Down and Out in the Midst of a Boom

By Anne Colamosca


On (Not) Getting By in America

By Barbara Ehrenreich

Metropolitan Books -- 221pp -- $23

Close to one-third of all working Americans spent the late 1990s grinding away for wages of $8 an hour or less. Many others, caught up in a great boom, may have imagined that people in this huge pool just weren't energetic or hard-working enough to make a decent living. In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich asserts that this is far from true. "I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that `hard work' was the secret of success," she writes. "No one ever said that you could work hard--harder even than you thought possible--and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt."

Nickel and Dimed is an "old-fashioned," in-your-face expose of how this other one-third lives. For her research, Ehrenreich, the left-leaning social critic and author of Fear of Falling and other books, left a comfortable life to labor alongside those in the slow-lane world of waitresses, nursing-home attendants, and housekeepers. In doing so, she followed in the footsteps of such writers as George Orwell, who in the 1930s chronicled the work lives of poorly paid Paris restaurant dishwashers, and Michael Harrington, whose 1962 The Other America inspired supporters of Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty.

Ehrenreich's account is angry, amusing, and ultimately painful. But it falls short of ideal. Orwell brought his work to life by focusing on a few central characters. Ehrenreich, by contrast, introduces too many co-workers--none of them really memorable. Still, this important volume will force anyone who reads it to acknowledge the often desperate plight of Ehrenreich's subjects. And because she draws grim conclusions about their lot during a time of economic growth, the book raises scary questions about what will happen in a less bustling, post-welfare-reform U.S.

During her three-month sojourn, the author avoided cities such as New York and Los Angeles, "where the working class consists mainly of people of color and a white woman with unaccented English seeking entry-level jobs might only look desperate or weird." Instead, she found positions in the suburbs and exurbs of Florida, Maine, and Minnesota. In each locale, she took the highest-paying job that she could find quickly. Except for waitressing, where part of the income came from tips, her hourly pay always exceeded the minimum wage: In Key West, Fla., she worked two different restaurant jobs and supplemented her income with a $6.10-per-hour stint as motel housekeeper. In Portland, Me., she became a $6.65-per-hour cleaning lady for a national maid service and also worked weekends as a $7-per-hour nursing-home aide. In Minneapolis, she became a salesclerk at Wal-Mart, where her hourly pay was $7.

A key finding: The working poor have little choice but to take more than one job at a time. The author tried mightily to keep costs low, living in cheap motels--$245 a week in Minnesota--and driving a Rent-A-Wreck car. But even with no children to support, she couldn't make ends meet on one paycheck. The result was exhaustion: The long hours and hard labor "absorbed all my energy and much of my intellect."

Such fatigue, according to Ehrenreich, partly explains why there is little social unrest among low-wage workers. She insists that America's working poor are far from homogeneous, but she finds that they do share some characteristics: passivity and resignation. Few of the people she encountered were interested in unionization, and even their vices were minor. When her co-workers wanted to "bust out," they didn't turn to riot or alcohol, but rather to their cars. Her housekeeper friends, for example, delighted "in pushing the pedal to the metal and terrorizing the elegant neighborhoods" where they toiled.

Working as a maid drove home to Ehrenreich the marginalization and dehumanization of the American poor. One company where she interviewed, Merry Maids, is the largest of the residential-cleaning services that have sprouted in the past 20 years. In its advertising, the company portrays its workers as paragons of industry, eager to get down on their hands and knees to clean floors. Meanwhile, she says, such outfits take great pains to limit the contact between clients and workers, making sure to rotate employees at each location so that individuals never emerge as sympathetic human beings in the eyes of clients.

Ehrenreich's descent into this underclass life filled her with a burning anger. She rails against a universe in which workers are banned from talking to each other, denied trips to the bathroom, forced to allow management searches of their purses at any time, and kept on their feet--or their knees--for hours on end with few breaks. She instructs us that many of these workers toil in a world few of us would voluntarily enter. You don't have to be poor to have to clean up dirt, but for many low-wage workers, living with filth is the rule, not the exception. Like Orwell, Ehrenreich fixes on sights and smells as her most odious memories. "Down there below knee level," she says, describing work as a housekeeper, "you find elaborate dust structures held together by a scaffolding of dog hair; dried bits of pasta glued to the floor by their sauce; the congealed remains of gravies, jellies, contraceptive creams, vomit, and urine." Standards of work may have improved in the 20th century, but for the working poor, there is still a long way to go.

Colamosca is co-author of The Judas Economy: The Triumph of Capital and the Betrayal of Work.

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