Scraping by

By Laura Miller

Published May 14, 2001 7:13PM (EDT)

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I've spent my time working in fast-food restaurants and a department store, making a meager living. I've seen some despicable things done to employees in the name of saving money. The lowest has to be laying off the seasonal help a week before Christmas. People left crying because they had been depending on that money to see them through the holidays. All because the owners wanted a fat profit margin so they could look good when they sold the department store.

Not allowing people to rest or go to the bathroom is against the law. Unfortunately, too many people either don't know this, don't want to have to fight their managers or are too tired and are too afraid of losing their jobs. I've walked off, leaving my area and customers, to go the bathroom because no one would come and cover things and I had to go. There wasn't a single thing a manager or the company could do about it. They can't fire you for going to the bathroom or taking a break when you're ready to collapse.

I had the luxury of being informed of my rights. If you're unsure of what rights you have I suggest writing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or visiting its Web site. It's a good place to start finding out what your rights are.

-- Susan King

Laura Miller's review of Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed" reminded me of my own fugue as a working poor person in the late '80s -- and how it came to an end. After three years in Germany enlisted in the U.S. Army, I returned to the U.S. with two notions stuck in my head: America needed a Western European-style social safety net and I needed to reject my white middle-class upbringing by choosing a life of dignified labor. For a year, I earned slightly better than minimum wage as an apprentice electrician, suffering through frostbite and endangerment at the hands of methadone-using drunken co-workers.

My wife and child and I lived in a thermostat-less basement apartment on one of the meanest streets in the Rust Belt Midwest. Visits by police (to my drug-dealing, fight-prone neighbors), school social workers (to my other neighbors who had been informed that education was compulsory) and ambulances (to my abusive and OD'ing neighbors) were regular events in my neighborhood. My son's kindergarten teacher was genuinely surprised that I wanted to interact with her to learn more about his progress at school.

After a cold, scary winter, I caved in. Disgusted with hand-to-mouth existence and living in the midst of dire social distress, I enrolled in college with my GI Bill benefits and took a less stressful job in serene suburbia. I thrived at the university. However, I found myself sneering at my professors, who typically had lived entire lives in middle-class comfort but somehow knew that poverty and marginality were caused by capitalist exploitation, never individual weakness and stupidity. I realized that the real world tempered my leftism. Perhaps if Ehrenreich could be objective enough to shuck her George Bernard Shaw-era leftism -- presuming that enlightened fortunate elites need to save the masses -- she would have had an easier time accepting that the working poor don't believe that they are the victims of a vast capitalist conspiracy.

-- Steve Lee

When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I took a job as a grocery clerk. At the time, grocery clerks were predominantly single mothers and they had a union -- but these union members were being forced out and replaced by teenagers like myself who were paid minimum wage and granted no benefits. Obviously, for many years, chain grocery stores like this one were able to profit handsomely while providing their clerks and butchers and the like union wages.

Busting these types of unions sadly reclassified former working-class professions into the unsavory title of "unskilled laborers." And while (following in my example) Stop-n-Shop's higher management certainly received nice financial bonuses, none of this income "trickled down" to their workers. (And wasn't that the original idea? Give corporations more freedom and they'll spread the wealth by their own volition?)

This book and the recent strike by custodians in Los Angeles give me hope that union organizers will reemerge to elevate the working poor's payrolls and dignity. Unions were not perfect, but providing corporations like Wal-Mart free rein to treat their workers as they wish ... Well, that 20-some-year-old experiment has proven to be disastrous.

-- Louise McDonnell

Ehrenreich's book is missing one point about what working those low-wage jobs creates in people that being on welfare never does: It makes you want a better life and a better job. It makes you want your kids to have a better life, and it makes parents do the things necessary for their kids to move up to the next level. There are a lot of kids out there today who were the first generation of their family to go to college because their parents worked those hard low-wage jobs. It makes people change their behavior. If you are working those jobs, you are less likely to have four kids because you can't afford them. You are less likely to have a baby at an early age. That's what welfare reform did -- it dropped the teen pregnancy rate by 20 percent. In other words, working a crappy job forces you to pursue the American dream.

