Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

I just finished this book by Barbara Ehrenreich, and I have to say that only one or two other books in my life (Blood of the Martyrs and Black Like Me) have disturbed and shamed me as much as this one.

The author (a journalist in her normal life) decides to investigate American poverty (in 1998) by taking on low-paying jobs in various cities and trying to find affordable housing and food (and otherwise surviving) using only that income. She works as a waitress in Florida, a house-cleaner and “dietary aide” in Maine, and finally at Wal-Mart in Minnesota. Her accounts are sobering in many respects.

First of all, I was surprised by the ways she is treated disrespectfully by employers and companies, and by some of the corporate laws that I didn’t know about. I hadn’t realized that waitresses are only paid minimum wage after their tips are added to a $2.??/hr. salary. I’d always thought that tips were on top of a normal income. Many of her jobs had the rule that you couldn’t speak with the other employees – even if you’re both hanging up clothes together! When she was housecleaning, she was not allowed to eat or drink while in the client’s house, which meant that even though she was sweating buckets, she couldn’t have a drink of water.

Managers ranged from demeaning to patronizing to downright rude. Only in her dietary aide job did she feel like she had any input and appreciation as a worker. Everywhere else she had to obey the management’s stringent rules, even when it included mopping an entire floor with only half a bucket of lukewarm water, or wiping counters down with a damp cloth and no cleaning sprays.

But these are all trivial compared to the main point of her book: in many cases, a poor person working full-time at one or two “unskilled” jobs, can NOT survive in any long-term healthy definition of the word, right here in America. This was just incredible to me.

I had not thought of the fact that someone might not be able to acquire the money for an apartment’s deposit, requiring them to sleep in a car or a motel (using up more money each week, which puts an apartment even further out of reach). And that cooking healthfully and cost-efficiently requires a minimal amount of appliances and resources that many can’t afford. Some of the people Ehrenreich met in her experiment hardly ate at all, and even she herself could afford or cook little more than junk food.

The most depressing thing about the book was not the widespread poverty in America, but the widening gap between the poor and the rich, and the seeming hopelessness of it all. The people Ehrenreich got to know didn’t seem to feel like they could bring about change or even deserved better in some cases. Companies seem more than happy to exploit the people since it furthers their capitalistic mission. Ehrenreich’s conclusion is that nothing will improve until the poor themselves rise up in protest and demand the income and living standards that would meet their needs.

I’m not even sure how I can help or make a difference in any way … I need to think more about it. I already try to greet “unskilled” workers and often thank them for what they’re doing – cleaning or putting grocery carts away or whatever. I’ve given cold drinks and food to people who have worked on my house in the past. The key for me is not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issue, but instead commit to trying to make a difference right here in Lexington, VA.

1 comment:

Charity said...

Lisa, If you'd like to know more about this, I've studied this in some detail. My studies in sociology have looked at what creates the gaps in rich and poor. Why do the poor continue to get poorer, and the rich get richer. And yes, there is a minimal set up cost to be able to lead a healthy productive life. And many times the poor in our culture can't reach it.