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Barbara Ehrenreich on getting Nickel and Dimed
Trapped by low wages

August 3, 2001 | Page 5

"WORK ALONE doesn't ensure a decent standard of living." That's the blunt conclusion of Heather Boushey, coauthor of Hardships in America: The Real Story of Working Families, a study released by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) last month.

EPI researchers found that nearly one-third of working families with young children in the U.S. don't earn enough to afford basic necessities like food, housing, health care and child care.

According to their study, among families that earned up to twice the federal government's official poverty line, the vast majority faced constant difficulties putting food on the table, paying the rent, covering utility bills and so on. And this is the situation despite the longest economic expansion on record.

The EPI's findings underline the points made by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

Ehrenreich researched her book by taking a series of low-wage jobs at the bottom of the ladder in the "miracle" economy. Nickel and Dimed is filled with stories of the people she met--and how they had to fight tooth and nail just to get by.

The success of the book--which sold out of its first printing earlier this year in a matter of weeks--is more evidence of the growing discontent with a system that has made the rich richer while working people face worsening conditions.

Ehrenreich talked to Socialist Worker's ELIZABETH LALASZ about why she wrote Nickel and Dimed--and what the fight for a different future will involve.

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WHY DID you choose the topic you did for Nickel and Dimed?

THIS ALL grew out of a conversation with the editor of Harper's magazine about welfare reform. This wasn't something that I was pitching him an article on. I was just talking about it and marveling at the smug assumption that women coming off of welfare would do perfectly fine as soon as they got a job.

The arithmetic just didn't look good to me. I had been thinking about this a lot, because I often write about issues related to women and poverty, and I said, "Somebody should go do the old-fashioned kind of journalism and try it for themselves."

Anyway, many months later, he said, "You!" So it started as a magazine assignment. And there was a lot of response to that article once it was published, so my book editor said, "Do more, and we'll make a book out of it."

WHAT SURPRISED you the most about what you found as you did the research for the book?

THE WORK was extremely hard, but I knew it was going to be. And I was sort of nervous about that.

I had waitressed when I was a teenager and in college, but this was more than 30 years later. And I didn't know if I would be able to keep up with that. It was really, really hard, especially when I tried to work more than one job at a time.

But the biggest surprise, and what was psychologically hardest, was the authoritarian--or I might even say, the fascist--atmosphere of so many of these workplaces.

I hadn't been mentally prepared for that--for the loss of privacy, the knowledge that my purse could be searched at any time by management, presumably looking for stolen goods. And the absurd rules. A couple of places had rules that you weren't supposed to talk to your coworkers.

As a person who has the most wonderful work life possible--that of a freelance writer--it was really a jolt to suddenly be treated as an object of suspicion.

ACCORDING TO the statistics, 40 million people in the U.S. live on $8 an hour or less. How did people that you met make ends meet on so little?

THERE ARE two major strategies. One is that you live with other wage earners. You pool several people's wages to pay rent. That could be a husband, boyfriend or a grown child. Or you might have a roommate who wasn't a family member. I heard a lot about that.

The other obvious strategy is to have more than one job. And I think that this is a lot more common than the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests. They say that 6 percent of the workforce works more than one job. I must have met all of them, because it just seemed so common.

But there are a lot of people who don't manage that well at all.

There were people who ended up homeless. I worked alongside some women who were homeless.

There were people who I didn't think were getting enough to eat. And in fact, they complained about being pretty dizzy by the end of the day.

There were people who ended up living in these residence hotels--a lot of which are pretty creepy, but still cost way too much. And if you're stuck in that situation, you're really trapped, because if you're paying $250 a week to live in a motel room, you're not ever going to build up the money to move into an apartment, which takes three months' rent.

WE'RE NEARING the five-year anniversary of "welfare reform," and that's the lifetime limit on benefits, so more and more people will be cut off. What kind of effect will this have?

I THINK there's been a consistent effort on the part of the politicians to cover up the reality of what's been happening with welfare reform.

There are reports from all across the country--the American Friends Service Committee issued a report about a month ago--of increased levels of hunger among women who have left welfare. This also seems to be evident by all the food pantries and shelters from all different parts of the country that have been maxed out and are talking about welfare reform being one of the causes.

So there's been kind of collective delusion about the real effects of welfare reform.

I really want to underscore that the conditions that I found between 1998 and 2000 were at the pinnacle of prosperity. It was the unprecedented dot-com boom and so forth.

I think that as soon as joblessness starts to rise--which it has been--liberals and leftists will focus their attention on unemployment as the problem, forgetting that even in the best of times, the jobs weren't good enough.

GEORGE W. BUSH is in the White House now, and there aren't many people who think he's a friend of the poor. But many of these cuts took place while the Democrats--supposedly the party of working people--controlled the White House.

IT WAS because of welfare reform that I couldn't possibly bring myself to vote for Al Gore last time. I thought that this was a complete betrayal of what the Democrats had at one time stood for. That's another thing to underscore about the time period I was researching and writing--those were the Clinton years.

WHAT CAN people do to challenge the conditions you write about?

THE TRADITIONAL answer is to organize and get a union. And I appreciate much more how hard that is in the totalitarian atmosphere of these workplaces. You can be fired for anything.

It's illegal to fire people for union activity, but that's not what they would say that they were firing you for. At Wal-Mart, you can be fired for using the word "damn." And that would probably be the excuse to fire someone.

WHAT'S BEEN the response to your book?

THE RESPONSE has been utterly amazing. I had no idea that there would be this much interest in it. I've had hundreds of people come to book signings. It's been unbelievable.

I think it reflects in part the fact that the "bubble" has broken in the economy, so people are prepared to think about things a little more critically.

This isn't a policy or a polemic-type book, compared to most things that I write. I was most concerned with just reporting--in as concrete and minute-by-minute a way as I could--on what it means to earn $7 an hour in this country.

But obviously I would want to see some kind of revival of the old liberal agenda--like national health insurance and subsidized child care. We have to return to some kind of public responsibility for public housing, which has really diminished.

Raising the minimum wage is supposed to be discussed in Congress this summer. I think that people should get involved in living-wage campaigns wherever they are. And support organizing efforts. I wish there were more such organizing efforts to support.

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