Have you ever heard someone tell a homeless man or a “welfare queen” to get a job? As Barbara Ehrenreich’s remarkable, bestselling book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America shows, getting a job is the easy part–making ends meet, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter. Sixty percent of American workers make less than $14 an hour, and some of these people are real-life charity cases and shelter dwellers. It’s nearly impossible to make a decent living when your income is around minimum wage.
Ehrenreich spent an entire year conducting an experiment of sorts–she worked whatever jobs she could find, and matched her income to her expenses. She quickly discovered she needed more than one job to stay afloat. In anticipation of her Triangle appearance this week, Ehrenreich talked to The Independent via e-mail about her experience.
The Independent: You worked as a maid, a waitress, a cleaning woman, a Wal-Mart employee and a nursing home aide over the course of a year. What was it like leaving your comfortable upper-middle class existence and joining the ranks of the underpaid and overworked?
Barbara Ehrenreich: First, I should say I am not exactly a stranger to manual labor. I raised two children, I have always cleaned my own house, and held various low-wage jobs when I was in high school and college. Still, being a freelance writer is a pretty nice form of work. You work when you want to, wear whatever’s comfortable, etc. So the first big jolt for me was just having to be somewhere–and stay there!–hour after hour, generally dressed in a uniform. All the jobs were physically hard, as I had expected them to be. The surprise was that they were also mentally demanding. I just couldn’t seem to memorize and master everything I was supposed to fast enough, and often felt like a dummy.
There’s a statement toward the end of your book that seems to sum up your entire experience in the trenches of the working class: “No one ever said that you could work hard–harder even than you ever thought possible–and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt.” How is this possible?
Just do the math: $7 an hour = $280 a week or $1,120 a month. Suppose rent is $600 a month and gas or public transportation is $60. If you have children, child care (of a very informal variety) may be $400 a month. And then there are taxes to consider. Subtract one-third of your pay for that. You can see the problem. Many of my co-workers worked two jobs, some lived out of their cars, some didn’t have the money to pay for a security deposit on an apartment so had to pay for motel rooms by the week. It’s an endless cycle. It’s very difficult to break out of.
You claim that when you work a low-paying job, to a certain extent you are required to surrender your basic civil rights and self-respect. In the end of your book, you even write that working minimum-wage jobs is akin to working under a dictatorship.
Remember that my normal working life–as a freelance writer–is about as free as work gets. Now I was subject not only to schedules that were beyond my control, but to absurd rules like no talking, no drinking water, and (at Wal-Mart) no cursing (including “damn” and “hell”). But it was the invasions of privacy that riled me most–drug tests, personality tests and the fact that my purse or backpack was subject to search at any time by the boss. The atmosphere is one of suspicion and hostility, with the managers acting as if every employee were a potential criminal.
Finding jobs didn’t seem to be as difficult for you as finding affordable housing. Why was this so difficult? Did it affect what kind of jobs you took?
The nation’s stock of affordable housing steadily dwindles year after year. Public housing gets replaced by mixed-income housing; working class neighborhoods get gentrified; federal subsidies (e.g., Title 8 vouchers) are grossly inadequate to the need. As for the effect on my jobs, I quickly faced the trade-off between low rent and proximity to work. This meant trailer parks and residential motels.
There were a couple occasions when you didn’t have any money to buy food and you sought out aid. I was surprised at how difficult and degrading this was.
I tried to fight my embarrassment by acting very businesslike. The people I encountered in charitable agencies were in most cases fairly nice, although very distracted and hard to reach. I was particularly surprised by the limitations on the kinds of free food available to me. In one place, you had about five items to choose from, including Hamburger Helper (listed by brand name). At the other place, almost all the food offered was loaded with sugar–candy, cookies, BBQ sauce.
No one gets paid to work overtime at Wal-Mart although there’s often pressure to do it. This is hardly legal. How do they get away with it?
It’s completely illegal and Wal-Mart is facing six class-action suits against them for it. But Wal-Mart–like Menards, which also ignores overtime–can just sit back and wait until the people suing them exhaust their money for legal fees.
When you worked as a maid, some of your co-workers were in serious ill health and had sustained some pretty awful injuries. How hard was that for you to experience?
I felt pretty dumb for not anticipating this kind of problem. If you spend all day with low-wage workers, you’re going to be confronted with a lot of misery. My impulse is to want to do something–to help immediately–and it was painful to realize that I was helpless to do so. In the maid situation, I even thought of “coming out” so people would (perhaps) listen to me about the need to get help for an injured co-worker. Then I realized I would just sound crazy.
Many companies will offer almost anything rather than raise wages. Why do you think workers typically don’t demand better wages and working conditions?
If you’re seen as a “troublemaker,” you’re likely to be fired instantly.
At times you felt righteous indignation at how you and your co-workers were being treated. Was it difficult keeping your lips sealed and your disguise intact for the sake of journalistic integrity?
Yes, very much so, and sometimes I failed to do so, as when I blew up at the maid service boss over a co-worker’s injury.
What kind of response have you received to the book?
I’m amazed at the response. I couldn’t imagine so many people being interested in reading about hard, menial labor. As for co-workers, I hear that Nickel and Dimed was a big hit in the Ladies’ Wear department where I worked at Wal-Mart.
A lot of people you worked with took pride in their jobs–did that surprise you?
Yes, at first, given how little pay and appreciation they received in return. But I found it happening to me too. I think I even got a little too obsessed now and then.
Do you think the poor have disappeared from the culture at large?
The poor and working class generally have vanished from the entertainment spectacle–from movies and sitcoms. Newspapers carry “business” news but not labor news. Financial cable channels proliferate, but they’re all about investing, not surviving as a worker.
What do you say in response to the belief that people just need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and make a decent living for themselves?
Try it for yourself!