Life at the Bottom of the Food Chain


There's a giant chicken on the Third Street Promenade. Or not a chicken, but a person in a chicken suit promoting some local fast-food joint. It's a sultry Saturday and Santa Monica is bustling, the crush of pedestrians helping turn the chicken's slow passage down the sidewalk into something like an obstacle course. Little kids point and laugh, while adults avert their eyes; halfway down the block, a teenage boy challenges two friends to hit the chicken, just to see if it will fall.

It's a ridiculous situation, until you think about the individual inside the costume, for whom this dehumanizing display is a job, a necessity, a way of staying afloat for one more day. As hot as it is outside, after all, it must be that much hotter underneath this facade of wire and rubber, an outfit so unwieldy that every step becomes an awkward hop.

Although the person in the chicken suit may not know it, Barbara Ehrenreich has him or her in mind. The progressive social critic is just up the street at the Midnight Special bookstore, where before a standing-room-only crowd, she discusses her 12th book, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" (Metropolitan), an accessible yet relentless look at the lives of the American underclass.

Slight and somewhat unprepossessing, eyes animated beneath large glasses and a tapered shock of blond hair, Ehrenreich speaks with a fine, hard edge of anger--what she later calls "a purifying rage." As the audience listens intently, she reads from the book's final pages: "When someone 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 life.

"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 shiny 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."

"Nickel and Dimed" is a work that explores these issues from an abidingly personal perspective, a piece of "immersion journalism" that details Ehrenreich's efforts "to survive in the economy's lower depths." Growing out of an article for Harper's magazine, the book follows its author through three brief but intense periods of saturation, in which she left home for a succession of motels or trailer parks, and took on a variety of subsistence-level jobs to experience firsthand how America's poorest workers make ends meet.

The idea itself was fairly basic: Presenting herself as "a divorced homemaker reentering the work force after many years" (a slight spin on the truth; she is the divorced mother of two grown children), Ehrenreich spent a month each in Key West, Fla.; Portland, Maine; and Minneapolis, seeking both the highest-paying employment and the cheapest housing available, before settling in "to see whether I could . . . earn, in that time, the money to pay a second month's rent."

Although there's a certain artificiality to this ("Who, in real life," Ehrenreich writes, "plops herself down in a totally strange environment, without housing, family connections or job, and attempts to become a viable resident?"), it's balanced by an open-ended quality, the sense that even Ehrenreich is unsure what to expect. "At the beginning," she recalls, "I didn't know what I was going to write. I saw it as a math problem, matching wages to rent. And since I had never before written anything in the first person, this was all unknown territory for me."

A Fascination With

the Workaday World

Ehrenreich is no stranger to the lives of American workers; she grew up in Butte, Mont., in a family of miners and railroad switchmen, and has written about labor (and economic) issues for much of her career. In 1989, she was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award for "Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class," and her essay collection, "The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes From a Decade of Greed," skewered the easy-money culture of the 1980s with a savage grace. Still, she says, she was astonished by many aspects of low-wage work, not least each job's difficulty.

In Key West, where she worked as a waitress, she experienced "the perfect storm" of restaurant work--four tables seated at the exact same moment, including a party of 10 British tourists, "who seem to have made the decision to absorb the American experience entirely by mouth." In Maine, Ehrenreich's maid-service job required her to "empty [her] mind of all prior housecleaning experience" in favor of a system so rigidly codified it filled four instructional videotapes.

"Here I am, a PhD, right?" she laughs. "This should be a snap. It wasn't. In every case, I had to struggle to catch on." Then there were the lessons taught by fellow workers, about dodging rules and managers who, much of the time, seemed to exist only to get in the way. The biggest surprise, though, was the dictatorial nature of many workplaces, where workers can be fired for offenses like swearing or taking unauthorized bathroom breaks.

"From very early on," Ehrenreich says, "when a fellow worker warned me that my purse could be searched at any time by management, I thought, 'This cannot be.' I went home that day and called a friend who's a union organizer, and he said, 'Yeah, that's legal.' I was shocked by the absurd rules, like no gossiping, or, in Wal-Mart, no talking, which, of course, people do. And the sense in many places of being under surveillance at all times, the assumption that you're probably a thief. That was a hard thing to step into from my normal life."

