Writer Explores the Lives, Problems of the Working Poor by Joining Them


She is a waitress at a homey Italian joint and good at her job. It is not her only employment. Days, she works as a school aide. Like most people, she has other responsibilities too--as mother, wife, sister and daughter. Her husband is no slacker either. He works in computers and does construction work on the side.

Two people, four jobs. Why are they knocking themselves out? "To have a few nice things," said the waitress. And, she said, because working less wouldn't pay the bills.

In a country where it sometimes seems that everyone is driving a shiny new Land Rover or eating out most nights or retrofitting their thighs at the local health spa, people such as the waitress--and millions of others in far more alarming economic conditions--risk drifting into a kind of cultural obscurity. What, no Sub-Zero refrigerator, no Pilates classes, no cottage on the Cape? What kind of people are these, anyway?

Writer Barbara Ehrenreich thought the questions worthy enough to spend two years hunting answers. For a Harper's Magazine article and, subsequently, a book, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," Ehrenreich infiltrated the low-income job market to see who dwells there and to try to solve one of the great mysteries of the 21st century: How do people survive on $7, tops, an hour?

"I think there is a certain kind of middle- and upper-middle-class complacency about the poor," Ehrenreich said. "People say, 'Oh, yeah, they have a hard time, but they get by.' But I was encountering working people who were homeless and people who actually were not getting enough to eat."

It didn't take Ehrenreich long working as a waitress near her home in the Florida Keys, a housecleaner and dietary aide in Maine, a Wal-Mart sales clerk in Minnesota, to determine that:

* Low-wage employment snares Americans (and late-arriving immigrants) of all descriptions, white, black, Latino, educated, undereducated, sick, healthy, married, single, with kids and without, everyone.

* Lousy pay makes for unlucky lives.

* There is no such thing as unskilled labor.

"Any fears I had of being overqualified were dispelled on day one," said Ehrenreich, 59, who holds a doctorate in biology.

Like her co-workers, Ehrenreich lived in marginal conditions--although her circumstances generally were better than those many face.

At various times, home was a trailer (8 feet wide, floor plan like a barbell); a motel that she argues persuasively might be the worst in the country (mouse droppings, a bolt-less door, one window, no screen); a room in an ersatz Alpine village that, while nice enough, was much too expensive at $120 a week.

In each case, she settled for the best of absurdly bad alternatives. But, Ehrenreich noted, options are not exactly in ample supply at the swampy bottom of the U.S. economy--down where employees have no health care, no day care, no clout, no prospects.

As one co-worker named Stan told Ehrenreich, he really should go to school to make himself more marketable, but how do you go to school when you have to work every possible hour to stay afloat?

Central to Ehrenreich's reporting is the maddening circularity that marks these lives. Health care? Oh, sure the company offers insurance, but premiums are so high that paying them would mean no money for rent. A food pantry in Maine closes--when?--at 3 p.m., when most people are on the job. "So much for the working poor!" Ehrenreich wrote.

"We have been changing in the wrong direction in the last 20 years," she said, noting glumly the decline of unions, the punitive nature of Clinton administration welfare "reform," the increasingly oversized--and overpaid--cadre of corporate executives, the ascendancy of uptight bosses who view workers as a kind of "fifth column" apt to steal, goof off or take drugs on company time.

Ehrenreich, whose father was a copper miner in Montana, could not be cornered into saying some jobs are more valuable and worthy of greater rewards. "To say that would be to say that some lives are worth more than others," she said. What seemed peculiar to her, the writer said, is that people who provide unquestionably vital services--nursing home workers, for instance--earn such miserable wages.

At the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University in Ohio, co-director John Russo said a large part of the problem is tied to loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs and proliferation of low-wage service-sector positions, part-time work and temporary or contingent employment.

A better minimum wage, national health insurance and affordable child care would be most welcome, Russo said, but the problems of low-paid Americans are daunting. "In the short term, there is no easy kind of solution," he said.

It is the short term, though, that mattered most to workers Ehrenreich met--those engaged in the daily grind of getting by--or not. "It's really hard to get out of that situation," she said.

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