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Exposing the desperate plight of the working poor
Left behind by the "miracle economy"

June 22, 2001 | Page 10

"I GREW up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that 'hard work' was the secret to success: 'Work hard, and you'll get ahead' or 'It's hard work that got us where we are.'

"No one ever said that you could work harder--harder even than you thought possible--and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt."

So writes Barbara Ehrenreich in her new book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

ELIZABETH LALASZ looks at Nickel and Dimed--and the plight of the working poor in the U.S. today.

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ACCORDING TO the Economic Policy Institute, a "living wage" for a family of one adult and two children is $14 an hour--or about $30,000 a year.

Yet fully 30 percent of the U.S. workforce--more than 40 million people--make less than $8 an hour.

In her new book Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich uncovers the reality of what it means to live on half the living wage--by going "undercover."

Ehrenreich worked several low-wage jobs over the course of two years to investigate the day-to-day reality of life for the working poor.

Her findings confirm what many people felt in their guts during the so-called "miracle economy" of the 1990s.

"These experiences are not part of a sustainable lifestyle, even a lifestyle of chronic deprivation and relentless low-level punishment," Ehrenreich writes.

"They are, by most standards of subsistence, emergency situations. And that is how we should see the poverty of so many millions of low-wage Americans--as a state of emergency."

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EHRENREICH STARTS her research for the book with about $1,000 in cash and a car.

And that, she admits, put her at a distinct advantage over many in the low-wage world. Most don't have this leg up when they start looking for a job.

Ehrenreich's first job is as a waitress in Key West, Fla.--at the Hearthside, a restaurant connected to a Day's Inn.

She makes $2.43 an hour plus tips--which barely amounts to the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour.

Few of her coworkers live in decent housing, since they can't afford the rent on their meager salaries.

For example, Gail, a 50-year-old coworker, "has left the flophouse and her annoying roommate and is back living in her truck," Ehrenreich writes. "But, guess what, she reports to me excitedly, Phillip [the restaurant manager] has given her permission to park overnight in the hotel parking lot, as long as she keeps out of sight."

Such living situations are shockingly common.

According to a 1997 report of the National Coalition for the Homeless, nearly one-fifth of all homeless people are employed in full- or part-time jobs.

And no wonder. As of 1998, the coalition found, the average worker has to make an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one-bedroom apartment.

That's the national average. In many major cities, where rents skyrocketed during the 1990s, the so-called "housing wage" is much higher.

Ehrenreich found that there are countless obstacles in everyday life for the working poor.

"There are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs," she writes.

"If you can't put up the two months' rent you need to secure an apartment, you end up paying through the nose for a room by the week. If you have only a room; with a hot plate at best, you can't save by cooking up huge lentil stews that can be frozen for the week ahead. You eat fast food and Styrofoam cups of soup that can be microwaved in a convenience store."

Then there's the question of health care.

Workers who are lucky enough to find a job that includes health care insurance usually have to wait for it to kick in.

In the meantime, if you don't have extra money--as most don't--you go without routine care or prescription drugs, and end up paying a price.

Ehrenreich's coworker Gail, for example, ended up living out of her truck after she "ran out of money for estrogen pills," Ehrenreich says.

"She is supposed to be on the company health plan by now, but they claim to have lost her application form and to be beginning the paperwork all over again. So she spends $9 a pop for pills to control migraines she wouldn't have, she insists, if her estrogen supplements were covered."

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EHRENREIGH LANDS her last low-wage a job as a "sales associate" at Wal-Mart in Minneapolis, where she makes just over $6 an hour.

This was after she refused a job at Menard's--where she was told that working "full time" means 11-hour shifts, 5 days a week, with no overtime pay.

This is illegal--but common practice anyway in corporate America.

At Wal-Mart, Ehrenreich finds how widespread poverty is among the workforce at the country's largest private employer.

"I've noticed that many of my coworkers are poor in all the hard-to-miss, stereotypical ways," she writes. "Crooked yellow teeth are one sign, inadequate footwear is another. My feet hurt after four hours of work, and I wear comfortable old Reeboks, but a lot of women run around all day in thin-soled moccasins.

"Hair provides another class cue. Ponytails are common or, for that characteristic Wal-Martian beat-up and hopeless look, straight shoulder-length hair, parted in the middle and kept out of your face by two bobby pins."

And yet applicants have to go through unbelievable hurdles just to get these terrible jobs.

There are a battery of tests--personality and drug--at Wal-Mart and Menard's. Only if you pass do you get to enter low-wage hell.

And hell, Ehrenreich observes, is what life is like for a Wal-Mart sales associate.

"I have been discovering a great truth about low-wage work and probably a lot of medium-wage work, too--that nothing happens, or rather the same thing always happens, which amounts, day after day, to nothing," she writes.

"What my life holds is carts--full ones, then empty ones, then full ones again…hour-by-hour what you don't realize is you're selling your life."

Or as Ehrenreich's coworker Marlene puts it: "They talk about spirit, but they don't give us any reason to have any spirit."

Out of frustration, Ehrenreich floats the idea of organizing a union to her coworkers--and the response is enthusiastic.

"Breaks finally have a purpose beyond getting off my feet," she writes. "Almost everyone is eager to talk, and I soon become a walking repository of complaints.

"No one gets paid overtime at Wal-Mart, I'm told, though there's often pressure to work it. Many feel the health insurance isn't worth paying for. There's a lot of frustration over schedules…

"And always there are the gripes about managers: the one who is known for sending home new hires in tears, the one who takes the ruler and knocks everything off what he regards as a messy shelf, so you have to pick it up off the floor and start over."

Unfortunately, the talk about a union comes to an abrupt halt when Ehrenreich has to quit--because the gap between her salary and rent has expanded to the point that she can no longer afford to pay the $200-a-week-plus rent at her residential hotel.

This experience, too, is commonplace across the country, says Ehrenreich. The housing boom in cities like Minneapolis has led to in increase in high-priced apartments--and a sharp decline in affordable housing.

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THE PUBLIC response to Nickel and Dimed has been overwhelming.

The first edition of the book sold out within weeks after it first got to bookstores. "We're not able to keep it on the shelves," said a clerk at Border's bookstore in downtown Chicago.

During her recent book tour, Ehrenreich has spoken to packed meetings, and she's made guests appearances on popular talk shows like Oprah.

Why has this book--written by a veteran left-wing writer--become so popular?

Because it's struck a chord.

Nickel and Dimed tells the story of the other side of the "miracle" economy--a story that is day-to-day life for huge numbers of people in the U.S.

More and more Americans know, from bitter personal experience, that you can work two and sometimes three jobs and still end up slipping behind.

And why? Not because anyone believes they should. According to a poll conducted by Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based employment research firm, 94 percent of Americans agree that people who work full-time should be able to earn enough to keep their families out of poverty.

The reason that tens of millions of Americans endure low-wage hell is because of corporate greed.

As Ehrenreich concludes, America's working poor "dwell in a place that is neither free nor in any way democratic.

"We can hardly pride ourselves on being the world's preeminent democracy, after all, if large numbers of citizens spend half their waking hours in what amounts, in plain terms, to a dictatorship."

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