Small Change and Common Sense
My sister-in-law the banker gave me Barbara Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed, On (not) Getting By in America for Christmas last year. I had heard of it. When it was published, it was widely reviewed because it was seen as an important book.
The importance came from the fact that it opened a window into a world unfamiliar to most reviewers. The unfamiliarity was real even though the reviewers (and the rest of us) see it every day.
Even in Northfield, the "Molly Maids" cars are visible reminders of the 21st century version of hired help. The waitresses at Mandarin Garden are likely to be college students, but the servers at Applebee's are more likely supporting a family. The people who care for the hundreds of nursing home residents in Northfield are mostly invisible, but without them we'd be in crisis. In Northfield, those of us who write about books we read might see the woman who checks out our groceries playing softball at the South 40 field, but we don't know much about her job -- or the jobs of the cleaning ladies or the servers or the nursing home aides. Barbara Ehrenreich's book is meant to reduce our ignorance.
She set out to tell us a first hand story about these nearby but unfamiliar worlds. In addition, she wanted to explore the job opportunities available to women "fired" from the dependency of welfare.
She went under cover to work at Wal-Mart, a restaurant, a cleaning service, and a nursing home. She tried to live on what she earned. She even took a second job during one of her undercover stints to make ends meet.
Even considering she had little experience in living near the edge materialistically, she would have had a terrible time without the safety net of her rental car (Rent-A-Wreck it may have been) and some cash to start with. As it was she raised some serious questions about the effects of welfare reform. Is welfare dependency more degrading than Wal-Mart dependency? How can it be that even two low-wage jobs don't offer enough income to rent decent housing? Where does parenting fit into a day in which work consumes 12 hours? And that says nothing about health care, stress relief, healthy food, and quality time with friends and family. This book ought to be required reading for all high school students who are tempted to make careers of after school jobs at stores, restaurants and fast food joints near their parental homes.
In spite of her intellectual goals, Ehrenreich was distracted by the people she met and the stories they had to tell. I'm not at all sorry that this isn't exclusively a polemic. The people she met and cared about ã albeit for a short time ã make this all the more worth reading. Like the little anecdotes on the note cards that Ronald Reagan used to pull out of his pockets, these vignettes humanize the issues and the dilemmas.
The executives can sit in the home offices and, with their accountants, write business plans dependent upon low wage workers and high turnover, but they'll never worry about the welfare of any of their employees ã who are merely factors of production with a price. In our society, that's "not their job." Politicians and bureaucrats can run numbers in DC offices to demonstrate that reducing government spending and taxes is good for the economy, but they won't worry about the welfare of their constituents liberated from the heavy hand of government. That's "not their job." That's the job of employees and constituents -- individually, not as members of some coercive union or special interest group.
If something sounds awry in that description, you should read Ehrenreich's book.
- More Ehrenreich essays and on-line discussions
- Bio of Ehrenreich at Columbia Journalism Review
- Interview with Ehrenreich