payne makes now, working in a Wal-Mart, and what she earned twenty-five
years ago working in a factory? What is the difference in real
dollars, corrected for inflation (see p. 51)?
e. Is Caroline Payne a victim of racial discrimination?
Is she lazy? How are her work habits described?
f. What happened when Ms. Payne applied to manage
departments at Wal-Mart?
g. What did the people who received promotions
have that Caroline Payne did not?
h. What happened to Caroline Payne’s teeth?
i. How did Caroline’s physical appearance
affect her job prospects?
j. Why did Caroline move around a lot as a child?
k. When Caroline got divorced, how did she supplement
l. How is Caroline’s second marriage characterized?
m. Why is the economic cost of failed relationships
n. Why did Caroline’s investment in education
turn out to be a bad one?
o. How did Caroline’s life at home affect
p. What “profound disability” of
Amber’s was confirmed in the first grade?
q. Why did Caroline initially move away from
r. In what ways did Caroline repeat her parent’s
“syndrome of uprootedness” (p. 58)?
s. Why is it important for Amber to have consistency
in her teachers and counselors?
t. Why did Caroline lose her job at Tambrands?
u. How did Caroline buy her house? How did she
secure her second mortgage?
v. Why did Amber’s teacher threaten to
report Caroline for neglect? What were the circumstances that
led her to work rotating shifts?
w. According to the book, what is the “most
curious and troubling facet of this confounding puzzle”
x. Why did Caroline eventually move to Muncie,
y. What is Caroline’s newest hope?
z. Poverty is not a single problem, but a constellation
of problems. In the case of Caroline Payne, trace the dimensions
of her experience of poverty.
3. Divide students into groups of six. Explain
that each group will be examining a different aspect of the situations
described in individual chapters in The Working Poor
and preparing an oral presentation based on their research. Assign
each group one of the following roles: Economics, Education, Real
Estate, Civics, Sociology, and History. Encourage each group to
use the following questions and guidelines to aid them in their
research (copied into a handout for easier student access):
What will $5.45 an hour x – 40 hours a week earn you in
a year? What will $6.80 an hour x – 40 hours a week earn
you in a year? What would you be able to afford to rent or buy
in your town or city? How much could you spend on groceries? Clothing?
Medical care or dentistry? Use current newspapers to get an understanding
of the real estate market in your city. Look at advertisements
to get an understanding of the cost of housing, groceries, clothing,
medical care, etc.
The chapter “Dreams” examines the role of education
in depth. Determine how the schools are funded in your area and
compare the amount of money spent per pupil with other nearby
communities, the state, and the nation. Speak to teachers and
administrators to see if they feel they have adequate resources
to educate and whether or not they feel disparities in funding
affect the quality of education and ultimately the success of
Explore any of the cities in which Caroline Payne or any of the
other individuals in the book have lived. What industries are
there? How much does it cost to live there? What is the climate
like? The demographics? Use online resources or current newspapers
to provide your group with a portrait of the city.
Is there legislation or programs in place to protect the working
poor? How does someone apply for welfare? Medicaid? Research legislation,
welfare, and charitable programs in your city.
Describe a day in the life of someone who works in a factory or
stocks shelves in a Wal-Mart. What are their responsibilities
on the job? How many hours make up a shift? What sort of benefits
might they expect?
Since 1950 there have been a great many changes in American life
and how people’s employment has been viewed and treated.
Put the lives of people like Caroline Payne, Tran Mao, and Ann
Brash into a larger historical perspective by creating a timeline
from 1950 onward, documenting seminal events in labor law, welfare
reform, and economics.
Once research is completed, group members should compile their
research into an oral presentation to be given to the class. To
aid in their presentations, students should create visuals to
help the audience comprehend the information being conveyed, as
well as to aid them in note-taking.
Presentations may be given in a future class.
4. Wrap-Up/Homework: After each group has presented,
students individually respond to the following prompt (written
on the board for easier student access): “Think about some
of the decisions that specific individuals in the book have had
to make. Using both hindsight and the information that you have
gathered through research and class presentations, imagine what
you might advise them to do in one of the situations described
in The Working Poor. Hypothetically, how might their
lives be different, if there were different options and more information
available to them? For example, if Caroline Payne had been able
to save her teeth or wear dentures, perhaps she would have been
able to more readily smile at customers. With teeth, perhaps she
would have been promoted to a manager in one of the sales departments
at Wal-Mart. Or in the case of Leary Brock, at what points in
her life did she miss opportunities? What might have happened
if she had told her mother about her rape, and if her mother had
shown more sympathy and belief in her daughter? What motivated
Leary to turn herself in to the police? What would most likely
have happened to her if she had been placed in jail instead of
a treatment program?”
FURTHER QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
• What is the responsibility of the government
toward people in poverty? Private industry? Charity?
• Do you believe there is any way to break the cycle of
poverty described in the book?
• Is it fair to ascribe blame to anyone for the poverty
described in the book?
• Is it the fault of the individual or society when people
fail to succeed in life? How can the belief that in America one
can get ahead if one works hard coexist with the contradictory
“American Anti-Myth, which holds the society largely responsible
for the individual’s poverty.” (see pp. 5–6)
• Using the story of Tran Mao and his family as a basis,
describe the things that need to come together in order for one
to successfully get out of the cycle of poverty?
