The most invisible segment of the American economy is that of the working poor. The homeless sleep under the bridges named for the wealthy while the middle-class drive past in their minivans. What of the working poor? What of those people who slouch from job to job, bringing us our meals, cleaning our hotel rooms and our houses, stocking our cheap imported goods at Wal-Mart? These people are the background to the capitalist life we all lead, pervasive in every part of our lives. Yet who speaks for them? One person who does is Barbara Ehrenreich, one of the finest voices to cry out from the dark side of the American dollar.
In her book, Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich decides to see if she can learn anything about this world of service workers and their â€œliving wage.â€ At this time, she was already a well-published author and wrote for the New York Times. Yet she was afraid that simply looking at charts and statistics about working poverty would miss the point of the issue, miss the human heart which beats and aches beneath. So she set out to do a little old-fashioned investigative journalism. She moved around the country, pretending to be someone else â€“ a newly divorced woman in her late forties with no dependents, no money, and no education â€“ something becoming ever more common.
So out went Ph. D. educated Barbara Ehrenreich into the service sector. The context of this book is the late Nineties, back when Republicans still controlled Congress and were busy doing their best at slashing and burning years of welfare bills and other forms of assistance to the poor. The greatest argument made at the time was that people could find jobs that would sustain them without any government aid at all. Of course, one wonders why they simply did not do that in the first place if this was indeed true. But talk radio and cries of â€œLazy!â€ pulled the economic rug out from under millions of families, children, and single women. Ehrenreich wanted to know if they really could survive. What she found was amazing.
Despite her skills at undercover work and social analysis, Ehrenreich is first and foremost a storyteller. Everything she says carries with it that spark of life so necessary to truly learning about anything. One job she takes is as a waitress at a family restaurant. After reading those chapters, you will tip more when you go out to eat, just as you will no longer mess up a hotel room since you do not have to clean it or move items around a Wal-Mart for fun. Ehrenreich makes herself at home in these jobs and finds herself unable to make ends meet within a month at the end of each job. She does all sorts of things, exhausts every option available, and finds herself unable to earn a living wage. It’s not laziness which causes poverty in most cases, it’s the entire system built around the dollar we treat as the partner to oxygen in regards to necessity in our lives. Without the poor, there can be no rich. To say that the rich stand upon the backs of the poor is exploiting language, but the poor are still being exploited too. That’s a simple fact of life, but not something the people of God should be apathetic about. Many books have come out lately criticizing this structure. Bait and Switch, Class Issues, On Paradise Drive and Limbo are all books by top-notch authors and newspapers which explore class and money in America and conclude that the two are more intertwined and exert more influence now than ever before in America.
In his book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, Robert Bork talks about how two social scientists say that the distribution of wealth is a problem of jealousy and not a real problem. If everyone magically had twice the amount of money, they theorize, no one would complain about poor and rich. This misses the point that many who are poor are not able to fulfill the basic needs of life on what they currently make. Being poor does not mean failing to have the newest television, a new car, or designer jeans. Being poor means not having insurance, clipping coupons and still going to bed hungry, living in a car for a month because you can’t pay the rent. That’s the real face of poverty.
Maybe you can’t buy the case for American poverty, the things Barbara Ehrenreich is writing about this book. What you should buy is the case for the global poor, those who make it seem as though the poor in America are living as kings of capitalism. These are people who live their whole lives in dumps bigger than cities, digging through what everyone else throws out to stay alive or people living in slavery, nearly 70 million across the world, Sojourners magazine recently reported or children slaving away in sweatshops or farm plantations or mines or factories. These people are the backbone of the global economy, a back which is breaking under the weight of injustice.
And here in America, with every shirt we buy, every tank of gas we fill, every apple we bite into, every tennis racket we swing, every shoe we slip on, every Frisbee we throw, we are cementing the political and economic structures which oppress these poor. If that is not something which troubles us greatly, then our hearts lay victim alongside peace and justice in the shadow of our freshly globalized world.
Read this book. Don’t buy it. Borrow it from a friend, check it out from the library, read it in the bookstore. Take the 15 dollars you would have spent on it and give it away to a homeless person. These are issues we need to think about. These are patterns we need to change.
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