Looking for a Living Wage
Reviewed by Amy Schrager Lang
Vol. 23, No. 3-4, 2001 pp. 31-32, 34
Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001.
In the summer of 1999, just as approximately four million women were about to be remanded to the workforce by welfare reform, Barbara Ehrenreich began an experiment. At the urging of her editor, she abandoned the “variety and drama” of her “real” life as a feminist author/journalist and set out to replicate the experience of an unskilled middle-aged female job-seeker in what appeared by all the customary measures to be an extremely favorable labor market. The object of this exercise was to try to “match income to expenses” on the wages commanded by the working poor. Or, to put it another way, to discover what mysterious economies, known only to the low-wage worker, made it possible to subsist on six or seven dollars an hour in late twentieth-century America; to see, in short, how the poor manage to live in poverty.
I do not mean to be sardonic here. Ehrenreich, as almost every review of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America has observed, has provided a useful, highly readable, and, unquestionably, if unfortunately, necessary account of the economic lives of the millions of people living in the United States for whom the next doctor’s appointment, car battery, or pair of shoes threatens financial disaster. Nonetheless, as Ehrenreich herself has observed elsewhere, the “discovery” of the poor, or, in this case, the “discovery” that the poor are poor seems to require a new Columbus every few decades.
Placing herself squarely in the tradition of journalistic muckrakers of the past, Ehrenreich supplies a guided tour of the commonplace humiliations of job hunting in a booming economy’s “lower depths,” from fictitious job ads to “personality” tests running heavily to questions like “Are you an honest person?” to mandatory drug-testing to the mystification, not to say misrepresentation, of wages and hours by employers. Working first as a waitress and hotel maid in Key West, then as a housecleaner and nursing home aide in Portland, Maine, and finally as a sales clerk in a Minneapolis Wal-Mart, Ehrenreich offers smart, funny, and appalling accounts of the restaurant manager who sneeringly threatens his wait staff with locker checks, the
maid service that requires that floors be washed on hands and knees (“the old-fashioned” submissive way), the “unwanted intimacy” of cleaning the “three kinds of shit stains” from other people’s toilets, the eight hours of training in the “Cult of Sam” required of Wal-Mart employees. Without sentimentality, she makes vivid the “world of pain,” both physical and psychic, inhabited by workers whose hard labor like their existence goes unacknowledged and unrewarded.
Not surprisingly, even with two jobs, Ehrenreich cannot make ends meet on what she earns. As it turns out, not only are there no hidden economies, but there are instead “special costs” to be borne by the poor. Many of these are associated with housing, what Ehrenreich comes to see as the “deal breaker” for the low-wage worker. On the other hand, the “deal,” such as it is, is broken by the sheer dearth of affordable housing, particularly affordable housing within reasonable proximity to the service jobs held by most of the working poor-imagine the location of most service jobs in your town and the problem becomes immediately clear. On the other hand, driven to pay exorbitant rents for short-term, stop-gap housing in motels where it is, in turn, impossible to cook and therefore to save on the cost of food, not even Ehrenreich-free of children and childcare expenses, possessed of a credit card for emergencies and a Rent-a-Wreck to expedite her job search not to mention white skin, good health, and higher education-can accumulate the two month’s rent needed for security on an apartment.
Since food-the cost of which has diminished as a percentage of the average family budget in the forty years since the formula establishing the official poverty level was put into place-not housing-the cost of which has dramatically increased-is used in calculating poverty, many of the women and men with whom Ehrenreich worked escaped the notice of those charged with monitoring poverty. This, despite the numbers of them who, to Ehrenreich’s dismay, were sleeping in their cars, living four or more to a motel room or trailer, or camping in the living room of a friend or relation. According to the most recent calculations of the Economic Policy Institute, the “living wage,” that is, the wage that will support both food and housing, though not much else, for a family composed of one adult and two children is $14 per hour. In 2000, 60 percent of American workers earned less.
Given their exploitation, and given as well a shortage of low-wage workers, Ehrenreich not unreasonably asks why her fellow store clerks, maids, or waiters take no action to improve their lot. In the course of Nickel and Dimed, she proffers a number of explanations, none of them entirely adequate: the damage to self-esteem she detects even in herself after a while-a something “loathsome and servile” that “infect[s]” her on the job; the high rates of turnover that defeat efforts to organize the low-wage workplace; the dread of being fired, given the unthinkable complications-new child care, new transportation arrangements, etc.-attendant on changing jobs; and, in some cases, the identification of workers with the values touted by corporate employers or individual bosses.
But beyond all these, Ehrenreich hints at a broader and more disturbing explanation. Speaking of the economic behavior of low-wage workers, she suggests that “if low wage workers do not always behave in an economically rational way, that is, as free agents within a capitalist democracy, it is because they dwell in a place that is neither free nor in any way democratic.” The place in which they do dwell is one in which the working poor, clothed in the stigmatizing uniforms of their menial trades, interrogated, tested, monitored, and policed, trade their civil rights-at the very least, their right to privacy and to free speech-for a not quite subsistence wage. That place is largely invisible from the gated community, the private school, the health club, or the upscale mall. Where once rich and poor shared public spaces and services, privatization has produced not merely an inequality but a parallel universe in which the poor, if they appear at all, hover on the far horizon. So distant and obscured are they, in fact, that it takes a well-funded explorer like Ehrenreich to make their plight visible at all.
Nickel and Dimed is, as others have observed, the latest in a long line of what might be called imposture narratives: accounts of the experiences of a journalist who, for one reason or another but usually in order to
expose a social evil, assumes the part of a suffering “Other”-a worker, an African American, a Jew. There is much to be said in reference to this genre about white, middle class arrogance, about the expropriation of the experiences of others, about the possibilities for misinterpretation and the opacity of class. To her credit, Ehrenreich says a part of it herself. Yet in the post-September world in which postal workers, but not Congressional aides die of anthrax because no one bothered to test them, in which terrorism provides the occasion or anyway the excuse for massive layoffs, in which wealth and poverty may take on new and unthought of significance, the value of Ehrenreich’s account of a “culture of extreme inequality” far outweighs its occasional lapses.
Amy Schrager Lang is associate professor in the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts at Emory University.