Nickel and Dimed

(This column was first published in the August 2, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed (Henry Holt & Co.) has made me both ashamed and angry -- embarrassed at my country for our taking advantage of our poor a nd deeply enraged at our politicians for their readiness to sweep the problems of our "less-well-off" -- better translated as "poverty-stricken" -- under the rug. All this at a time of unparalleled prosperity for the rest of us.

What better time to read this book than now when we haves are receiving our Bush league tax give-backs that provide a kind of inverse reflection of taxation graduated on the basis of need. This time it is graduated on the basis of greed.

Ms. Ehrenreich is right on the mark when she concludes the story of her experiences among the downtrodden with this passage: "When poor single mothers had the option of remaining out of the labor force on welfare, the middle and upper middle class tend ed to view them with a certain impatience, if not disgust. The welfare poor were excoriated for their laziness, their persistence in reproducing in unfavorable circumstances, their presumed addictions, and above all for their 'dependency.' Here they were, content to live off 'government handouts' instead of seeking 'self-sufficiency,' like everyone else, through a job. They needed to get their act together, learn how to wind an alarm clock, get out there and get to work. But now that government has largel y withdrawn its 'handouts,' now that the overwhelming majority of the poor are out there toiling in Wal-Mart or Wendy's -- well, what are we to think of them? Disapproval and condescension no longer apply, so what outlook makes sense?

"Guilt, you may be thinking warily. Isn't that what we're supposed to feel? But guilt doesn't go anywhere near far enough; the appropriate emotion is shame -- shame at our own dependency, in this case, on the underpaid labor of others. When some one works for less pay than she can live on -- when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently, then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her li fe. 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 sh iny 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. As Gail, one of my restaurant coworkers put it, 'you give and you give.'"

I had an experience while I was reading this book that drove its points home. A friend gave me a tour of a new office complex just completed by his employer. You name a form of ostentation and it would apply. Imported tile floors, a tower with a room a t the top "for reflection," desks bigger than pingpong tables, other furniture that would fit well in the Louvre, carefully manicured grounds and a hundred foot porch overlooking a river where company yachts are moored. The place is a designer's dream, my nightmare. My friend is proud of his boss and proud too of his own small office in this complex. He sees no contradiction in the fact that he is at this very time forced to lay off half the employees of the business from which this man got his start.

But I return to Ms. Ehrenreich's muckraking story. "The idea that led to this book," she says, "arose in comparatively sumptuous circumstances. Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's, had taken me out for a $30 lunch at some understated French cou ntry-style place to discuss future articles I might write for his magazine.... The conversation drifted to one of my more familiar themes -- poverty. How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? How, in particular, we wondered, were the r oughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour? Then I said something that I have since had many opportunities to regret: 'Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism -- you know, go out there and try it for themselves.' I meant someone much younger than myself, some hungry neophyte journalist with time on her hands. But Lapham got this crazy-looking half smile on his face and ended life as I knew it, for long stretche s at least, with the single word 'YOU.'"

And so she joined the bottom of our labor force. I certainly credit her for her decisions: "In the spirit of science, I first decided on certain rules and parameters. Rule one, obviously enough, was that I could not, in my search for jobs, fall back on any skills derived from my education or usual work -- not that there were a lot of want ads for essayists anyway. Two, I had to take the highest-paying job that was offered me and do my best to hold it; no Marxist rants or sneaking off to read novels in the ladies' room. Three, I had to take the cheapest accommodations I could find, at least the cheapest that offered an acceptable level of safety and privacy, though my standards in this regard were hazy and, as it turned out, prone to deterioration over time."

Admittedly, she says, "I am, of course, very different from the people who normally fill America's least attractive jobs, and in ways that both helped and limited me. Most obviously, I was only visiting a world that others inhabit full-time, often for most of their lives. With all the real-life assets I've built up in middle age -- bank account, IRA, health insurance, multiroom home -- waiting indulgently in the background, there was no way I was going to 'experience poverty' or find out how it 'really feels' to be a long-term low-wage worker. My aim here was much more straightforward and objective -- just to see whether I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day. Besides, I've had enough unchosen encounters with povert y in my lifetime to know it's not a place you would want to visit for touristic purposes; it just smells too much like fear."

