In 1998, writer Barbara Ehrenreich embarked upon a journey through a series of unskilled jobs to discover how the working poor of America existed on such meager wages. She began as a waitress in a family restaurant in Florida, for $2.43 an hour plus tips. The results of her investigation, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, has recently been published in a tenth anniversary edition with a new afterword by Ehrenreich, in which she wonders if the current economic hardships America is facing will finally break our society’s cycle of poverty and punishment.
blockquoteThe official level of poverty increasing—to over 14 percent in 2010—some states are beginning to ease up on the criminalization of poverty, using alternative sentencing methods, shortening probation and reducing the number of people locked up for technical violations like missing court appointments. But others, diabolically enough, are tightening the screws: not only increasing the number of “crimes” but charging prisoners for their room and board, guaranteeing they’ll be released with potentially criminalizing levels of debt.
So what is the solution to the poverty of so many of America’s working people? Ten years ago, when Nickel and Dimed first came out, I often responded with the standard liberal wish list—a higher minimum wage, universal healthcare, affordable housing, good schools, reliable public transportation and all the other things we, uniquely among the developed nations, have neglected to do.
Today, the answer seems both more modest and more challenging: if we want to reduce poverty, we have to stop doing the things that make people poor and keep them that way. Stop underpaying people for the jobs they do. Stop treating working people as potential criminals and let them have the right to organize for better wages and working conditions.
When she was researching and writing the first edition of Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich took jobs as a waitress, a hotel maid, a maid with a house cleaning service, an aide nursing home, and a retail clerk at Wal-Mart. She earned an average of $7 an hour, which would be equal to about $9 an hour in 2011. Even allowing herself a “start up” amount of $1,300 (for rent, deposit, food, etc.) for her first few weeks as a minimum wage earner, she was soon forced to take a second job.
She makes clear throughout her tale that many of her co-workers not only do not have any of the luxuries she has afforded herself for this experiment (she has a car in addition to that initial fund), but that many of them don’t even have regular housing; some living in hotels or rooms rented weekly, others living with multiple roommates or in their cars. For the record, during her various jobs, Ehrenreich lived in an efficiency apartment, a trailer park trailer, motel rooms, and some sketchy shared arrangements.
At the time of its first publication, Nickel and Dimed was a surprise and a revelation to many who just didn’t realize the extent nor the impact of poverty upon the American working class. It’s rife with vivid descriptions of the actual work Ehrenreich did, as well as with the exacting details of job applications, interview indignities, and training processes (for instance the orientation given to Wal-Mart associates), and the ongoing search for safe, affordable living conditions (routinely paying more than half of her income in rent). Footnotes are filled with a plethora of statistics about unemployment, poverty levels, housing prices, etc.
At the end of the project, as she calls it, Ehrenreich surveys her successes and failures (she notes that in most of the situations, she would have been unable to sustain herself on her wages year-around because of housing costs). She then discusses the forces, both real and imagined, that keep people in situations of poverty, such as geographical considerations (if you have no car, you must work somewhere convenient to your home, childcare, spouses’ workplaces, etc.), or preferring “the devil you know” over the unknown that accompanies a new position.
It’s this stagnant nature of poverty that brings us back to the present. In the afterward, Ehrenreich writes “We have to stop doing the things that make people poor and keep them that way.” That is, perhaps the most sobering message of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. The landmark book on America’s working poor is celebrating its tenth anniversary, but for America’s low-wage earners, nothing has changed.