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5/17/02: The following is a repeat of one of the more requested InfoFaxes. It is excerpts from the truly outstanding new book by Barbara Ehrenreich, "Nickel and Dimed" in which the author spent a year working at a variety of low wage jobs that illustrate the tribulations of low wage America, those workers at or near minimum wage. Enjoy.

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


The other that these jobs show no sign of being financially viable. You might imagine, from a comfortable distance, that people who live, year in and year out, on $6 to $10 an hour have discovered some survival strategies unknown to the middle class. but no. It's not hard to get my co-workers talking about their living situations, because housing, in almost every case, is the principal source of disruption in their lives, the first thing they fill you in on when they arrive for their shifts. After a week, I have compiled the following survey:
  • Gail is sharing a room in a well-known downtown flophouse for $250 a week. Her roommate, a male friend, has begun hitting her, driving her nuts, but the rent would be impossible alone.
  • Claude, the Haitian cook, is desperate to get out of the two-room apartment he shares with his girlfriend and two other unrelated people. As far as I can determine, the other Haitian men live in similarly crowded situations.
  • Annette, a 20 year old server who is 6 months pregnant and abandoned by her boyfriend, lives with her mother, a postal clerk.
    Marianne, who is a breakfast server, and her boyfriend are paying $170 a week for a one person trailer.
  • Billy, who at $10 an hour is the wealthiest of us, lives in the trailer he owes, paying only the $400-a-month lot fee.
  • Tina, another server, and her husband are paying $60 a night for a room in the Days Inn. This is because they have no car and the Days Inn is in walking distance of the Hearthside. When Marianne is tossed out of her trailer for subletting (which is against the rules), she leaves her boyfriend and moves in with Tina and her husband.
  • Joan, who had fooled me with her numerous and tasteful outfits (hostesses wear their own clothes), lives in a van parked behind a shopping center and showers in Tina's motel room. The clothes are from thrift shops.
There are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs. If you can't put up the 2 months rent you need to secure an apartment, you end up paying through the nose for a room by the week. If you only have a room, with a hot plate at best, you can't save by cooking up huge lentil stews that can be frozen weeks ahead.

The problem of rents 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. The rich can always outbid them, buy up their tenements or trailer parks, and replace them with condos, McMansions, golf course, or whatever they like. Since the rich have become more numerous, thanks largely to rising stock prices and executive salaries, the poor have necessarily been forced into housing that is more expensive, more dilapidated, or more distant from their places of work. Insofar as the poor have to work near the dwellings of the rich-as is the case of so many service or retail jobs-they are stuck with lengthy commutes or dauntingly expensive housing.

When the market fails to distribute some vital commodity, such as housing, to all who require it, the usual liberal-to-moderate expectation is that the government will step in and help. We accept this principle in the case of health care, where government offers Medicare to the elderly, Medicaid to the desperately poor, and various state programs to the children of merely the very poor. But in the case of housing, the extreme upward skewing of the market has been accompanied by a cowardly public sector retreat from responsibility. Expenditures on public housing have fallen since the 1980s, and the expansion of public rental subsidies came to a halt in the mid-1990s. At the same time, housing subsidies for homeowners-who tend to be more affluent than renters-have remained at their usual munificent levels. It did not escape my attention, as a temporary low income person, that the housing subsidy I normally receive in my real life-over $20,000 a year in the form of mortgage interest deduction-would have allowed for truly low income family to live in relative splendor.


There are other more direct ways of keeping low wage workers in their place. Rules against "gossip", or even "talking" make it hard to air your grievance to peers or - should you be so daring-to enlist other workers in a group effort to bring changes, through a union organizing drive, for example. Those who do step out of line often face unexplained punishments, such as having their schedules or work assignments unilaterally changed. Or you may be fired; those low-wage workers who work without union contracts, which is the great majority of them "at will," meaning at the will of the employer and are subject to dismissal without explanation. The AFL-CIO estimates that 10,000 workers a year are fired for participating in union organizing drives, and since it is illegal to fire people for union activity, I suspect that these firings are justified in terms of unrelated minor infractions. Wal-Mart employees who have bucked the company-by getting involved in a unionization drive or by suing the company for failing to pay overtime-have been fired for breaking the company rule against using profanity.

Social Isolation of the Poor

Maybe it's low wage work in general that has the effect of making you feel like a pariah. When I watch TV over dinner at night, I see a world in which almost everyone earns $15 an hour or more, and I'm not thinking of the anchor folks. The sitcoms and dramas are about fashion designers or lawyers, so it's easy for a fast food worker or nurse's aide to conclude that she is an anomaly - the only one, or almost the only one, who hasn't been invited to the party. And in a sense, she would be right; the poor have disappeared from the culture at large, from its political rhetoric and intellectual endeavors as well as its daily entertainment. Even religion seems to have little to say about the plight of the poor. The moneylenders seemingly have gotten Jesus out of the temple.

Bottom Line

shame on our own dependency on the underpaid labor of others. When someone works for less pay than he/she can live on-when, for example, she goes hungry so you can eat more cheaply and conveniently-then he/she has made a great sacrifice for you, he/she has made you a gift of some part of his/her abilities, his/her health, and his/her life. The "working poor", as they are approvingly termed, 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 else.