"Unlike many low-wage workers, I have the further advantages of being white and a native English speaker. I don't think this affected my chances of getting a job, given the willingness of employers to hire almost anyone in the tight labor market of 199 8 to 2000, but it almost certainly affected the kinds of jobs I was offered. In Key West, I originally sought what I assumed would be a relatively easy job in hotel housekeeping and found myself steered instead into waitressing, no doubt because of my ethnicity and my English skills. As it happened, waitressing didn't provide much of a financial advantage over housekeeping, at least not in the low-tip off-season when I worked in Key West. But the experience did help determine my choice of other loc alities in which to live and work. I ruled out places like New York and L.A., for example, where the working class consists mainly of people of color and a white woman with unaccented English seeking entry-level jobs might only look desperate or weird."

So she spent a month each as waitress, house cleaner and Wal-Mart clerk, each in a different city.

And what about the people with whom she worked: "Several times since completing this project I have been asked by acquaintances whether the people I worked with couldn't, uh, TELL -- the supposition being that an educated person is ineradicably differe nt, and in a superior direction, from your workaday drones. I wish I could say that some supervisor or coworker told me even once that I was special in some enviable way -- more intelligent, for example, or clearly better educated than most. But this neve r happened, I suspect because the only thing that really made me 'special' was my inexperience. To state the proposition in reverse, low-wage workers are no more homogeneous in personality or ability than people who write for a living, and no less likely to be funny or bright. Anyone in the educated classes who thinks otherwise ought to broaden their circle of friends." So much for our looking down our noses at these people.

There are, of course, some wonderfully funny passages about her experiences. Here she speaks about tipping: "My job is to move orders from tables to kitchen and then trays from kitchen to tables. Customers are in fact the major obstacle to the smooth t ransformation of information into food and food into money -- they are, in short, the enemy. And the painful thing is that I'm beginning to see it this way myself. There are the traditional asshole types -- frat boys who down multiple Buds and then make a fuss because the steaks are so emaciated and the fries so sparse -- as well as the variously impaired -- due to age, diabetes, or literacy issues -- who require patient nutritional counseling. The worst, for some reason, are the Visible Christians -- lik e the ten-person table, all jolly and sanctified after Sunday night service, who run me mercilessly and then leave me $1 on a $92 bill. Or the guy with the crucifixion T-shirt (SOMEONE TO LOOK UP TO) who complains that his baked potato is too hard and his iced tea too icy (I cheerfully fix both) and leaves no tip at all. As a general rule, people wearing crosses or WWJD? ('What Would Jesus Do?') buttons look at us disapprovingly no matter what we do, as if they were confusing waitressing with Mary Magdale ne's original profession."

But note: waiters and waitresses don't get minimum wage; rather, they get just over $3 per hour and they must usually share their tips with busboys and others with whom they work. It is one thing to think of servers in high-class restaurants where 15% may supplement this to provide a reasonable income, but waitresses in less upscale places are hard-put to reach the already abysmal minimum wage.

As in that passage, Ms. Ehrenreich's humor usually underscores her points. Here she talks about how employers demean employees: "Friday evening: I've been in Minneapolis for just over fifteen hours, driven from the southern suburbs to the northern ones , dropped off a half dozen apps, and undergone two face-to-face interviews. Job searches take their toll, even in the case of totally honest applicants, and I am feeling particularly damaged. The personality tests, for example: the truth is I don't much c are if my fellow workers are getting high in the parking lot or even lifting the occasional retail item, and I certainly wouldn't snitch if I did. Nor do I believe that management rules by divine right or the undiluted force of superior knowledge, as the 'surveys' demand you acknowledge. It whittles you down to lie up to fifty times in the space of the fifteen minutes or so it takes to do a 'survey,' even when there's a higher moral purpose to serve. Equally draining is the effort to look both perky and c ompliant at the same time, for half an hour or more at a stretch, because while you need to evince 'initiative,' you don't want to come across as someone who might initiate something like a union organizing drive. Then there is the threat of the drug test s, hanging over me like a fast-approaching SAT. It rankles -- at some deep personal, physical level -- to know that the many engaging qualities I believe I have to offer -- friendliness, reliability, willingness to learn -- can all be trumped by my pee."< /P>

So often in this book the devil is in the footnotes. Here, for example: "There are many claims for workplace drug testing: supposedly, it results in reduced rates of accidents and absenteeism, fewer claims on health insurance plans, and increased produ ctivity. However, none of these claims has been substantiated, according to a 1999 report from the American Civil Liberties Union.... Studies show that preemployment testing does not lower absenteeism, accidents, or turnover and (at least in the high-tech workplaces studied) actually lowered productivity -- presumably due to its negative effect on employee morale. Furthermore, the practice is quite costly. In 1990, the federal government spent $11.7 million to test 29,000 federal employees. Since only 153 tested positive, the cost of detecting a single drug user was $77,000. Why do employers persist in the practice? Probably in part because of advertising by the roughly $2 billion drug-testing industry, but I suspect that the demeaning effect of testing m ay also hold some attraction for employers."