-- Slover

You're right, it is almost impossible to pursue an education and work a full-time job. As a high school teacher, I shake my head at all my students who seem to think that they will just be given a "good-paying job" when they don't do shit in the classroom.

I'm tired of hearing about how hard it is for the poor when most of them have the chance to learn to read, do math and think creatively, but they simply piss away their time in the classroom and then throw lots of attitude at the teacher when he or she tries to get them to do their work (for their own good!). I don't feel sorry for them when I see them asking if I want fries with my burger. I worked hard for my education. Neither of my parents had even a high school degree, but they learned their lesson and did not let me piss my time away in high school. I worked all though college, and now I have a good-paying job and a nice home. I don't feel bad for the poor. Most of them have brought it upon themselves. Oh: I graduated with a degree in art. If I had it to do again, I would have gotten my degree in business.

-- Paul Gaddis

I don't know who wrote the headline for this piece ("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") but when I read the article I didn't see a single person mentioned who "didn't make it," i.e., died. Typical leftish hyperbole.

Are there a lot of people working jobs of pure drudgery? Yes. Compare that to, say, the 12th century, when some small fraction of the population sat in castles and monasteries and the rest toiled in drudgery in the fields, often dying of starvation and disease. How many of the unskilled workers mentioned in the book were dying of starvation and disease? How many of them actually suffered disease mainly because they ate too much of foods once considered luxury items for the rich only? Things are immeasurably better now for even the poorest people in this country, all thanks to capitalism and the free market, which Ehrenreich seems to be blaming somehow for the fact that some people do not have skills that create enough value to warrant high wages.

The fact is that most people working in unskilled, low-paying jobs move on later to higher-paying jobs. Most people work in unskilled jobs when they start out; that's what you do when you are in high school. The people who get stuck there for the longer term are largely people who made poor choices about starting families when they couldn't afford to, or made poor choices of mates who later abandoned them.

This sort of misfortune is hard, but blaming the people who take the risks to create companies and provide jobs is not the answer. If people like Ehrenreich think that workers are being paid unfairly low wages that gouge workers, they can start their own firms and lure away all of these workers with a promise of better pay. The fact that this doesn't happen suggests that the problem is not greedy, wicked corporations, but that the skills these people have do not warrant higher wages in the private sector.

The simple answer is that there will always be people who make unwise choices or who were brought into the world by parents unprepared to teach them how to make their way. This is not social injustice, because no one was behaving unjustly to cause this. It just is. There will always be differences between the levels of prosperity different people create. Meanwhile, the best solution to the problem of want and drudgery is a few more centuries of unfettered capitalism and individual liberty.

We've already essentially eliminated starvation; if liberals stop limiting the housing stock through rent controls and anti-development, environmentalist regulation, everyone will be able to afford housing.

Bottom line: There is no problem here that hasn't been a problem since time immemorial and will always be a problem. The best solution we have is freedom and capitalism.

-- Mark Jankus

Barbara Ehrenreich's experience as a working poor person is the equivalent of putting on shoe polish and being black for a day. Her experience was temporary and unreal in that she could go back to her "real" life at any time. The working poor have the same pride and commitment to their jobs that anyone else has, and in some cases more. Waitresses, hotel maids, McDonald's workers and others paid below the poverty line all deserve respect for their hard work, true, but they do not feel sorry for themselves for the most part. Many have aspirations to go back to school or move up the ladder to management and many do. As a part-time college instructor, I see many people going back to school to increase skills or get their degree while working at low-paid, menial jobs to get by.

I have yet to find one that feels sorry for him or herself. Our capitalist system that pays low wages is also the system that provides the opportunity for these people to move ahead in life. I agree with the judgment in the article that drug and alcohol abuse is the root of most of the problems for the poor, not bad schools or other social problems. These people go to the same schools that we all do.

This book should be used to hold a door open, because it sure can't be worth much more!

-- Lance Mertz

By Salon Staff

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