Friday, March 04, 2005

Workers of the World, Unite

You can't accuse me of snarfing down every trendy book as soon as it's published. I've just finished Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (published in 2001). I'd been hesitant to read it because I tend to fear and hide from books, especially nonfiction, that I think will anger or upset me inordinately. That's why I still haven't read Susan Faludi's Backlash or Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth. They're still on my bookshelf, collecting copious amounts of dust.

But I'm so glad I read Nickel and Dimed. Far from the polemical screed I'd been wary of, this was a compelling, engagingly written journalistic expose. The author spent several months trying to earn a living while working at various low-wage jobs: waitress, housecleaner, Wal-Mart "associate." The biggest finding, and one that comes as no surprise, is that it is pretty much impossible to carve out a living while working full-time for minimum wage, or even slightly above it. In each city Ehrenreich lived in, she could afford only the most unsafe, cursory housing, with little money left over for food. She had to take on a second job in each city, and she usually worked 7 days a week

The last chapter of the book contained a passage that really stings (kind of long, but worth reading):

…Now that government has largely withdrawn its "handouts," now that the overwhelming majority of the poor are out there toiling in Wal-Mart or Wendy's -- well, what are we to think of them? Disapproval or condescension no longer apply, so what outlook makes sense?

Guilt, you may be thinking warily. Isn't that what we're supposed to feel? But guilt doesn't go anywhere near far enough; the appropriate emotion is shame -- shame at our own dependency, in this case, on the underpaid labor of others. When someone works for less pay than she can live on -- when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently -- then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The "working poor," as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will below and stock prices high.

So, ummm, those notions I entertain of having a housecleaner come in from time to time? Maybe not? But what if the pay is fair? What would Barbara say?