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One of the most important on-going debates in America is the question of inequality and mobility. I have argued on this site that many comparisons across time are misleading because they are snapshots of different people and therefore mislead about the ability of people to improve their situation in America.

A new book is out from anthropologist Katherine Newman chronicling the lives of 300 applicants who applied for fast food jobs more than ten years ago in Harlem.

There are many objections to be made about such a study. Most importantly, it is only 300 people. But you learn something from such a study about the range of possibility. Especially when it focuses on the least skilled and least likely to succeed. From the New York Times book review:

In 1993, Katherine S. Newman, then a professor in the anthropology department at Columbia University,
began conducting interviews with 300 or so young men and women who had
applied for just about the least promising jobs you could think of:
flipping burgers and running registers at a fast-food franchise in
Harlem. Two hundred of them were paid minimum wage to do mind-numbing
work, and they were the lucky ones; the other 100 were turned down for
those same ill-paying, mind-numbing jobs. It was, Newman says, a
terrible time to be a low-wage worker in the inner city.

The reviewer, Times Magazine editor Paul Tough expected to find a dreary chronicle of failure:

Which is why it comes as such a shock when you read Newman’s
histories of people like Adam (a pseudonym, like all the names in the
book). The son of a mother on welfare, Adam dropped out of school after
10th grade, and he was turned down for a job at the restaurant. Doomed,
right? Well, no: he is now earning $70,000 a year, with full benefits,
as a union driver for an express delivery firm. Or Ebony, who was
working behind the counter doling out burgers when Newman met her and
is now a receptionist for a fancy law firm, studying to get her B.A. in
political science at night. Or Jamilla, who quit her job in the kitchen
to go on welfare, an unmarried mother raising her children alone, a
classic desperate case — until she completed her G.E.D. and worked her
way through culinary school. She is now a “stylish professional,”
Newman reports, with a well-paying job in a restaurant in Saks Fifth
Avenue. Shame? Try awe.

Newman doesn’t claim that these success
stories are typical. About a third of the 40 people she tracked down
and re-interviewed in 2002 were unemployed or still making the minimum
wage. But most had moved up, and almost a quarter were what she calls
“high fliers,” making $15.46 an hour or more. Newman’s fractions don’t
tell you a whole lot, as she herself admits; she’s an anthropologist,
not an economist, and her sample size is too small to prove much of
anything. Her book is valuable, though, as a collection of carefully
drawn portraits of people who got their start working at the bottom
rung of the American economy — in a lousy job, in a lousy neighborhood,
at the tail end of a recession — and in many cases managed to escape a
situation that seemed inescapable.

There is much that can be done to help low-skilled workers. Giving them the chance to acquire better skills in better schools is the right place to start. But it is good to know that even among the least-skilled Americans, success is possible.

The standard comparisons of average hourly earnings across time do not tell us what is really going on in people’s lives. Comparing average wages across time does not capture what is happening to the average or struggling worker.