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Lesson plan for The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler

Examining the Circumstances of the Hidden Working Poor

Elyse Fischer, The New York Times Learning Network
Javaid Khan, The Bank Street College of Education

In this Lesson Plan:

Overview of Lesson Plan
Further Questions for Discussion
Extension Activities
Interdisciplinary Connections
Other Information on the Web
Authors of This Lesson Plan
About This Lesson Plan/Copyright

lesson plans


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 full unit

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 Works.”
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
• pens/pencils
• Student journals
• paper
• 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 their responses.

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 2000?
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 her income?
l. How is Caroline’s second marriage characterized?
m. Why is the economic cost of failed relationships high?
n. Why did Caroline’s investment in education turn out to be a bad one?
o. How did Caroline’s life at home affect her work?
p. What “profound disability” of Amber’s was confirmed in the first grade?
q. Why did Caroline initially move away from New Hampshire?
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” (p. 70)?
x. Why did Caroline eventually move to Muncie, Indiana?
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 their students.

Real Estate:
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?”


• 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?


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 (161)


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 to them.

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 findings.

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?


The Department 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).

About.com 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 (http://www.census.gov) contains data on poverty rates and thresholds.


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 basketball program.

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.


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: highschool@randomhouse.com