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Other Reviews:
Letters to a Young Contrarian - Christopher Hitchens
With Love and Squalor -
Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller
Shanghai Baby -
Wei Hui
Shop Talk -
Philip Roth

Halls of Fame -
John D'Agata
This is Not a Novel -
David Markson
My Name is Red -
Orhan Pamuk
The Corrections -
Jonathan Franzen

NICKEL AND DIMED On (Not) Getting By In America (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Co.; 2001), Barbara Ehrenreich's gritty book on minimum wage-earning in America, should be required reading by every single member of Congress, and gift-sent, underlined, to every corporate head in America. It's a wake-up call to all of us who assume the invisible working poor in our country are somehow doing alright. The fact is, minimum wager-earners can't make it on their salaries.

The reasons lower caste members of society (the waitresses, maids, K-mart clerks, nursing home aids, quick order cooks--to name a few) remain voiceless in their plight are several, but the one that is most compelling is housing. The US Government continues to define poverty using a method devised in the 1960's that multiplies the cost of feeding a family of X-size multiplied by three, and if the number they come up with falls bellow a certain income per year, bingo, a person is declared poor. (The method sounds to me about as scientific as numerology.) The truth is, food prices have remained fairly stable, while the cost of housing has skyrocketed in the past ten years. The old ruler of food cost as a measure of poverty only feeds an illusory appreciation of poverty. A period of the greatest national prosperity--the nineties--saw a crushing depletion of affordable housing. Real estate--as anyone living in any major US city well knows--has gone through the roof, while wages for the lowest level jobs have remained relatively unchanged. Imagine trying to live in, say, Manhattan or Los Angeles on $6.05 per hour before taxes. Wages, Ms Ehrenreich points out, are not sensitive to market forces: "The problem of rent 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."

In fact, employers from bodega owners to AOL CEO's generally want to do everything in their power to keep labor costs down. Regardless of profit margins or productivity levels (or increases in cost of living), the average working stiff is kept as close to the bare bone as possible. "...Employers resist wage increases with every trick they can think of and every ounce of strength they can summon...many employers will offer almost anything--free meals, subsidized housing, transportation, store discounts--rather than raise wages. The reason for this, in the words of one employer, is that such extras "can be shedded more easily" than wage increases when changes in the market seem to make them unnecessary." Needless to say, unionization is aggressively discouraged by employers, and many other factors help to keep low wage-earners--well--down, too afraid to demand pay increases or to band together as a force. If you are sleeping in your van at night and are made to feel pretty replaceable on the job, the author points out, it's quite likely your sense of worth will remain about as low as your pay, so rebellion against the status quo becomes unthinkable. Up to a point, the author suggests.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a best-selling writer, a journalist, lecturer and, as she mentions, in possession of a Ph.D. in biology. She left behind those credentials and the comforting fruits of her success to join the minimum wage crowd. She wanted to find out if it was possible to survive on wages of up to $7.00 an hour. She concluded that, "Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possess a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow."

The book began over a luncheon conversation with Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's. Welfare reform was about to be enacted. The prevailing sentiment, make the bums go to work, had won the day. The argument being, if you just got up and got a job--any job--you would automatically find yourself on the road, if not to riches, certainly out of poverty. That the method used to determine who was poor and who was not was out of whack with reality must never have come up among the legislators. So, over lunch that sunny day, Mr Lapham and Ms Ehrenreich wondered how, "...the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform [were] going to make it on $6 or $7 and hour?" The question led to Ehrenreich temporarily becoming one of those women. The answer, and the book resulted three years later.

Over a period of two years she took on three different menial jobs for a month (and in some cases held two jobs, working seven days a week). In each case she started out with a certain sum of cash, without recourse to ATM's, credit cards or other financial rescue; she had to make it or break it like anyone else without a net. She did allow herself a working car (a rent-a-wreck), and she would not allow herself to become homeless, nor sleep in shelters, nor starve. The deal was to make enough money at each job to pay for the next month's rent. In each case she failed, even with two jobs and emergency help from food stamps. She did not fail for lack of sincere, honest, hard-working effort.

Her first stint was as a waitress in Key West. Finding a low level job was not much of a problem. She had a certain advantage in the service industry, being white and a woman; sad, but true, an instant cache in our classless land. Rent was the hurdle. Key West, she points out is a tourist town, so, while waitressing jobs were plenty, housing for a food server was scarce: "...Key West is expensive. But so is New York City, or the Bay Area, or Jackson, Wyoming, or Telluride, or Boston or any other place where tourists and the wealthy complete for living space with the people who clean their toilets and fry their hash browns. Still, it is a shock to realize that "trailer trash" has become, for me, a demographic category to aspire to."