If there was a defining tenor to her workplace experiences, it was that of having to "check your civil liberties at the door." Job applications were routinely accompanied by personality tests; at a Winn-Dixie supermarket in Florida, she was asked (via computer) how many dollars' worth of stolen merchandise she had purchased lately, while at Wal-Mart, she faced questions about her attitude toward management, and "whether a co-worker observed stealing should be forgiven or denounced."

Employees Are Put

Under a Microscope

Even more insidious was the prevalence of drug testing. Often, potential employees are required to urinate in the presence of a security official, to ensure no tampering with the sample, and even in less extreme situations there's a strong component of suspicion and contempt. "The experience of it," says Ehrenreich, who was tested by Wal-Mart, for whom she worked in Minnesota, "makes me think it's just a ritual humiliation. At some level, it seems to be if you would disobey any law, like smoke a joint sometime, we don't want you, like looking for anybody who might not dare to conform."

The most likely rationale for such tactics is to create "multiple reasons to fire you," Ehrenreich says, which makes even the most disgruntled employee disinclined to rock the boat. Her experience at Wal-Mart is a perfect example. Throughout the eight-hour orientation session, new "associates" were cautioned about a wide range of behavior, including union activity and time theft, which means "doing anything but working during company time."

Meanwhile, attempts by workers to exercise their own rights were often stymied, especially when it came to overtime. As Ehrenreich points out in a footnote, employees have sued Wal-Mart in four states, alleging that "instead of paying time and a half for overtime work, the company would reward workers with desired schedule changes, promotions and other benefits," while workers who refused the unpaid overtime were "threatened with write-ups, demotions, reduced work schedules or docked pay."

There's a coercive element at work here, but, Ehrenreich laments, "this is the trouble. Workers have some rights in this country, but if they're not enforced, they don't exist." The irony, she goes on, is that at the time she was researching "Nickel and Dimed" (and, to a lesser extent, now as well), America had more jobs than applicants to go around. Yet even in such a market, "you're made to feel you have to prove something just to get, and keep, a job."

Partly, all this has to do with economics. How else could a company get away with paying people $7 an hour unless it stripped away those workers' sense of self? Yet on a deeper level, what Ehrenreich's describing is a full-fledged war on the American worker, and it's more brutal the further down you go.

Running Out

of Options

As to the question at the heart of her book--can you make it, month to month, at the bottom of the economic ladder?--the answer is, quite simply, no. To survive, Ehrenreich often had to take a second job, and even then, it wasn't enough. For her, at least, there was a way out. At the end of the month, she could go home. The people she worked with, however, had no such options; in many cases, they couldn't even afford the deposit on an apartment, and paid $60 a night to live in a motel.

When it comes to assistance, there's little available, a direct result of the welfare reform bill signed by President Clinton in 1996. Now that the Republicans are in power, things look even bleaker, she says, with the erosion of the remaining social programs and a $1.3 trillion tax cut that was never intended to trickle down to the working poor.

In the end, it all adds up to a built-in cycle of poverty, a vicious circle of deprivation and need. "We're such a class-segregated society now, with such great inequalities, that top management thinks of the lowest level workers as some kind of frightening underclass. What kind of person would work for $6, $7 an hour? They've got to be borderline criminals."

If there's a silver lining to be found here, it has to do with the resiliency of people, their ability to overcome, to persevere, to find a reason to have hope. Throughout the book, Ehrenreich cites many examples, from the housecleaners who cover for a pregnant crew member to the middle-aged woman who says kindly, on the day the author first moves into a motel, "that it is always hard at the beginning, living in a motel, especially if you're used to a house, but you adjust after a while, you put it out of your mind."

Such compassion is all the more striking given the heartlessness of the larger culture, in which "many big corporations have come to see American workers as they see Third World workers, as a renewable resource." Still, while those instances may provide some small source of inspiration, it comes at a heavy human price. After all, Ehrenreich asks partway through the book, "If you hump away at menial jobs 360-plus days a year, does some kind of repetitive injury of the spirit set in?"

Her experience suggests it does, to the detriment of us all. "I think," she says, "that the social contract has been totally violated and shredded--at least the social contract as I understood it, which was, 'Work hard. Hard work will get you ahead.' If that doesn't work, then what's the deal?"

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