17 July 2005

Nickel and Dimed

I recently read part of Nickel and Dimed. In the book, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich takes on a series of service jobs in order to see if it's possible to live on the low wages paid to unskilled labor. She begins with the assumption that there must be some secret to living well on little but eventually concludes that there isn't. One experience she frequently reports throughout the book is the demeaning nature of being a poor worker. Bosses constantly force her to have drug-test; she's regularly treated like a delinquent kid; and employers in their job training drive in the lesson that the individual should always be cowed by the mighty corporation.

Our lack of appreciation for the contributions of poor workers bothers me. Our prejudice is ubiquitous, at this point, and has even invaded common parlance, left and right. We now talk of "trailer trash" and "white trash," as if being poor was due to some terrible moral failing. At the same time, we benefit from living in an economy where services (a few of them, at least) are still affordable, precisely because of cheap labor.

The working poor are ignored in conservative circles. They're the ugly step-child that no one wants to talk about. When Bush provides taxcuts for the wealthy, conservatives mumble about how lazy welfare mothers need to pay their own way, how the slackers should be weaned off state support. But little is said about the people who make our comfortable lives possible.

Other blogments on the book can be found at: Eszter's Blog and Liloia.


Alicia said...

I read that book some time ago, and it really resonated with me. Not that it told me anything I didn't know, having spent plenty of time as 'working poor' (by definition one paycheck away from broke), but to see it actually addressed in print was heartening.

But, of course, with the Wal-Martization of the country, where full-time workers are on food stamps and Medicare, this state of things is exactly what the corporations want. It's really feudalism, without 'noblesse oblige'.

Welcome to Serf City, USA.

Karlo said...

I've also spent significant periods of my life washing dishes and doing dirty, back-breaking labor. You're comment on noblesse oblige is right on. There was formerly the sense that society owed people who contribute a slice of the pie whereas they now get tossed a few crumbs. I know we aren't supposed to talk about the lives of the psuedu-humanoids in the economic underclass and that we're supposed to all take heart when IBM or Ariba stock ticks up a few points, but my sympathies go out to people who contribute and get so little in return.

Kate said...

Did you happen to see the episode of Morgan Spurlock's 30 Days about minimum wage? It was excellent. I wrote about it on my blog:


These days it's even harder for people earning next-to-nothing. We've cut programs on the federal level and most states are so far in the red they're cutting programs too.

The issue of a living wage is a moral issue. I can't imagine we'll be tackling it under this administration, seeing that all of us are too busy trying to get us out of an illegal war and trying to prevent a wacko judge from ending up on the supreme court, among other things.

Fortunately, I've never had to live on minimum wage, but I've had to struggle on a wage not much better. I wouldn't wish living paycheck to paycheck on anyone. It's too stressful. And I can't imagine if that paycheck was for a $5.15/hour job.

That reminds me...I made $5/hour in 1987 working in the summer. The minimum wage was $3.75/hour then (if I remember right -- it might have been $3.35. That's how much I earned at Burger King the year before.) Here it is almost twenty years later and Americans are making just 15 cents more. It's a disgrace.

Karlo said...

You bring up an important point. All else aside, the wages paid to the working poor is actually a moral issue. It's something we choose to do when we opt for the current economic system. And people have to recognize that minimum-wage earners play a crucial role in maintaining our way of life.

Alicia said...

Thre is also the consideration that the higher-paying union jobs for blue-collar workers are being eliminated and replaced with 'service' jobs. A good union job made it possible for a blue-collar worker to support a family, buy a house, have savings, medical benefits, pensions,etc., but these jobs are being rapidly eliminated and replaced by jobs which pay babysitting wages, benefit-free, and no job security whatsoever. This is not an accident.

Alicia said...

And you are all right - this absolutely is a moral issue - one of the most important moral issues in our society. But it's flying below the radar for most Americans.