‘Nickel & Dimed’: In America, Hard Work May Get You Nowhere

What is the American dream? People always talk about it; what do they mean? Perhaps this: If you work hard enough, the sky’s the limit. Here in this land of opportunity, no industrious person will be left behind. Barbara Ehrenreich has laid waste to that notion. In her book, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” Ehrenreich set out to see if she could make it, as many Americans must: without fancy degrees, savings, or any cushion of benefits. Just grit and a willingness to work. She couldn’t.

What is the American dream? People always talk about it; what do they mean? Perhaps this: If you work hard enough, the sky’s the limit. Here in this land of opportunity, no industrious person will be left behind.

Barbara Ehrenreich has laid waste to that notion. In her book, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” Ehrenreich set out to see if she could make it, as many Americans must: without fancy degrees, savings, or any cushion of benefits. Just grit and a willingness to work. She couldn’t.

Starting in Key West, she quickly learned that one waitressing job won’t cover the rent. Her co-workers shared rooms in flophouses or lived in vans. She took a second job and lived in a trailer in “a nest of crime and crack. . . . There are not exactly people here but what amounts to canned labor, being preserved between shifts from the heat.”

Again and again, in other cities, Ehrenreich tried and failed to make it. In the Twin Cities, where a “living wage” for a single parent with one child is calculated at $11.77 an hour, she made just $7 an hour at Wal-Mart. “Most civilized nations,” she writes, “compensate for the inadequacy of wages by providing relatively generous public services such as health insurance, free or subsidized child care, subsidized housing and effective transportation.” In America, we demand that the poor make it without such benefits — at far below a living wage.

A recent story in the Washington Post Magazine looked at the arrival in a poor D.C. neighborhood of one of those groceries teeming with choice Roquefort, fresh swordfish, delectable macaroons. At work in this emporium are the likes of an Eritrean who escaped a burning village, a Sudanese refugee and an African American who just hopes to make it out of a shelter down the street.

Some had been making $6.25 cleaning condos. Others had cleaned toilets at the zoo. Now they earn $8 and medical benefits, and they’ve begun to dream. One went looking for an apartment — only to find 13,000 people ahead of her on the waiting list for subsidized housing.

We tell welfare mothers a job is their ticket out of poverty: “Go to work, escape the trap, live the dream.” For many, it’s a hoax.

Are we ashamed? One commentator recently wrote that, if Americans cared about inequality, they’d be in the streets. At the time, 26 Harvard students were occupying an administration building, demanding a living wage for university employees.

But Harvard Yard is not the streets. The plight of our lowest-paid workers is far from the center of political debate. To see just how far, consider former Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s proposals in “The Future of Success.” A reviewer lists them this way:

– Guarantee everyone a job at a decent wage
– Offer every young person some venture capital

– Raise pay for workers in helping professions such as child care and elder care

– Offer public support for a parent who stays home with a child under 3, and

– Develop voucher systems for schools and housing that improve opportunities for the poor.

Try making such proposals, and count the number of times you hear “free enterprise,” and “rugged individualism” in reply. Bemoan the inability of the working poor to earn a decent living, and hear the prattle about “income redistribution” coming back at you. People who love to talk family values have no time for Harvard janitor Porfirio Figueroa, who sees his children only on weekends or when they’re asleep because he must work two jobs.

In fact, it’s Harvard’s former president, Derek Bok, who says in “The Trouble with Government” that a fundamental problem of our political order is “the political impotence of poor and working-class Americans that accounts for most of the deficiencies of America’s social and employment legislation.”

So people ardently seek work — more than 2,300 applied for jobs at that fancy new grocery store — and the lucky ones then go on to confront the reality. “There are no secret economies that nourish the poor,” Ehrenreich writes. “On the contrary there are a host of special costs. 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 . . . you eat fast food or the hot dogs and Styrofoam cups of soup that can be microwaved at a convenience store.”

An American dream? Surely not.

– A Brief Bio –

Barbara Ehrenreich, writer and veteran of feminist and democratic socialist movements, is the author of nine books, most recently, The Snarling Citizen and Blood Rites. She co-authored popular South End Press titles including Women in the Global Factory and Poverty in the American Dream.

Based in Florida, she has been an essayist for Time since 1990 and is a columnist for the Guardian in London. The Baltimore Sun has called her “a simply brilliant, hilarious satirist.” The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes From a Decade of Greed (Pantheon, 1990) was described by The New York Times as “elegant, trenchant, savagely angry, morally outraged and outrageously funny.” Her book, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, was nominated for a National Book Critics Award.

Her latest book is “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,”.

Author: Geneva Overholser

News Service: San Jose Mercury News

URL: http://cgi.mercurycenter.com/premium/opinion/columns/overholser27.htm