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5/17/02: The following is a repeat of one of
the more requested InfoFaxes. It is excerpts from the truly outstanding new book
by Barbara Ehrenreich, "Nickel and Dimed" in which the author spent a
year working at a variety of low wage jobs that illustrate the tribulations of low
wage America, those workers at or near minimum wage. Enjoy.
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not)
Getting By in America
By: Barbara Ehrenreich
The other problem..is that these jobs show no sign of being financially viable.
You might imagine, from a comfortable distance, that people who live, year in and
year out, on $6 to $10 an hour have discovered some survival strategies unknown
to the middle class. but no. It's not hard to get my co-workers talking about their
living situations, because housing, in almost every case, is the principal source
of disruption in their lives, the first thing they fill you in on when they arrive
for their shifts. After a week, I have compiled the following survey:
There are no secret economies that nourish the
poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs. If you can't put up the
2 months rent you need to secure an apartment, you end up paying through the nose
for a room by the week. If you only have a room, with a hot plate at best, you can't
save by cooking up huge lentil stews that can be frozen weeks ahead.
Gail is sharing a room in a well-known downtown
flophouse for $250 a week. Her roommate, a male friend, has begun hitting her, driving
her nuts, but the rent would be impossible alone.
Claude, the Haitian cook, is desperate to get
out of the two-room apartment he shares with his girlfriend and two other unrelated
people. As far as I can determine, the other Haitian men live in similarly crowded
Annette, a 20 year old server who is 6 months
pregnant and abandoned by her boyfriend, lives with her mother, a postal clerk.
Marianne, who is a breakfast server, and her boyfriend are paying $170 a week for
a one person trailer.
Billy, who at $10 an hour is the wealthiest of
us, lives in the trailer he owes, paying only the $400-a-month lot fee.
Tina, another server, and her husband are paying
$60 a night for a room in the Days Inn. This is because they have no car and the
Days Inn is in walking distance of the Hearthside. When Marianne is tossed out of
her trailer for subletting (which is against the rules), she leaves her boyfriend
and moves in with Tina and her husband.
Joan, who had fooled me with her numerous and
tasteful outfits (hostesses wear their own clothes), lives in a van parked behind
a shopping center and showers in Tina's motel room. The clothes are from thrift
The problem of rents is easy for a noneconomist, even a sparsely educated low-wage
worker to grasp: it's the market, stupid. When the rich and the poor compete
for housing, the poor don't stand a chance. The rich can always outbid them, buy
up their tenements or trailer parks, and replace them with condos, McMansions, golf
course, or whatever they like. Since the rich have become more numerous, thanks
largely to rising stock prices and executive salaries, the poor have necessarily
been forced into housing that is more expensive, more dilapidated, or more distant
from their places of work. Insofar as the poor have to work near the dwellings of
the rich-as is the case of so many service or retail jobs-they are stuck with lengthy
commutes or dauntingly expensive housing.
When the market fails to distribute some vital commodity, such as housing, to all
who require it, the usual liberal-to-moderate expectation is that the government
will step in and help. We accept this principle in the case of health care, where
government offers Medicare to the elderly, Medicaid to the desperately poor, and
various state programs to the children of merely the very poor. But in the case
of housing, the extreme upward skewing of the market has been accompanied by a cowardly
public sector retreat from responsibility. Expenditures on public housing have fallen
since the 1980s, and the expansion of public rental subsidies came to a halt in
the mid-1990s. At the same time, housing subsidies for homeowners-who tend to be
more affluent than renters-have remained at their usual munificent levels. It
did not escape my attention, as a temporary low income person, that the housing
subsidy I normally receive in my real life-over $20,000 a year in the form of mortgage
interest deduction-would have allowed for truly low income family to live in relative
There are other more direct ways of keeping low wage workers in their place. Rules
against "gossip", or even "talking" make it hard to air your
grievance to peers or - should you be so daring-to enlist other workers in a group
effort to bring changes, through a union organizing drive, for example. Those who
do step out of line often face unexplained punishments, such as having their schedules
or work assignments unilaterally changed. Or you may be fired; those low-wage workers
who work without union contracts, which is the great majority of them "at will,"
meaning at the will of the employer and are subject to dismissal without explanation.
The AFL-CIO estimates that 10,000 workers a year are fired for participating
in union organizing drives, and since it is illegal to fire people for union activity,
I suspect that these firings are justified in terms of unrelated minor infractions.
Wal-Mart employees who have bucked the company-by getting involved in a unionization
drive or by suing the company for failing to pay overtime-have been fired for breaking
the company rule against using profanity.
Social Isolation of the Poor
Maybe it's low wage work in general that has the effect of making you feel like
a pariah. When I watch TV over dinner at night, I see a world in which almost everyone
earns $15 an hour or more, and I'm not thinking of the anchor folks. The sitcoms
and dramas are about fashion designers or lawyers, so it's easy for a fast food
worker or nurse's aide to conclude that she is an anomaly - the only one, or almost
the only one, who hasn't been invited to the party. And in a sense, she would be
right; the poor have disappeared from the culture at large, from its political
rhetoric and intellectual endeavors as well as its daily entertainment. Even religion
seems to have little to say about the plight of the poor. The moneylenders seemingly
have gotten Jesus out of the temple.
shame on our own dependency on the underpaid labor of others. When someone works
for less pay than he/she can live on-when, for example, she goes hungry so you can
eat more cheaply and conveniently-then he/she has made a great sacrifice for you,
he/she has made you a gift of some part of his/her abilities, his/her health, and
his/her life. The "working poor", as they are approvingly termed, are
in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children
so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing
so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation
will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an
anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor to everyone else.