Northeastern State University on Tuesday hosted Pulitzer Prize-winner David K. Shipler, a name with which all NSU freshmen are familiar.
Shipler's book, "The Working Poor: Invisible in America," was selected as this year's Common Read, which is used in the freshman course University Strategies, and implemented in other courses as relevant.
Shipler spoke to a crowd of over 350 students, plus faculty and community members, in the Center of the Performing Arts.
"From discussions I've heard on this campus, there's a lot of concern about poverty," said Shipler. "The fact you are all here is a tribute to you and your families. You'll have to keep learning throughout your whole lives. You're not only learning, you're learning how to learn."
Dr. Kendra Haggard, associate professor of English and chair of the Common Read committee, said the selected book is applicable to every college within NSU.
"We spend two months choosing the book. It's a committee of 12-13 people, with students included, and a representative from each college," said Haggard.
"In this one we saw critical thinking, and there is information about health care, education, politics."
Haggard said those who have lived in poverty can see others in the book who are experiencing the same thing, and those who haven't experienced poverty can better relate.
"It helps you have empathy and understanding," said Haggard.
Along with writing journal entries and discussions, one project students were assigned based on "The Working Poor" was to find a place in the community that helps people.
"They research that particular place and maybe volunteer, if they have time. They see what's needed in their own community," said Haggard. "They utilize the book and learn from it. All together, we can make a difference."
The fact that students were learning about their communities seemed to impress Shipler, who toured campus and spoke at some classes.
While "The Working Poor" was published in 2004, Shipler said he updates the main data in the book every few years, usually for new printings.
"The change hasn't been significant," he said. "The poverty rate has fallen. It was 11.8%, which is the lowest in about 15 years."
Shipler thinks the poverty line - the number set by the government for assistance - is archaic.
As research for the book, Shipler took five years and interviewed individuals and families periodically to find out how their situations changed and the factors behind the changes.
The people he interviewed worked at least part time, most of the time.
"I wanted to focus on people in the job market and see how lives are shaped by the poverty line," he said. "They were all in that range of hardship. It was a struggle for them."
Shipler doesn't think much in the topic has changed since his research.
"The wages have not gone up very much; there's no improvement in the wages they are earning," he said.
He said politicians tend to talk about creating jobs, but they don't say if those are jobs that will pay well or offer opportunities for advancement.
"That is a key part of this, and it's not addressed in normal political discourse," said Shipler. "It's not just financial burden, but psychological. Poverty is not just income; it's debt."
This realization came to him after Shipler heard numerous stories for which the outcomes could have been different if various factors had changed. While some people rose, others fell into poverty due to circumstances they may not have chosen, such as a medical condition due to the rented apartment, or low cognitive growth due to malnourishment caused by a lack of affordable housing.
"It's an absurdity that people who work hard and long hours are not paid enough to survive," said Shipler. "It's a basic injustice."
Shipler said he has a curious nature, and doesn't tend to think about his audience very much when writing. He does enjoy talking with people and learning about their lives.
"I began without a lot of preconceptions. I was trying to unravel a vexing problem," said Shipler. "I write in a way I can understand. To write a book, you have to be curious for an extended period of time."