Barbara Ehrenreich: America's Tragic Decline -- Resistance Bursts Out All Over the World, While We Do Nothing to Fight Corporate Takeover
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AMY GOODMAN: And that’s what we’re going to talk about today. Your book took this country by storm. I am sure there was no one more surprised than you, Barbara. You have written a number of books. You did do something very interesting in Nickel and Dimed, but the fact that it caught on in a time when "prosperity" was the watchword, the buzzword, in the mainstream media—talk about—especially for young people who were 10 years old when the book came out, talk about exactly what you did, what you found then, and what it means today, 10 years later, when "prosperity" is certainly not the buzzword.
BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, I took on a challenge that I set myself, which was to see whether I could support myself on the money I could earn in, well, obviously entry-level jobs, which are the, you know, kind of jobs where you go and apply, and they’re not going to ask—you know, they’re not going to ask for a résumé. They’re not going to—they don’t care about anything, except whether you’re a convicted felon or whether you have—you’re actually—you know, it’s legal for you to work in this country. So, I—you mentioned some of the jobs I worked at. I think you left out the maid with a house cleaning service, though. That was a very instructive one. And all these jobs averaged at the time, in around 2000, about $7 an hour, even including the tips with waitressing, which would be equivalent to about $9 an hour now.
And basically, what I found, that for me, just as one person—I wasn’t trying to support my family with my earnings or anything like that—it just wasn’t doable, because the rents were so out of line with my earnings. And I did try. I mean, I didn’t spend any money except on gas, food and, you know, the bare minimum, which was possible to do because I worked at each city for only a month. So I wasn’t depending—you know, medical care or anything like that was not coming through my jobs.
But I found a very important thing—well, two very important things. First, at $7 an hour, or $9 an hour in today’s dollars, you’re not considered poor. You don’t show up in the poverty statistics. You’re considered to be fine if you’re one individual earning that much. And the other big lesson here is—which is maybe a hard one to remember at a time of high unemployment—is that jobs are not necessarily a cure for poverty. Jobs that don’t pay enough to live on do not cure poverty. They condemn you, in fact, to a life of low-wage labor and extreme insecurity.
AMY GOODMAN: This figure, Barbara, of the number of Americans on food stamps, almost one in six, almost 15 percent. The figures from May, people on food stamps were 12 percent higher than a year earlier, according to the Agriculture Department. One in almost six Americans. And this applies directly to the people that you met, to the jobs that you took—for example, being a Wal-Mart associate. Talk about that and the woman you wrote about and where she is today.
BARBARA EHRENREICH: Yeah, I mean, one of the surprises to me—and it’s not a surprise anymore, because a lot more research has been done—is how many Wal-Mart employees depend on some kind of government program to supplement their low wages and pathetically inadequate health insurance, which most people can’t afford anyway. In fact, when you—I noticed that when I went through the orientation for my job at Wal-Mart, and there was a whole table full of new hires sitting around, you know, that they, the Wal-Mart people, asked to see whether anybody here might be eligible for TANF, for example, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, because they’re kind of depending on that government—those government supplements to keep people going. You’re not going to do too well on just your Wal-Mart pay. And then, at another time as a Wal-Mart associate, I went to seek food aid. I went to a sort of public/private charitable place that what you could get—you could come out with a sack of food. And when the interviewer—the social worker who interviewed me kept getting me mixed up with somebody. You know, I’d tell her that I had a car, and then she’d forget I had a car, and so on. And then she said, "You know, it’s just—we have other—you know, people are always coming from Wal-Mart. You work at Wal-Mart. I get you mixed up." And that, to me, was a big clue.