Ms. Ehrenreich even achieves some understanding of the terrible behavior of shoppers: "On the same day, perhaps because the new speediness frees me to think more clearly, I make my peace with the customers and discover the purpose of life, or at least of my life at WalMart. Management may think that the purpose is to sell things, but this is an overly reductionist, narrowly capitalist view. As a matter of fact, I never see anything sold, since sales take place out of my sight, at the cash registers at the front of the store. All I see is customers unfolding carefully folded T-shirts, taking dresses and pants off their hangers, holding them up for a moment's idle inspection, then dropping them somewhere for us associates to pick up. For me, the way out of resentment begins with a clue provided by a poster near the break room, in the back of the store where only associates go: 'Your mother doesn't work here,' it says. 'Please pick up after yourself.' I've passed it many times, thinking, 'Ha, that's all I do -- pick up after people.' Then it hits me: most of the people I pick up after are mothers themselves, meaning that what I do at work is what THEY do at home -- pick up the toys and the clothes and the spills. So the great thing about shopping, for most of these women, is that here THEY get to behave like brats, ignoring the bawling babies in their carts, tossing things around for someone else to pick up. And it wouldn't be any fun -- would it? -- unless the clothes were all reasonably or derly to begin with, which is where I come in, constantly re-creating orderliness for the customers to maliciously destroy. It's appalling, but it's in their nature: only pristine and virginal displays truly excite them."

But what is the bottom line here? Consider the following passages. First: "The St. Paul-based Jobs Now Coalition estimated that, in 1997, a 'living wage' for a single parent supporting a single child in the Twin Cities metro area was $11.77 an hour. Th is estimate was based on monthly expenses that included $266 for food (all meals cooked and eaten at home), $261 for child care, and $550 for rent ('The Cost of Living in Minnesota: A Report by the Jobs Now Coalition on the Minimum Cost of Basic Needs for Minnesota Families in 1997'). No one has updated this 'living wage' to take into account the accelerating Twin Cities rent inflation of 2000."

And about rent calculations in the definition of poverty: "If there seems to be general complacency about the low-income housing crisis, this is partly because it is in no way reflected in the official poverty rate, which has remained for the past seve ral years at a soothingly low 13 percent or so. The reason for the disconnect between the actual housing nightmare of the poor and 'poverty,' as officially defined, is simple: the official poverty level is still calculated by the archaic method of taking the bare-bones cost of food for a family of a given size and multiplying this number by three. Yet food is relatively inflation-proof, at least compared with rent. In the early 1960s, when this method of calculating poverty was devised, food accounted for 24 percent of the average family budget (not 33 percent even then, it should be noted) and housing 29 percent. In 1999, food took up only 16 percent of the family budget, while housing had soared to 37 percent. So the choice of f ood as the basis for calculating family budgets seems fairly arbitrary today; we might as well abolish poverty altogether, at least on paper, by defining a subsistence budget as some multiple of average expenditures on comic books or dental floss."

In the face of these facts, Ms. Ehrenreich's pay was less than $9 per hour and she was forced to pay exorbitant rent -- well above that $550 figure -- for a terribly sub-standard single room. Even supporting just herself, she simply wasn't able to make ends meet.

So she sought help and after dozens of phone calls got this kind of support: "Middle-class people often criticize the poor for their eating habits, but this charitable agency seemed to be promoting a reliance on 'empty calories.' The complete inventory of the box of free food I received is as follows: 21 ounces of General Mills Honey Nut Chex cereal; 24 ounces of Post Grape-Nuts cereal; 20 ounces of Mississippi Barbecue Sauce; several small plastic bags of candy, including Tootsie Rolls, Smarties fruit snacks, Sweet Tarts, and two bars of Ghirardelli chocolate; one bubble gum; a 13-ounce package of iced sugar cookies; hamburger buns; six 6-ounce Minute Maid juice coolers; one loaf of Vienna bread; Star Wars fruit snacks; one loaf of cinnamon bread; 18 ounces of peanut butter; 18 ounces of jojoba shampoo; 16 ounces of canned ham; one bar of Dial soap; four Kellogg Rice Krispies Treats bars; two Ritz cracker packages; one 5-ounce Swanson canned chicken breast; 2 ounces of a Kool-Aid-like drink mix; two L ady Speed Stick deodorants." All I can say is, Yech!

