Scraping by

Barbara Ehrenreich spent two years as a waitress, maid and Wal-Mart clerk, trying to find out how America's working poor make it. Her answer: A lot of them don't.

Topics: Books,

Scraping by

Of all the unlikely things people achieve today, from mapping the human genome to surviving bizarre wilderness ordeals in the Australian outback for the amusement of a national television audience, none seems quite as remarkable as supporting a family of four on $17,230 per year. Yet, as hard as that heroic task might be to pull off — and anyone who’s done it deserves accolades for adding a whole new meaning to the term “home economics” — it wouldn’t win you much sympathy from the federal government. At $17,230 in annual family income, you’d still be one dollar over the official poverty line.

Some of the officials who expect families to survive on such an income couldn’t even cover their annual travel budget with $17,229. (In fact, a show about them trying to make it, even on $20,000 a year, would be about the only reality TV program I’d watch.) Since some people do manage it (11.9 percent, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau figures), presumably it can be done, but Barbara Ehrenreich is one of the few social critics and commentators to actually attempt the feat herself. On the urging of Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper’s magazine (where some of the material in “Nickel and Dimed” first appeared), she agreed to try to figure out, firsthand, how anyone lives “on the wages available to the unskilled.” Two years, six jobs and three cities later, she had the material she needed to write “Nickel and Dimed.”

An observant, opinionated and always lively essayist — she was Time magazine’s house lefty for several years — Ehrenreich has written about everything from the history of war to men’s fears of romantic commitment, always from a left-wing perspective. This, though, is her most immediate book, both because it largely eschews punditry for direct experience and because her experiment prompted Ehrenreich to reflect on her own working-class roots. Daughter of a man who “managed to pull himself, and us with him, up from the mile-deep copper mines of Butte to the leafy suburbs of the Northeast,” formerly married to a one-time warehouse worker turned Teamster organizer, Ehrenreich sometimes felt during her weeks as a “wage slave” the presence of an alternate self, as when she harbored evil thoughts about her co-workers during a stint at Wal-Mart:



Take away the career and the higher education, and maybe what you’re left with is this original Barb, the one who might have ended up working at Wal-Mart for real, if my father hadn’t managed to climb out of the mines. So it’s interesting, and more than a little disturbing, to see how Barb turned out — that she’s meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I’d hoped.

One of the sly pleasures of “Nickel and Dimed” is the way it dances on the line between straightforward social protest and an edgier acknowledgment of inconvenient truths. Certainly there is plenty of fuel for outrage in the trials of poor Americans, both in the artificial test case Ehrenreich constructed for herself and in the real lives of the many people she met during her grim adventures. This book foments righteous indignation in the old-fashioned tradition currently revived to great success by Eric Schlosser in his bestselling exposé, “Fast Food Nation.” But it also half-raises questions without truly answering them, escorts paradoxes onstage then shoos them off again without letting us get a really good look at them and generally shies away from admitting that however intolerable the conditions Ehrenreich describes may be, any viable alternative to tolerating them is far from obvious.

Ehrenreich began her project in Key West, Fla., a town near her actual home. She worked as a waitress in two restaurants and as a hotel maid. In Portland, Maine, she got jobs at a nursing home and with a housecleaning service. And it was in Minneapolis that she worked for Wal-Mart as a salesclerk. She wanted, in particular, to find out how “the 12 million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform [were] going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour”; the answer, to judge by Ehrenreich’s experience, is just barely, if at all.

The first thing Ehrenreich discovered is that nobody working full time for minimum wage — or even a dollar or two over it — can survive in any of the three towns she visited without either getting a second job or resorting to overcrowded rooms in flophouses or simply sleeping in the car. Home-hunting in Key West and confronted with a trailer well out of her price range, she writes, “It is a shock to realize that ‘trailer trash’ has become, for me, a demographic category to aspire to.” Shortages of affordable housing plague all three cities, but Minneapolis proved particularly challenging. Like most recent arrivals, Ehrenreich was forced to stay in motels, eating up the small reserve of starter cash she allowed herself and encountering what she calls the “host of special costs” confronting the poor.

If you get stranded in a room with few or no kitchen facilities, for example, “you eat fast food, or the hot dogs and Styrofoam cups of soup that can be microwaved in a convenience store” — unhealthy and not especially cheap. One of Ehrenreich’s co-workers at the Portland housecleaning service (which charges customers $25 per person-hour, of which the worker gets $6.65) couldn’t afford more than a small bag of corn chips for lunch and told Ehrenreich she sometimes gets dizzy during her eight-hour cleaning shifts. In the absence of health insurance, treatment of minor medical problems gets postponed until the problems are no longer minor. Rundown accommodations with feeble security (such as the dive in which Ehrenreich stayed in Minneapolis and dubs “the worst motel in the country”) invite the further catastrophe of crime. Since many of the people Ehrenreich worked with can’t afford to take a day off (no sick or vacation time), such threats to their health also menace their precarious finances. None of this makes it any easier to save for the security deposits that must be made on an affordable apartment, even if they were lucky enough to find one.

To some of Ehrenreich’s middle-class readers, these privations won’t be entirely unfamiliar. “Everyone has a broke diary,” writes Angela Nissel in the introduction to “The Broke Diaries,” her breezy, funny account of her years as an impoverished college student. In one diary entry (the book is based on a journal Nissel posted on the Web), she informs us that her previous year’s income was $4,750. She describes conning textbooks out of book publishers by pretending to be an instructor, using mayonnaise when she runs out of hair conditioner, subsisting on oatmeal and pancakes, flirting with the utility company man to keep her power from being turned off and taking up almost any invitation that entails free food, from attending a stranger’s funeral to soldiering through a tedious church supper.

While it’s not true that everyone has a broke diary, plenty of people do. I can remember times during my college years when for weeks I ate only a meagerly topped baked potato for dinner each night — my best friend referred to one such period as “the Depression.” The fact that he could joke about my penury and Nissel can treat hers as almost a lark serves as a reminder that poverty is more than a matter of low income; it’s also a frame of mind. Both Nissel and my collegiate self expected our “broke diaries” to be slender volumes. And that optimism is not just a product of privilege, since Nissel — an African-American, daughter of a nurse, with friends from the projects — is hardly your typical, blithely entitled Ivy League undergraduate. Even though our degrees (mine in English and hers in the superbly impractical medical anthropology) didn’t promise riches in any obvious way, we both believed we’d get out of the hole eventually, and eventually we did.

So perhaps worse than the grim mathematics of the life Ehrenreich sampled is the relentless grinding down of dignity and, by extension, hope. She records the low-grade carping that her restaurant co-workers savor behind the backs of officious middle managers (is there any other kind?), but working for huge, corporate entities is even worse. Ehrenreich bridles at the degrading personality tests, drug tests and “orientations” required of all new employees applying at these behemoths. Chatting with customers and co-workers is rechristened as “time theft” by Wal-Mart authorities, who expect every 15-minute break to be punched out on the time clock. The Merry Maids cleaning service forbids its workers from allowing either food or drink to pass their lips while in a customer’s house — not even water and no matter how hot the day or sweaty the work. Parched, and faced with “banks of glass doors” and countless knickknacks in one yuppie manse, Ehrenreich writes:

I wonder if Mrs. W. will ever have the occasion to realize that every single doodad and objet through which she expresses her unique, individual self is, from another vantage point, only an obstacle between some thirsty person and a glass of water.

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.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>