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'Chutes and Ladders' of the Low-Wage Job Market

Oct 31, 2006 (Morning Edition)

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Chutes and Ladders is the name of a board game for children in which players try to land on ladders to race ahead while avoiding the chutes which send them back. It is also the title of a new book about the lives of working-class Americans and the chutes and ladders they encounter as they try to navigate the low-wage job market.

The book was written by Princeton University professor Katherine Newman. It's actually her second book about the young men and women who applied for work at a fast-food restaurant in Harlem more than a decade ago.

Newman followed the workers over an eight-year period during which the economy improved. The author tells Renee Montagne that she was interested in how their lives as members of the working poor would unfold over time.

Newman says she was surprised to find that about 20 percent of the people she followed climbed out of poverty and now have much better-paying jobs than when they started. These workers, some of whom have union jobs that they got through personal connections, are what Newman calls the "high-flyers" who "drive FedEx trucks [and] work in the local hospitals."

Another group managed to stay ahead of inflation, and have slightly better jobs than where Newman first found them. For example, they're in the Gap store "folding clothes rather than flipping burgers." But the fate of this group hangs on whether they manage to find spouses who would contribute to their household income.

Finally, there's a group that's "bumping along the bottom of the labor market — in and out of work, off and on what's left of welfare, often subsisting on the kindness of family and boyfriends and girlfriends."

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