Surely we should all agree with her that, "Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don't need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high."

What is so sad about this situation is the acceptance of their lot by these hard-working people. Ms. Ehrenreich asks this question herself: "WHY DOES ANYBODY PUT UP WITH THE WAGES WE'RE PAID? True, most of my fellow workers are better cushioned than I am; they live with spouses or grown children or they have other jobs in addition to this one. I sit with Lynne in the break room one night and find out this is only a part-time job for her -- six hours a day -- with the other eight hours spent at a factory for $9 an hour. Doesn't she get awfully tired? Nah, it's what she's always done. The cook at the Radio Grill has two other jobs. You might expect a bit of grumbling, some signs here and there of unrest -- graffiti on the hortatory posters in the break room, muffled guffaws during our associate meetings -- but I can detect none of that. Maybe this is what you get when you weed out all the rebels with drug tests and personality 'surveys' -- a uniformly servile and denatured workforce, content to dr eam of the distant day when they'll be vested in the company's profit-sharing plan. They even join in the 'Wal-Mart cheer' when required to do so at meetings, I'm told by the evening fitting room lady, though I am fortunate enough never to witness this fi nal abasement."

Ms. Ehrenreich has done us a great service in this book because we simply do not hear about these conditions: "You would have to read a great many newspapers very carefully, cover to cover," she says, "to see the signs of distress. You would find, for example, that in 1999 Massachusetts food pantries reported a 72 percent increase in the demand for their services over the previous year, that Texas food banks were 'scrounging' for food, despite donations at or above 1998 levels, as were those in Atlanta .' You might learn that in San Diego the Catholic Church could no longer, as of January 2000, accept homeless families at its shelter, which happens to be the city's largest, because it was already operating at twice its normal capacity. < /SUP>You would come across news of a study showing that the percentage of Wisconsin food-stamp families in 'extreme poverty' -- defined as less than 50 percent of the federal poverty line -- has tripled in the last decade to more than 30 percent. You might discover that, nationwide, America's food banks are experiencing 'a torrent of need which [they] cannot meet and that, according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 67 percent of the adults requesting emergency food aid ar e people with jobs."

And even when we do, we tend only to get the up-side of the situation. For example: "The National Journal reports that the 'good news' is that almost six million people have left the welfare rolls since 1996, while the 'rest of the story' includ es the problem that 'these people sometimes don't have enough to eat.'"

Today few of us nonpoor have ever had any experiences like these. Those depression times that my parents got by through are long gone and few college-bound kids take these bottom jobs. For many of them internships are available. These and other suburba n youngsters live and are provided for at home and their income is entirely devoted to their personal pleasure. (Even though I had to contribute to the cost of my meals when I was young and lived at home, my own brief experiences as milkman, lifeguard, de partment store and supermarket clerk, typist for an engineering firm and post office sorter served me as that kind of extra income. I didn't have to share in the cost of housing.)

We are all willing to pay lip-service to a situation that we only half-identify: "But when we have full or nearly full employment, when jobs are available to any job seeker who can get to them, then the problem goes deeper and begins to cut into that w eb of expectations that make up the 'social contract.' According to a recent poll conducted by Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based employment research firm, 94 percent of Americans agree that 'people who work full-time should be able to earn enough to kee p their families out of poverty. I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that 'hard work' was the secret of success: 'Work hard and you'll get ahead' or 'It's hard work that got us where we are.' 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."

Not today. Today it is good politics either to forget or to demean the poor. You can say what you will about unions, but never has this country needed employee representation as much as it does right now. But I am afraid that they will never get it fro m unions today. Employers like WalMart are too well defended against them. Their only hope is for political action, but good luck in that direction.

The conditions this book describes so well represents a cancer at the heart of our contemporary society and failure to address this problem may -- in fact SHOULD -- punish us nonpoor in the immediate future. "Hear this, O ye that swallow up the needy," the Biblical Book of Amos exhorts us and the threats that follow are dire.

Every citizen and in particular every politician in this country should be forced not only to read this book but to act quickly to redress this terrible situation that applies, believe it or not, to an amazing 30% of our workforce.

I thank Ms. Ehrenreich for her personal sacrifices and even more for making this most important case so very well. Read it and weep -- but be sure to read it.