Perhaps most shocking, for its pure, petty tyranny, is the merciless way service employers regulate their workers’ bladders. Peeing while on the clock is forbidden in many of the jobs Ehrenreich took, and she and her co-workers had to “sneak” off when the manager wasn’t looking in order to answer nature’s call.
Ehrenreich considers the inanely obvious “personality tests” required at most job interviews to be particularly insidious instruments of symbolic control. “The real function of these tests,” she decided, “is not to convey information to the employer, but to the potential employee, and the information being conveyed is always: You will have no secrets from us.” Even worse, in her opinion, is drug testing, which she sees as intended to reinforce the notion that even employees’ intimate bodily functions will be monitored by the boss. However, I suspect she’s giving the unimaginative middle-management types who set up these screening programs credit for more fiendish psychological finesse than they possess.
Like so much else that the gimlet-eyed Ehrenreich observes during her sojourn as a wage slave, the tests seem like classic manifestations of Taylorism, the early 20th century “science” of workplace efficiency. Taylorism sought to mechanize labor, turning its human components into streamlined instruments. But any company like Wal-Mart or Merry Maids that pays so badly invites into its ranks the chaos that haunts poverty. It’s possible that on any given day someone will never show up at all, someone else will show up wasted and perhaps someday someone else will show up crazy and heavily armed. The ludicrous tests (with “the usual questions about whether a co-worker observed stealing should be forgiven or denounced”), I think, represent not the ingenuity of Big Brother, but rather a slick consulting firm’s success at convincing anxious, dimwitted managers that, with the appropriate (and very expensive) programs, disorder can be filtered out. Fat chance.
What’s far more effective — and what Ehrenreich discovers to her chagrin — is the way the tests capitalize on unskilled laborers’ craving for a sense of achievement. When, trying to persuade a sick and injured co-worker to take the rest of the day off, Ehrenreich says of their boss that “he’ll take anyone who can manage to show up sober at 7:30 in the morning,” the woman protests: “Not everyone can get this job. You have to pass the test.” Ehrenreich explodes: “The test is BULLSHIT! ANYONE can pass that test,” thereby bruising the woman’s fragile pride and forever alienating her.
That’s not the only time Ehrenreich’s indignation at the working poor’s lot clashes with her co-workers’ ideas about their own lives. Having quit her housecleaning job and revealed her writing project to her fellow maids, she asks them how they feel about the owners of the posh houses they clean. One woman will admit to no more than indifference and a numb craving for “a day off now and then,” while another states, “It motivates me and I don’t feel the slightest resentment because, you know, it’s my goal to get to where they are.” Ehrenreich’s efforts to stir up pro-union sentiment at Wal-Mart meets with better, but still pretty spotty, success.
A recent survey of attitudes about poverty sponsored by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government suggests that this resistance to classic left ideas about poverty is fairly common among the poor. For example, the low-income Americans surveyed were only slightly more likely than the affluent to blame the plight of the poor on circumstances beyond their control, rather than on personal failings or lack of initiative.
Ehrenreich describes an episode of Robin Givens’ talk show in which an 18-year-old boy who has stolen Christmas present money from the family members who have taken him in “makes excuses about having to cheat and steal all the way up from the projects, that’s how his life has been.” When Givens scolds him for “being a victim” Ehrenreich shows some class-conscious tone-deafness by retorting that “thievery is nothing, apparently, compared to the crime of victimhood.” Her implication is that, by characterizing poverty as the result of bad attitudes, the affluent con the poor into believing that the way out is through self-improvement, not social change. But Givens does have a point — one that will probably strike the poor, who are frequently the victims of this kind of self-justifying criminal, as more pertinent.
This tension intermittently ripples through “Nickel and Dimed.” Ehrenreich’s image of the working poor as, in fact, simply victims of an unjust social order clashes with their need to believe that they have some say in their own fates — and to hold the people in their lives morally accountable. A striking aspect of the NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy poll is that the poor are much more likely to rate drug abuse as a major cause of poverty than middle- and upper-income people are. (Middle- and upper-income people tend to blame inadequate schools more than low-income people do.) In the precarious world that Ehrenreich describes, the working poor rely heavily on family to provide the housing and extra income needed to get by. When Robert Downey Jr. falls off the wagon yet again, a handful of “Ally McBeal” episodes may get scrapped. When you’re poor, a daughter or husband who screws up could land your whole family in a homeless shelter. No wonder the poor don’t see drugs as the purely private indulgence that Ehrenreich does. And no wonder they often feel inclined to judge each other harshly.
The NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy poll also reveals that, contrary to what Ehrenreich thinks, the “newspaper-reading professional middle class” know full well that poverty isn’t reserved for the unemployed. Sixty percent of the respondents realize that most poor people do work, and know that low wages are the reason why those workers remain poor. Ehrenreich believes that there’s a “conspiracy of silence” on the matter because “to acknowledge that low-wage work doesn’t lift people out of poverty would be to admit that [welfare reform] may have been, in human terms, a catastrophic mistake.” Yet the respondents, who do acknowledge this, still approve the reforms that pushed people off the welfare rolls and into the workforce. (Even the low-income respondents supported welfare reform.) However inadequate (especially for single mothers) welfare-to-work programs may be, it’s not clear that staying on welfare wasn’t just as demoralizing in its way as working at Wal-Mart. Both the working poor who answered the NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy poll and the ones Ehrenreich met while researching “Nickel and Dimed” — in fact even Ehrenreich herself, who hilariously recounts how personally invested she became in even such routine tasks as putting ladies dressing rooms in order — seem to believe that even the humblest work pays out something in self-respect.
Still, Ehrenreich is right: It takes more than the work ethic to climb out of poverty today. “Nickel and Dimed” never quite makes the crucial point that it’s not humanly possible to pursue the education and training required to improve your lot while you’re supporting yourself (let alone children) with minimum-wage jobs — but any observant reader can see it. There simply isn’t enough time. Ehrenreich demonstrates that the method of calculating the poverty threshold is ludicrously obsolete: It’s indexed to the cost of food, not housing, the mushrooming expense that more than anything else keeps people in the hole. Minimum-wage jobs should be no more than temporary stopovers on the way to better things, but that can’t happen if people have to work every waking hour to keep a roof over their heads.
What makes “Nickel and Dimed” such an important book is how viscerally Ehrenreich demonstrates this. Is it fair, then, to fault her for not proffering a clear solution? She no sooner mentions unions than her own stubborn realism forces her to backpedal a bit: “Even the most energetic and democratic unions bear careful watching by their members.” And however much she hates welfare reform, she also welcomes the way it has nullified the old accusations of laziness and parasitism once used to blame the poor for their plight; no one works harder than the people she met while writing this book.
What is to be done, then, about the shameful hardships they suffer? Ehrenreich ends with an unconvincing bit of socialist bravado: “They are bound to tire of getting so little in return and demand to be paid what they’re worth. There’ll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption.” Yet nothing in “Nickel and Dimed” suggests that the working poor harbor any such inclinations. Still, I can’t blame Ehrenreich for wanting to end on a hopeful note, however forced. As the poor people she met while writing “Nickel and Dimed” can testify, most of the time hope is all you’ve got to keep you going.