Shirk, Martha 1951-

views updated

SHIRK, Martha 1951-


Born April 8, 1951, in Allentown, PA; married William F. Woo. Education: Swarthmore College, B.A.,1973; University of Chicago, M.A., 1975.


Home—Palo Alto, CA. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Westview Press, 5500 Central Ave., Boulder, CO 80301. E-mail—[email protected]


Journalist and freelance writer. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, reporter, 1976-96; freelance writer, 1996—.


Casey Journalism Center fellow, 1994.


(With Nancy Klepper) Super Family Vacations: Resort and Adventure Guide, Perennial Library (New York, NY), 1989, revised edition, HarperPerennial (New York, NY), 1992.

(With Neil G. Bennett and Lawrence Aber) Lives on the Line: American Families and the Struggle to Make Ends Meet, Westview Press (Boulder, CO), 1999.

(With Anna S. Wadia) Kitchen-Table Entrepreneurs: How Eleven Women Escaped Poverty and Became Their Own Bosses, preface by Marie C. Wilson and Sarah K. Gould, Westview Press (Boulder, CO), 2002, revised with a foreword by John Kerry, 2004.

(With Gary Stangler) On Their Own: What Happens to Kids When They Age out of the Foster-Care System, foreword by Jimmy Carter, Westview Press (Boulder, CO), 2004.


Journalist and freelance writer Martha Shirk has specialized in reporting on the effect poverty has had on American families. During her twenty-two years as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, she "wrote hundreds of stories about … the poor," as Shirk related in Nieman Reports available on the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University Web site. "Sometimes the issue involved the difficulty poor parents had finding affordable, quality childcare. Or I wrote about their struggles to find obstetricians who would accept Medicaid payments, or their frustrating search for jobs in rural counties or depleted cities."

In Lives on the Line: American Families and the Struggle to Make Ends Meet, Shirk and coauthors Neil G. Bennett and Lawrence Aber profile ten families from varying racial and geographic backgrounds. "In doing so, they bring names, faces, and stories to the often impersonal debate surrounding welfare reform," observed Stephen E. Condrey in the Public Administration Review. The authors identify three prominent factors in the persistence of poverty, wrote George M. Anderson and Robert Coles in their review of the book for America: teenage pregnancy and single parenthood; low educational achievement; and the types of low-wage and temporary employment available to the working, undereducated poor. In her Nieman Reports article, Shirk also identifies other factors affecting their prospects, such as race, "the presence of a supportive family or community," individual personalities and coping skills, and simple blundering and ignorance by the social service agencies tasked with helping. Shirk, Bennett, and Aber report that one out of every five American children under the age of six live in conditions that can be defined as poverty, "a shocking reality—namely, that here in the world's richest nation, we have the highest young child poverty rate in the Western industrialized world," Anderson and Coles observed. The book also destroys any conception that poor people are simply lazy and waiting for a handout. "In almost all the profiled families, one or both parents work, contradicting the widespread stereotype of the poor as lazy or irresponsible," remarked a Publishers Weekly reviewer.

Some of the stories in Lives on the Line are maddeningly frustrating "examples of the 'Catch-22' effects of current welfare reform efforts where low-paying jobs do not replace the social safety net employed by state and federal assistance programs, particularly Medicaid," Condrey remarked. One worker found a job that paid her six dollars and twenty cents an hour and was enough to bring her above the poverty line—but her earnings meant she made one hundred dollars a year too much for her son to qualify for continued Medicaid coverage.

Steve Weinberg, writing in the Denver Post, remarked that "Reading Lives on the Line is not the same as living among the less fortunate people whose lives it chronicles, but it is the next most realistic thing." Dubbing the work "unforgettable," Weinberg declared that "The writing is so good that even the chapter filled with statistics is easy to read." Ruth Sidel, writing in Contemporary Sociology, called Lives on the Line a "moving and well-documented book" that "shed[s] genuine light on an aspect of American society usually shrouded in darkness and misinformation."

