Nickel and Dimed: Working Poor in the Service Society
Barbara Ehrenreich worked incongnito as a witress in Key West and a cleaning lady in Portland. "It is terribly expensive to be too poor to rent an apartment." For $675 Ehrenrieich rented half of a motor home, 8 square meters, on the edge of Key West to be near her waitress job.This book review is translated from the German in Der Spiegel.
Nickel and Dimed: Working Poor in the Service Society
Barbara Ehrenreich and the World of Work
By Michaela Schiessl
[Social critic Barbara Ehrenreich turned up incognito in the world of low-pay jobs. This book review of Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed. Working Poor in the US" is translated from the German in: Der Spiegel 2/2000.]
Knee pads. A kingdom for a pair of knee pads. On all fours, Barbara Ehrenreich crawled on the stony floor of a villa in Portland and scrubbed the floor tiles. She swore with pain. Still she had to pull herself together.
The legs that busily walked through the kitchen belonged to the lady of the house. One time she stopped. Ehrenreich was recognized despite the greenish-yellow cleaning uniform. Perhaps this woman once heard her lecture or accidentally saw her on television. What would she say? How would she explain?
Sweat drips down from her forehead to the marble. Then she hears the voice from above asking: "When you are done, could you quickly clean the entrance hall?" That night Ehrenreich wrote in her laptop journal: "Cleaning personnel are invisible." That was one of the most pleasant lessons that the American social critic, feminist and author learned in her undercover excursion in the world of low-pay jobs.
In the tradition of Gunter Wallraff who once made such reporting from the world of work famous in Germany, the 59 year-old went underground in different roles three times a month between 1998 and 2000 to get to know American again from below. Ehrenreich served hot dogs in Florida, lined up in a cleaning crew in Maine, stocked shelves at Wal-Mart and fed senior citizens in a nursing home.
Her rules: accept (and keep!) the best paid jobs and seek the cheapest housing to live from the wage of work. More than once the biologist with a doctorate cursed the day when she made this personal experiment that began in a French restaurant in New York.
Lewis Lapham, editor of the intellectual magazine "Harpers", invited Ehrenreich to discuss the themes. Over a salmon salad, the conversation drifted to poverty in America. How, the two asked, could low-wage workers - almost a third of the American workforce - live from a six or seven dollar hourly wage? How do the four million women manage who were sent to poorly paid jobs by Bill Clinton's celebrated "Welfare to Work" reform? "A journalist must get out and test this in a very old-fashioned way," Ehrenreich declared. Lapham smiled and replied: "Yes, you."
Ehrenreich was not enthusiastic. She had made a name for herself as a sharp-tongued columnist, author of analytical essays and a dozen provocative books. She is considered an unorthodox intellectual, lives in her house near the vacation paradise Key West in Florida and is her own boss. Why should she slip on rubber gloves and voluntarily go on her knees? "Who knows what devil drove me? Perhaps I hoped people would follow more easily in such a foreign alien world if led there by someone from their own social class."
For years Ehrenreich unsuccessfully wore her fingers to the bone writing on the theme social inequality. She could rattle off in her sleep the facts of poverty in the richest country of the earth: that 32 million Americans live below the poverty line and every sixth child grows up in poverty, that a fifth of the two million homeless work, that over seven million Americans need two jobs to survive and almost 39 million have no health insurance.
None of her articles caused as much sensation as her experiential account "Nickel and Dimed" published in Germany under the title "Arbeit poor" (Working Poor. Underway in the Service Society). The New York Times recommended this book be required reading for all members of Congress.
At least some seem to have read it since a discussion on the success of the welfare-to-work program has broken out in Washington. Half of all receivers of income support are back in jobs but their living conditions have often worsened. Churches and welfare organizations register a rush for soup kitchens.
However since Clinton left office and business activity has slowed down, democrats dare to voice their doubt. In any case, Ehrenreich focuses attention on the struggle for survival of low-pay workers and the reasons for their failure.
Reason number one is high rents. Low-wage jobs often arise in cities and tourist places where a roof over one's head is most expensive. When Ehrenreich commuted in Key West as a waitress, the nearest affordable housing was 30 miles away. This meant two hours commuting every day.
Whoever needs two hours to earn a living must live nearer the job. Soon Ehrenreich moved to the edge of Key West. For $675 she rented half of a large motor home, eight square meters. She was better off than many of her colleagues. Some lived in their cars in a parking lot; others shared, four to a room.
In Minnesota, Ehrenreich learned how the downward spiral gets going. When she could not afford an apartment, she moved to a cheap motel. She paid $37 per night for a bed, a table, a chair and a great fear since the door didn't lock. Cooking was impossible at the motel. She had to buy junk food.
"It is incredibly expensive to be too poor for an apartment," Ehrenreich says. She was better equipped than the "true" working poor. She had a car, was in the best musli-health and deep in the bag was the credit card if all the ropes burst.
"One doesn't need a doctorate in economics to see that something is rotten when a healthy person living alone can hardly keep head above water despite working ten hours a day," she writes.
Her discoveries mark the end of the primal American faith: whoever works hard enough will succeed. Ehrenreich thoroughly dismissed this dream planted today in every child's head. "I never thought one could work harder than one ever imagined possible and still sink deeper and deeper in debts."
A car repair, a sick child or an unexpected expense are enough to throw life off balance. The ice of one's existence is a millimeter thin. Whoever falls through cannot manage without assistance.
Ehrenreich expected her experiment would be financially tight and physically exhausting. Her father was a miner in a copper mine in Montana, her mother was a cleaning lady and her first husband an unskilled laborer before becoming a union official.
They were all intellectuals, workers with a strongly developed political consciousness and a clear class understanding. Nevertheless the everyday humiliations to which low-wage workers are exposed struck Ehrenreich completely unprepared. "One is treated like a potential criminal subject," she says. The questions on the Wal-mart application form include "Do you have a criminal record?" "Have you ever stolen?" "Would you report if a colleague stole?"
Because time is money, the Wal-Mart man explained as an introduction, friendly chats during working hours is also theft, theft of time from the employer and thus punishable. One must guard oneself from unions with their hidden dangers for workers.
Drug tests were now for Ehrenreich as well as the discovery of innovative products. In US drug stores, there are shelves full of internal rinses. For around $20, expensive medicines called CleanP ("clear piss") assure the huge crowd of wage slaves of being hired for seven dollars an hour. The applicant must be inwardly cleansed and then pee in a cup, constantly watched by a co-worker of the potential employer.
In her jobs, Ehrenreich encountered arbitrariness and abuse. Foremen insult co-workers like little children. Half of the first weekly wage is withheld so the workers return again on Money. Rest stations are without windows, toilets are without locks and pockets and lockers can be searched at any time. "Dictatorship prevails there. Whoever enters the world of low-wage jobs surrenders his or her civil rights at the gate," Ehrenreich writes in her book.
Resistance against this treatment is just as rare as solidarity among the colleagues. When Ehrenreich once suggested that the cleaning team take over the work quota of a sick colleague, everyone turned away without a word. Individual responsibility is firmly anchored in all groups of the US population. Social responsibility is always called into question. According to a study of Harvard University, half of Americans believe the poor are to blame for their poverty.
Ehrenreich describes a different reality. The working poor neglect their children to care for other children. They live in miserable accomodations so other houses can be perfectly polished. They suffer privation so inflation remains low and stock prices high.
"United we stand" exclaims every US billboard since the attacks of September 11. For Ehrenreich, "United we stand" is a reason to demand a new social contract. "We must include America's poor workers if our sense of solidarity should be stronger than the fabric of the US flag."
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