• Using examples from the book (for instance the case of
Lisa Brooks), discuss how the problem of poverty is not a single
problem but one of interlocking problems, with the outcome often
the result of negative effects that reinforce one another.
• In what ways does housing limit the chance of escaping
poverty? What is the relationship between housing and health?
EVALUATION AND ASSESSMENT
Students will be evaluated on participation in
group discussions, thoughtful research, group presentations, and
the completion of a paper utilizing supportive reasoning and explanations.
deferred (60), twilight (3), prosperity (5), diligent (5), camouflage
(99), destitution (4), wallowed (50), abandoned (28), caustic
(51), punctuality (11), assiduous (51), persistence (51), dissonant
(51), stagnation (51), wryly (51), deficits (26), insidious (51),
scavenging (56), impoverished (6), treadmill (40), clapboard (61),
myriad (70), affluent (4), corrosive (126), attrition (127), competence
(282), transitory (55), expenditures (42), marginalized (42),
phalanx (110), boycott (111), conciliatory (234), commonality
(180), prerequisites (4), subsidize (13), imperatives (85), buffers
1. What kinds of questions do
you think are raised by The Working Poor? Write a letter
to President Bush, a member of Congress, or a local city official
asking the questions that are raised by the book. Then, write
a response from the perspective of the recipient of your letter.
2. Make a budget for a family of four with one
wage earner earning just above minimum wage. Include food, medical
care, housing, clothing, and incidentals.
3. Research the programs and services (federal,
state, local, faith-based, charitable, etc.) for the working poor
available in your own municipality. Create an informational pamphlet
designed to help the working poor understand the services available
4. In The Working Poor David K. Shipler
points out that an obvious solution to Caroline Payne’s
problems would have been for Procter & Gamble to allow her
to work day shifts at the Tambrands factory. However, no one in
the helping professions called the factory manager or foreman.
Imagine you are in a helping profession and wish to counter the
“regard for the employer as untouchable.” Write a
letter to the factory manager, asking for Caroline Payne to be
put on day shifts. How will you convince the manager to change
the shift? Alternatively, write a letter to the landlord whose
housing conditions are unacceptable and urge improvement.
Global Studies: Create a chart
comparing poverty levels in the United States to three other countries,
one being a Scandinavian country. What anti-poverty programs are
available in the countries you have chosen? Are they government
or privately funded? Include a brief written analysis of your
Health: Create an informational pamphlet about
depression. How many people suffer from it? What are the symptoms?
What are some of the treatments?
Media Studies: Keep track of your television
watching for a week, paying close attention to how the poor are
portrayed. Do the cashiers and factory workers fit the images
in The Working Poor? David K. Shipler calls the poverty
of the working poor “invisible.” Using your television
journal as evidence, agree or disagree with his contention.
Teaching with The New York Times: Read
some of the case studies in the column, The Neediest Cases. What
problems present themselves most often? How are they solved? Research
the Neediest Cases Fund. How does it respond to poverty? Do you
think it is effective?
OTHER INFORMATION ON THE WEB
of Labor (http://www.bls.gov/)
provides vital data on the demographics of each industry, average
wages, and benefits by area: Information on women in the marketplace
and a report on the working poor in 2001 can be found at (http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2003/11/art2exc.htm).
provides a brief history of women in the marketplace (http://womenshistory.about.com/library/prm/blbranching1.htm)
is the site’s Women’s History section.
The Census Bureau
data on poverty rates and thresholds.
AUTHORS OF THIS LESSON PLAN
Elyse Fischer is a freelance
materials developer. Long-term projects include work for the Developmental
Studies Center in Oakland, CA, and The New York Times.
Prior to moving to the West Coast, Ms. Fischer was a senior producer
at eSchool Online, a division of ACTV, creating online professional
development products for teachers across the nation. She was also
the associate director of a prejudice-reduction and diversity
training program in New York City. Fischer graduated from Columbia
University, Teachers College with an M.A. in International Education
Development, specializing in curriculum and teaching. While at
Columbia, she taught preschool in New York City, as well as worked
as a museum educator at the American Museum of the Moving Image.
Before returning to New York for graduate school, Fischer was
the library/media specialist at Laguna Middle School, on the Laguna
Pueblo Reservation in New Mexico.
Javaid Khan, a graduate of Bank Street School
for Children, received his B.A. in Sociology from Wesleyan University
in Middletown, Connecticut. Khan taught English at Poly Prep High
School in Brooklyn, New York, for several years, during which
he also served as associate head coach of the girls’ varsity
In 1997, Khan worked with Wave Hill, a cultural institution in
Bronx, New York, as a summer crew leader in the “Wave Hill
Forrest Project.” In that role, Khan managed a team of high
school students who worked on environmental restoration projects
in the community. Most recently, Khan traveled throughout New
Zealand with the Experiment in International Living Program as
group leader of sixteen American high school students. He cites
that particular education-related experience as his most challenging
and memorable to date. Currently, Khan is a freelance writer living
in New York City.
ABOUT THIS LESSON PLAN/COPYRIGHT
This lesson was originally published in a slightly
different form to accompany the article “A Poor Cousin of
the Middle Class,” by David K. Shipler which appeard in
The New York Times Sunday Magazine, January 18th 2004.
Reprinted by permission of The New York Times. All rights
reserved. This lesson plan is free to download by educators for
teaching purposes only.
For any comments, questions, or feedback on this lesson
plan, e-mail us at: firstname.lastname@example.org