Shirk's 2002 book, Kitchen-Table Entrepreneurs: How Eleven Women Escaped Poverty and Became Their Own Bosses, written with Anna S. Wadia of the Ms. Foundation for Women, explores real-life examples of determined female business owners who started with little or nothing and pulled themselves out of poverty through hard work and strong will. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called the women's stories "inspiring." Leslie Brokaw, a reviewer for Women's Reviewof Books, was impressed by the story of Yasmina Cadiz, who was making $250 per week as a furniture salesperson and working extra hours in a part-time job just to survive, and turned her life around by running a successful luxury lamp company with year 2000 sales of $136,000. Roselyn Spotted Eagle, another woman profiled in the book, found more modest success with her beading and quilting business, but her earnings allowed her to move from a two-room cabin with an outhouse to a three-bedroom trailer. "The threads that tie the stories together are that all eleven women started independent businesses to ease them out of the most desperate poverty, and all eleven received 'microloans'—some as small as several hundred dollars, a few in the tens of thousands—at crucial points in their businesses' growth," Brokaw wrote.

"The authors acknowledge that owning a business has always been part of the American Dream, and aim to encourage it among low-income women," observed Rachel Jurado in American Enterprise. Better education on programs available to entrepreneurs is needed, however, and Brokaw mused that "Perhaps the primary function of this book will be to show policy makers and funders the power of these programs." Mary Whaley, writing in Booklist, commented that Kitchen Table Entrepreneurs "offers excellent insight" into the loan programs that helped the women succeed and "provides inspiration especially for low-income women who dream of forming their own businesses." In a foreword to the revised edition, published in 2004, Senator John Kerry wrote: "In a bold endeavor," Shirk and Wadia "have shown us the possibilities of empowering low-income women through entrepreneurship. Kitchen-Table Entrepreneurs is an inspiration to the millions of American struggling to make ends meet."

In On Their Own: What Happens to Kids When They Age out of the Foster-Care System Shirk and co-author Gary Stangler examine what happens to children after they "age out" of foster care, usually at age eighteen. The book follows ten young people as they leave state custody and head out into a world of unknowns, navigating the road to independence without the help of supportive adults. Their experiences run the gamut from petty crime and homelessness to college enrollment and success in a career, with many tribulations and triumphs along the way. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter wrote in the book's foreword that On Their Own "provides an intimate and often gripping account of the struggles and triumphs of young people at critical turning points in their lives," and shows that while "bad decisions coudl so quickly lead them to crisis, … perseverence in the face of adversity usually paid off."



Adolescence, spring, 2001, review of Lives on the Line: American Families and the Struggle to Make Ends Meet, p. 179.

America, February 26, 2000, George M. Anderson and Robert Coles, "Growing Poorly," p. 28.

American Enterprise, March, 2003, Rachel Jurado, "Ms. Fortune," p. 14.

Booklist, May 15, 1989, Denise Perry Donavin, review of Super Family Vacations: Resort and Adventure Guide, p. 1602; September 1, 2002, Mary Whaley, review of Kitchen-Table Entrepreneurs: How Eleven Women Escaped Poverty and Became Their Own Bosses, p. 31.

Choice, February, 2000, D. S. Peirson, review of Lives on the Line.

Contemporary Sociology, March, 2001, Ruth Sidel, review of Lives on the Line, pp. 128-129.

Labor History, August, 2000, Edward D. Berkowitz, review of Lives on the Line, p. 389.

Library Journal, October 1, 1999, Paula Dempsey, review of Lives on the Line, p. 120; September 1, 2002, Susan C. Awe, review of Kitchen-Table Entrepreneurs, p. 189.

Public Administration Review, May, 2001, Stephen E. Condrey, review of Lives on the Line, p. 375.

Publishers Weekly, September 27, 1999, review of Lives on the Line, p. 83; July 1, 2002, review of Kitchen-Table Entrepreneurs, p. 71.

Travel Weekly, May 4, 1989, Gay Nagle Myers, review of Super Family Vacations, p. 40.

Women's Review of Books, January, 2003, Leslie Brokaw, "Building a Better Shoestring," pp. 15-16.


Association for Enterprise Opportunity Web site, (January 15, 2003), review of Kitchen-Table Entrepreneurs.

Denver Post Online, (November 21, 2003), Steve Weinberg, "Poverty Families' Plights Sharpened by Firsthand Focus."

Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University Web site, (summer, 1999), Martha Shirk, "Portraying Poverty in the Face of Newsroom Pressures."