We received this email from Robert Bain:

All to often, we hear someone invoke the “glass half full versus half empty” statement as a way of presumedly (or is it presumptuously) suggesting who is an optimist versus pessimist or more specifically who is positive versus negative.

In fact there are so many devises in the language to identify those that are not content with the status quo as malcontents; who are certainly of the half empty glass category compared with the contented of the half full glass category.

How is it that we have permitted the half full to such prominence when half a glass is half a glass?  Is it that be they malcontent or contented that what is actually important to some others (full glass folks, that is) is that they have in either instance only a half glass?

I’m currently reading David Shipler’s The Working Poor: Invisible in America.

Trapped in what Shipler calls “a perilous zone of low-wage work,” he describes many of the working poor as: Moving in and out of jobs that demand much and pay little, many people tread just above the official poverty line, dangerously close to the edge of destitution.  An inconvenience to the affluent family – minor car trouble, a brief illness, disrupted child care – is a crisis to them, for it can threaten their ability to stay employed.  They spend everything and save nothing.  They are always behind on their bills.  They have miniscule bank accounts or none at all, and so pay more fees and higher interest rates than more secure Americans.  Even when the economy is robust, many wander through a border land of struggle, never getting very far from where they started.  When the economy weakens, they slip back toward the precipice.

Shipler references what he calls “the American Anti-Myth, which holds the society largely responsible for the individual’s poverty.  The hierarchy of racial discrimination and economic power creates a syndrome of impoverished communities with bad schools and closed options.  The children of the poor are funneled into delinquency, drugs, or jobs with meager pay and little future.”

I like Shipler as someone who in his own words wants “to unravel the tangled strands of cause and effect.”

Yes, in my estimation, Shipler gets it; that “the working poor are neither helpless or omnipotent, but stand on various points along the spectrum between opposites of personal and societal responsibility.  Each person’s life is the mixed product of bad choices and bad fortune, of roads not taken and roads cut off by the accidents of birth and circumstance.  It is difficult to find someone whose poverty is not somehow related to his or her unwise behavior – to drop out of school, to have a baby out of wedlock, to do drugs, to be chronically late to work.  And it is difficult to find behavior that is not somehow related to the inherited conditions of being poorly parented, poorly educated, poorly housed in neighborhoods from which no distant horizon of possibility can be seen;” what he infers in his statement that “the past is frequently an overwhelming burden on the present.”

“If” Shipler writes, “problems are interlocking, then so must solutions be.  A job alone is not enough.  Medical insurance alone is not enough.  Good housing alone is not enough.  Reliable transportation, careful family budgeting, effective parenting, effective schooling are not enough when each is achieved in isolation from the rest.  There is no single variable that can be altered to help working people move away from the edge of poverty.”

I’ve decided that many of those that would convince others to see their own glass as half full are those for whom the glass is likely full to even overflow.  I could be wrong in this and encourage being corrected if indeed a half a glass is other than half a glass.  In the meantime, I agree with Shipler’s statement that “(T)he first step is to see the problems, and the first problem is the failure to see the people.”

It seems correct to infer from Shipler’s analysis that even two half glasses don’t a full glass make. Even the language seems to agree as half-baked ideas or half-assed or half-hearted efforts are more notable for what they lack than what they add.