Her next location was Portland, Maine, which she chose for its demographic "whiteness," where even the panhandlers and menial laborers are white. Here she easily found a weekday job with a professional maid service, the "Merry Maids" (all titles and names in the book are altered), for $6.65 an hour. Just to be safe, she took a weekend job as a dietary aid (read serve and clean up) in a nursing home where she (totally untrained) fed Alzheimer's patients and others with varying degrees of dementia; senior citizens with combination ailments like diabetes for which diet is critical. The second job had the perk of two free meals a day. Once again, housing was the rub. Nothing to be had anywhere near her job except off season motels. Plenty of poor American families live crowded, several family members (or roommates) to a single off-season room, migrating far from jobs, or forced to quit without a car or public transportation, as the rates go up for summer tourists.

Her third job was as a sales "associate" for a Walmarts in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. Here she was utterly defeated by housing. There simply was none. She did not start out with enough cash for a deposit on an apartment, and few were available anyway. Furnished rooms were scarce and none had vacancies. Even these involved lengthy commutes to and from work. She ended up at a motel with an outrageous weekly rate of $265, with all the mouse droppings, mold, screenless windows (no AC or fan, but a TV fastened to a wall), she could stomach. In short, an over-priced dump. The residential population of the "Clearview Inn" was the same as in Portland; workers, single or with families, crowded unhealthfully into cramped quarters. If you've ever asked yourself who stays in ratty motels off the highway next to malls, with Walmarts as the high shopping, here is the answer.

On housing (from the book): "The last few years have seen a steady decline in the number of affordable apartments nationwide. In 1991 there were forty seven affordable rental units available to every one hundred low-income families, while by 1997 there were only thirty-six such units for every one hundred families. (Rental Housing Assistance--The Worsening Crisis: A Report to Congress on Worst-Case Housing Needs, Housing and Urban Development, March 2000)."

If there is any doubt, post 9/11, that the gap has widened for the poor, here is a quote from today's New York Times, an editorial on the homeless in New York: "The state provides a welfare family of three with a rent subsidy of just $286 a month--far short of the nearly $700 it would cost that same family to find a two-bedroom apartment in a low-income neighborhood [Where? I asked myself]. However, that is still far less than the $36,000 a year it costs to house a family in a hotel-style shelter."

Do the math. Minimum wage, even up to $10.00 an hour, doesn't cut it in today's economy.

Okay, okay we all know the problem is there, and I'm beginning to shout. But as I read Barbara Ehrenreich's book I kept thinking that that could be me. That a thin line, a tissue, a breakable membrane keeps me from the dire straits of America's invisible poor. A couple of bad breaks is all it takes, or just starting out with too little of everything.

Read the book to learn of the other angle, the humiliations voiceless workers put up with on the job. From distrustful management answering to corporate heads (start with mandatory drug testing, often with the potential employee peeing in front of the tester); to clients insulting cleaning ladies, and idiotic rules like no drinking in a clients home--I mean water; to restaurant managers that penalize waitresses for giving out too many pats of butter (never mind cheap or rude diners). Ms Ehrenreich does have a bias, and at times I found it a disservice to the truth of her research. Her personality is strong and she barely keeps it at bay, even going so far as to try to "subvert" Walmart workers with the taboo U-word. At times the writer's ideas overwhelm the workers' voices, those whose lives she'd temporarily joined. I would have liked to have learned more of how they coped on a minute to minute basis.

But NICKEL AND DIMED is a fast-paced and excellent read. It's nearly impossible to put the book down without experiencing a profound sense of injustice. If you contemplate for a second the gigantic tax cuts already put into law this year, and the new ones proposed for the very wealthy in the latest round of Trickle Down Economics (shouldn't that read, tinkle down?) presented as a stimulus to the receding economy (whereby the corporate hand is made even stronger), there is a temptation to gnash one's teeth in outrage.

What is needed for America's working poor is affordable housing, access to real benefits, day care and improved public transportation. Or the hell with it, we can wait until people are sleeping in the subways again and some private charities step in with a meal and a blanket, that way no one has to be bothered with taxes. Right?

© J Stefan-Cole,
December, 2001



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| January 2002 | Issue 22
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