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Scraping By: An Interview with Barbara Ehrenreich

In her new book, Barbara Ehrenreich goes "undercover" as an unskilled worker and finds the dark side of American prosperity.
 
 
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Why should Americans care about the poor? This is a question that has been asked rarely during the boom '90s, presumably because low unemployment and the rising stock market have lifted most boats. Also common is the belief -- exemplified by the 1996 welfare reform -- that if you can't make it in these flush times, you don't really deserve to make it at all.

But statistical research tells another story. The Preamble Center for Public Policy, for example, estimated at the height of the boom the odds against a typical welfare recipient landing a job that would provide decent housing and a "living wage" were 97 to 1. The same year, 1998, the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute reported that 30 percent of the workforce toiled for under $8 an hour; in other words, at a wage that would barely guarantee subsistence.

So why does the rosy picture of mass economic prosperity persist? One place to look for an answer is Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in Boom-time America. It makes real what the above statistics do not, for Ehrenreich spent two years and six jobs investigating how close of an equation could be made between a minimum-wage job and a life of poverty.

At the urging of her editor at Harper's magazine, Ehrenreich went "undercover" in 1998 to figure out "How does anyone," as she put it, "live on the wages available to the unskilled? And how, in particular, were the 12 million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour?"

Her plan was simple. She presented herself as "divorced homemaker re-entering the workforce after many years" and quickly landed jobs as a waitress in Key West, a housecleaner in Portland, Maine, a WalMart "associate" in Minneapolis. But she found that, thanks largely to the lack of affordable housing, she could barely get by.

Ehrenreich's book of investigative essays, and particularly her concluding "Evaluation," should be required reading for anyone who abides by the all-boats-rise theory of economic prosperity. Her co-workers lack health insurance; they have no savings; they certainly do not own their homes, yet they seem to be working all the time.

And when trouble strikes -- in the form of a sick relative, a pregnancy or a work injury -- there is often nowhere to turn. Social service agencies provide inadequate resources. Food kitchens are in crisis. Employers do not come to the rescue, nor does the government in the form of extended sick pay, affordable childcare or adequate low-income housing. One of her co-workers lived in her car; another was pregnant but withering away from lack of food. Many held two jobs.

Just as disturbing for those foreign to low-income work are the labor conditions Ehrenreich describes. And the words she uses are not subtle: they are "authoritarian," "dictatorial" and other adjectives usually associated with life under communism. Ehrenreich is shocked to find that her employers freely search her belongings, chastise her for "gossiping," submit her to personality tests, do not allow bathroom breaks and generally treat her as if she were in high school. She reports that WalMart, the nation's largest private employer, frustrates attempts at unionizing or job negotiating, advocating instead a philosophy to "respect the individual, exceed customers' expectations and strive for excellence."

"You have relative freedom when you're not at work," Ehrenreich said in a telephone interview. "When you're not at work you are a citizen of a democracy and a bill of rights applies to you. But when you enter the workplace, especially in low-wage jobs, you check your civil rights at the door."

This may seem ludicrous to those with job benefits and negotiating power, but Ehrenreich argues that work conditions for low-wage laborers often violate the First and Third Amendments of freedom of speech and right to privacy. "You can be fired at the whim of employers," said Ehrenreich, "because there's no protection [from constitutional infringements] unless you have a union contract."

Why this story has gone under-reported is no mystery to Ehrenreich. She chalks up the absence of poverty coverage to a series of New Economy blinders. Blinder number one might be called The State of the Media. "So many media outlets are pitched to affluent consumers," Ehrenreich said. "They really do not want low-income viewers and readers because it harms their demographics. Rather, they want to tell advertisers how wealthy there audience is." One editor of a national news magazine gave her the green light to write a piece on women and poverty only if she "made it upscale."

Blinder number two, according to Ehrenreich, stems from class bias and ignorance. "Editors and media decision makers," she said, "are often from a fairly insular world. I remember pitching a story to an editor -- actually at a quite liberal magazine -- about how the so-called man shortage could be solved if women dated blue-collar men, and her response was, 'But can they talk?'"

Nickel and Dimed offers no economic proscriptions, no blueprint for a fairer labor market. Yet embedded in the descriptions of low-wage life is a call for the reevalution of the government's definition of poverty, which since 1960 has been based largely on food costs.

A family of four with an income above the current poverty line, $17,229, is still very poor, according to Ehrenreich's assessment. "Today's definition of poverty doesn't take into account rent inflation and things like health care," she said. The other major problem in assessing poverty, argued Ehenreich, is the long-held idea that full employment is the chief solution to poverty. It is an idea she calls a "liberal myth."

Ehrenreich ends her book on an upbeat note, predicting that low-wage workers "are bound to tire of getting so little in return, and demand to be paid what they're worth." But during the interview, she admitted, "I'm not sitting around feeling smug and happy about the prospect [of significant change] until it happens. The guys in Washington are very scary and I'm waiting for resistance on all fronts."

Whether that resistance will come from the working poor or the outraged elite is far from clear. Ehrenreich said she takes heart in the demonstrations against corporate influence in politics that have taken place in Los Angeles and, more recently, Quebec City, even though it seems the bulk of the participants are college students. In the end, she is not surprised that so many low-income workers -- and those more economically fortunate -- have tuned out: "Politics seems very remote when you don't see a candidate working for you."

With Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich has written 11 books in between reams of op-eds and investigative articles for magazines ranging from The Progressive to Time magazine. Her book-length subjects have explored the sexual politics of sickness, the inner life of the middle class, the origins of war and the flight from commitment by American men. And she even has written a novel, Kipper's Game, based loosely on her early years as a scientist (Ehrenreich earned a PhD in biology before becoming a journalist).

But Nickel and Dimed is her most personal book. Throughout it, she connects to her low-wage co-earners by summoning her late father, who worked himself out of the copper mines of the Union Pacific into a middle-class life. "In my own family," writes Ehrenreich, "the low-wage way of life had never been many degrees of separation away … So to me, sitting at a desk all day was not only a privilege, but a duty: Something I owe to all those people in my life, living and dead, who've had so much more to say than anyone ever got to hear."

This sense of responsibility and good fortune has led Ehrenreich to what she calls "a question-driven life driven in part by a commitment to social justice." It also has led her to a sustained outrage against the suffering that comes from inequality. Asked to describe the most striking experience during her low-wage investigation, she responded:

"What sticks out the most was how much pain we choose not to see everyday, we who are middle- and upper-middle-class people; how much discomfort, actual suffering there is behind what we take for granted."

Ehrenreich said this was made very vivid during the time she worked for The Maids cleaning franchise in Maine. "I was working next to sick women polishing up some McMansion," she said. "And the people who would return would have no idea that during the day there were tears shed while their butcher-block counters were being cleaned."

But would those people, even if they were to read Ehrenreich's book, care? Is poverty -- always with us, constantly avoided out of guilt and pain -- just part of human experience? To that question, Ehrenreich responded that living in a sharply divided world hurts well-off people just as much as the poor. It frightens us all.

But then she took a deep breath, as if confronted by her own demons. "Well, I guess I would drag out the Bible," she said. "Though I'm not a religious person, the Bible makes it pretty clear that you turn away from the poor at your own moral danger. I didn't say that. They did."