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.

Published May 9, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

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.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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