After three nights with Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed" as my bedside reading, I've started having bad dreams. Ehrenreich's searing book chronicles her experiences as a cultural explorer among America's working poor. By taking a series of grueling, low-paying jobs -- waitress, hotel maid, Wal-Mart salesclerk -- she set out to discover whether, in the wake of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, the 4 million women about to enter the workforce, most at minimum wage, could make ends meet for themselves and their children.
In my nightmares, I imagined Ehrenreich's journalistic evil twin -- let's call him Milo Forbes -- inserting himself into a series of rarefied yet grueling social circles, journeying to the deepest, darkest reaches of Manhattan, Beverly Hills and St. Bart's to find out how, in the wake of the passage of President Bush's tax plan, America's megawealthy are coping with the pressures of their massive windfall. It can't be a walk in the park, Forbes reasoned, for 1 percent of the tax-paying population to be receiving 37.6 percent of the total tax cut. His new book, "The Burdens of Wealth," shows us that, indeed, suffering is relative.
Asked to comment on Forbes' book, Ehrenreich admitted that she may have been insensitive to the many vexing problems faced by the top 1 percent. "After all," she told me, "those with multiple homes face far more lawn maintenance challenges than those who don't have any home at all."
In "Nickel and Dimed," Ehrenreich is shocked to discover that for workers in low-wage jobs, affordable housing was next to impossible to find. Many of her co-workers lived in their cars, while others were forced to share crowded apartments or overpriced motel rooms with near strangers. "When the rich and the poor compete for housing in the open market," she writes, "the poor don't stand a chance."
But Forbes helps us see the other side of the coin in the competition for decent living space. He found that when the superwealthy compete with one another for luxury digs, things really get ugly -- even with a trust fund, massive investment income and a platinum AmEx card, housing is the killer.
It turns out that even before the tax bill was passed, this year's most fabulous summer rentals had all been snapped up before Memorial Day. Many Top 1 Percenters were forced to settle for 10-bedroom, $40,000-a-week vacation villas in unfashionable parts of Italy's Tuscany region -- with a pool and a tennis court but no riding stable or fully stocked wine cellar. And a few even had to fall back on oceanfront properties in East Hampton, N.Y.
"It's not hard," observes Ehrenreich in her book, "to get my coworkers to talk about their living situations because housing, in almost every case, is the principal source of disruption in their lives." She tells us about Gail, a waitress unable to escape an abusive roommate because she can't afford the month's deposit required to get a place on her own, and Joan, a restaurant hostess who lives in a van and showers in a friend's motel room.
Forbes, too, puts human flesh on the bones of such abstractions as "$3 million tear-downs" and "repealing the estate tax."
"Shayla is living with a billionaire who is consistently rude to her," Forbes writes of a trophy wife he interviewed at a day spa, "but an 11,600-square-foot condo in Trump Tower would be impossible without his money." Bradley, a golfing buddy of Forbes', is desperate to trade up from the Silicon Valley mansion he purchased last year for $900,000 over the asking price, but since the dot-com crash he hasn't had a nibble.
Healthcare is another major concern shared by those on both sides of the economic divide. Ehrenreich discovered that most of her co-workers had little or no health insurance and thus couldn't afford to get sick. She cites the memorable example of Holly, a sickly rent-a-maid who severely injures her ankle but continues cleaning a house, hopping around on one foot, because she can't afford to give up the 25 bucks she would lose if she doesn't finish the job. For his part, Forbes uncovered a disturbing shortage of skilled Botox technicians, and hints darkly at the scourge of cosmetic surgery addiction that rages among the Gulfstream set.
Mobility -- both upward and literal -- is also a theme echoed in both books. Ehrenreich shows how transportation, and the lack thereof, play a key role in the lives of the working poor. Many of her co-workers were carless, and for those who did have a working set of wheels, the cost of gasoline -- now significantly higher than when Ehrenreich was writing her book -- was often prohibitive.
Of course, if you think it's pricey filling up an old Chevy or vintage Toyota held together with spit and wire, think of what it takes to gas up a Bentley or Lincoln Navigator, fully loaded Puff Daddy style -- not to mention a private jet.
Forbes recounts the story of a business tycoon who had to shell out over $10,000 in gas alone to hop from Los Angeles to New York on his G-5 to catch a quick bite at Nobu before seeing "The Producers" (one way). And this, of course, doesn't take into account the cost of the crew and the hefty landing fees America's overcrowded airports are charging.
"Welfare as we knew it has ended but poverty has not," President Bush told the University of Notre Dame's graduating class of 2001 last month in a bit of reporting Ehrenreich would admire. "When over 12 million children live below the poverty line, we are not a post-poverty America."
He then went on to quote Mother Teresa: "What the poor often need, even more than shelter and food, though these are desperately needed as well, is to be wanted." Now, I get letters when I contradict Mother Teresa, but I bet if Bush polled the homeless and the hungry, he'd find that food and shelter would easily top a presidential hug. Particularly a rhetorical one unaccompanied by any real remedies.
The Top 1 Percenters captured in Forbes' book will be receiving $690 billion over the next decade thanks to W.'s "across the board" tax cut, while those in Ehrenreich's book will be getting about $66 a year each.
But why quibble over numbers? After all, who can really put a price tag on human suffering?