Book Review: Chuttes and Ladders

For one of my classes on urban life and ministry, I read the following book entitled Chutes and Ladders. If you work in the urban spaces of the US, or with those who are part of the low-wage labor market, I highly suggest the book!
Here is my review:
Chutes and Ladders offers a close examination of what it takes to transcend the difficulties of life in the low-wage labor market by suggesting that through relationships, streetwise economics, and luck people can experience upward mobility. In following the journeys of a few participants in her original case study, Katherine S. Newman demonstrates that a kind of worker deemed as “high flier” can find a way out of the cycles of poverty. Though each of the people in her study had experienced the economics of mobility as offered by the Burger Barn, Chuttes demonstrates that the journey beyond the barn is available to any of those who choose to take it, regardless of previous life experience.
One of the major factors related to the journey of upward mobility is that of relationships. Throughout Chuttes, Newman seems to indicate that the relationship between social upward mobility and the personal relationships of those surveyed was intricately connected. For a hard-worker like Kyesha, the relational hardships as experienced in her family were most formative, and yet difficult to transcend. As Newman points out, “Kyesha’s family is expert at maneuvering around public bureaucracies, bill collectors, and the patchwork quilt of their own private safety net..Without these skills, and the resources that flow in and out of various linked households, no one would be able to make ends meet” (25). For many like Kyesha, the family into which she was born definitely effected the beginnings of her journey towards independence and life beyond poverty; however, it was her resilience and willingness to defer her dreams of companionship in order to provide for her son that most mark her story. For Kyesha, “like other successful people in her network, has learned that one has to be judicious in choosing those who can make good use of an opportunity and to shut out the people who abuse her trust” (36).
Keep on reading…

Another major factor that contributed to the success of Newman’s high fliers was the use of streetwise economics. Though non-universal in its application, streetwise economics seems to relate to the knowledge about the economics of mobility learned by the people in the low-wage labor market. Newman writes, “through experience, low-wage workers also learn the importance of gaining leverage in the workplace-what we might call a good market position” (183). The expression of streetwise knowledge seems to vary from flier to flier; however, one of the key components seems to be that of risking up. For fliers like Jamal, who bounced from job to job and location to location looking for pay raises and opportunities, Chuttes seems to indicate that his street wisdom enabled him to know when to drop one job for another, at just the right time. Or like Jamal, a flier like Salvador has “learned that a worker needs to show the boss that he’s valuable.” New man goes on to say that people like Jamal and Salvador have “learned that labor relations are constant give and take, and that you can’t be passive if you’re looking for a raise. And they’ve learned that you always seek the higher-paying job. Move with the momentum of the market. Loyalty is for dead-end proletarians” (173). Regardless of the kind of streetwise economics practiced, Chuttes demonstrates that key to understanding the way out of the barn is leveraging the wisdom of those moving on up.
While streetwise economics and relationships play major roles in the lives of the high fliers leaving the low-wage market, Newman also seems to suggest that at just the right time, no amount of wisdom or networking can compare to a little luck. “In luck once again, Jamal got the new position, which required him to learn more skills than either of the previous jobs” (11). Although one cannot plan on luck, Chuttes seems to insist on its presence in the lives of its fliers. Again, Newman writes in what could be seen as lucky terms when talking about the promotion of Salvador and Carmen, saying, “[i]t was a promotion that Salvador and Carmen had stumbled upon, almost unwittingly, but in hindsight it made sense” (175). Chuttes insistence on luck is less about speaking of a mysterious cosmic provider for those in need, and much more about naming one of the great equalizers of those in all wage markets. To insist on its presence at the low-wage level is again to insist that in all of life, our lives often need those boosts of opportunity that we have neither created nor deserved.
At the end of the day, Chuttes and Ladders shows that there is a way out of the proverbial low-wage burger barn for anyone willing to take the necessary risks with regard to personal relationships and streetwise economics. It is a vision that seems to be less about pulling oneself up-and-out by the boot straps, and is rather more concerned with learning to use the skills and opportunities present in every season of life. While Chuttes doesn’t take the time to list the skills or training necessary to help every person make the transition beyond the low-wage market, it does provide a roughly sketched picture of the kinds of personal values and postures those who will make the journey will possess. With a little luck, Chuttes and Ladders can provide those willing to hear its voice with ample materials and inspiration for empowering the most poor of our society to break the cycle of poverty for their generation.