On (Not) Getting By In America

Author: Barbara Ehrenreich
Publisher: Metropolitan Books, 224 pp.
ISBN: 0-8050-6389-7
Date: 2002

Nickel And DimedThe idea for this book evolved from a lunch meeting with Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper’s during a discussion of future articles. The conversation had drifted to poverty and welfare reform, which, at the time, had thrown approximately 4 million women into the “unskilled” labor market. How were these women, single mothers, going to be able to survive on $6 or $7 an hour? Lapham suggested that someone should initiate an investigative report on the subject—preferably after assuming the lifestyle and experiencing the hardships. That “someone” was to be his lunch partner, Barbara Ehrenreich.

Written from the perspective of the undercover journalist, it sets out to investigate the impact of the 1996 welfare reform on the “working poor” in the United States. The author Barbara Ehrenreich wonders if single mothers who, due to recent Welfare reform, depend solely on what they can make at low-wage jobs, will be able to survive financially. To answer this question, she decides to survive on low wages in three cities in America.

In the first city, Key West, Ehrenreich works at two different restaurants and as a house keeper in a hotel. She lives in an efficiency and then a trailer park. In Key West, Ehrenreich first learns that there are hidden costs to being poor. She notes that if you cannot afford the security deposit for an apartment, you are forced to live in a hotel–which is ultimately more costly. If you have only a room, you cannot save money by cooking nutritious, cheap food. If you have no healthinsurance, you end up with significant and costly health problems. On a particularly rough day, Ehrenreich walks off the job and never returns.

The second city chosen for the experiment was Portland, Maine. In this city, Ehrenreich found a job with The Maids, a residential housekeeping service. Knowing that it would likely take two jobs to meet her goals, she also took a job as a dietary aide in a nursing home. Her two jobs are staggered so that Ehrenreich works seven days a week. The housekeeping position proved to be physically demanding as well as low paying, and Ehrenreich also felt the job to be degrading. After one of the other maids in injured on the job, Ehrenreich demands that the younger maid stop working, and tries to halt the work of all the maids. Unsuccessful, Ehrenreich complains to the manager and wins a day off for the injured worker. As a dietary aide, Ehrenreich finds herself taking care of the entire Alzheimer’s ward by herself, afraid that by making a mistake she could harm her patients.

The final place Ehrenreich lives is Minnesota. Here she works at Wal-Mart. In Minnesota, Ehrenreich has the most difficulty finding housing. She eventually moves into a hotel, which is much too expensive for her budget–although she has no other safe choices. Ehrenreich comes close to organizing a union at Wal-Mart, but leaves before anything materializes.

Written as an exposé, Ehrenreich attempts to combat the “too lazy to work” and “a job will defeat poverty” ideals held by traditionalists. Suggesting problems with the argument, Ehrenreich highlights many of the difficulties people have working jobs that pay low wages, including the “hidden costs” involved in such necessities as shelter (where the poor often have to spend much more on daily hotel costs than they would pay in rent IF they could afford the security deposit and first-and-last month fees) and food (where the poor have to buy food that is both more expensive and unhealthier than they would if they had access to refrigeration and appliances needed to cook).

Foremost, she attacks the notion that low-wage jobs require “unskilled” labor. The author, a journalist with a Ph.D. in cell biology, found manual labor taxing, uninteresting and degrading. She says that the work required incredible feats of stamina, focus, memory, quick thinking, and fast learning. Constant and repeated movement creates a risk of repetitive stress injury, pain must often be worked through to hold a job in a market with constant turnover; and the days are filled with degrading and uninteresting tasks (e.g. toilet-cleaning and shirt-reordering). She also details several individuals in management roles who served mainly to interfere with worker productivity, force employees to undertake pointless tasks, and make the entire low-wage work experience even more miserable.

She claims personality tests, questionnaires designed to weed out “incompatible” potential employees, and urine drug tests, increasingly common in the low wage market, deter potential applicants and violate liberties while having little tangible positive effect on work performance.

She reports that “help needed” signs don’t necessarily indicate an opening; more often their purpose is to sustain a pool of applicants to safeguard against rapid turnover of employees. She also argues one low wage job is often not enough to support one person (let alone a family); with inflating housing prices and stagnant wages, this practice increasingly becomes difficult to maintain. Many of the workers encountered in the book survive by living with relatives or other persons in the same position, or even in their vehicles.

She concludes by disputing the argument that all low-wage workers, recipients of government or charitable services like welfare, food, and healthcare, are simply living off the generosity of others. Instead, she suggests, “we” live off their generosity:

Barbara Ehrenreich

When someone works for less pay than she can live on … she has made a great sacrifice for you … The “working poor” … 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. (p. 221)

The author concludes that someday, low-wage workers will rise up and demand to be treated fairly, and when that day comes everyone will be better off.

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