It was at lunch with the editor of Harper’s Magazine that the subject came up: How does anyone actually live “on the wages available to the unskilled”? And then Barbara Ehrenreich said something that altered her life and resulted, improbably enough, in a bestselling book with almost two million copies in print. “Someone,” she commented, “ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism -- you know go out there and try it for themselves.” She meant, she hastened to point out on that book’s first page, “someone much younger than myself, some hungry neophyte journalist with time on her hands.”
That was 1998 and, somewhat to her surprise, Ehrenreich soon found herself beginning the first of a whirl of unskilled “careers” as a waitress at a “family restaurant” attached to a big discount chain hotel in Key West, Florida, at $2.43 an hour plus tips. And the rest, of course, is history. The now famous book that resulted, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, is just out in its tenth anniversary edition with a new afterword by Ehrenreich -- perfectly timed for an American era in which the book’s subtitle might have to be changed to “On (Not) Getting a Job in America.” TomDispatch takes special pride in offering Ehrenreich’s new afterword, adapted and shortened, for a book that, in its latest edition, deserves to sell another million copies. Tom
The big question, 10 years later, is whether things have improved or worsened for those in the bottom third of the income distribution, the people who clean hotel rooms, work in warehouses, wash dishes in restaurants, care for the very young and very old, and keep the shelves stocked in our stores. The short answer is that things have gotten much worse, especially since the economic downturn that began in 2008.
When you read about the hardships I found people enduring while I was researching my book -- the skipped meals, the lack of medical care, the occasional need to sleep in cars or vans -- you should bear in mind that those occurred in the best of times. The economy was growing, and jobs, if poorly paid, were at least plentiful.
In 2000, I had been able to walk into a number of jobs pretty much off the street. Less than a decade later, many of these jobs had disappeared and there was stiff competition for those that remained. It would have been impossible to repeat my Nickel and Dimed “experiment,” had I had been so inclined, because I would probably never have found a job.
For the last couple of years, I have attempted to find out what was happening to the working poor in a declining economy -- this time using conventional reporting techniques like interviewing. I started with my own extended family, which includes plenty of people without jobs or health insurance, and moved on to trying to track down a couple of the people I had met while working on Nickel and Dimed.
This wasn’t easy, because most of the addresses and phone numbers I had taken away with me had proved to be inoperative within a few months, probably due to moves and suspensions of telephone service. I had kept in touch with “Melissa” over the years, who was still working at Wal-Mart, where her wages had risen from $7 to $10 an hour, but in the meantime her husband had lost his job. “Caroline,” now in her 50s and partly disabled by diabetes and heart disease, had left her deadbeat husband and was subsisting on occasional cleaning and catering jobs. Neither seemed unduly afflicted by the recession, but only because they had already been living in what amounts to a permanent economic depression.
Media attention has focused, understandably enough, on the “nouveau poor” -- formerly middle and even upper-middle class people who lost their jobs, their homes, and/or their investments in the financial crisis of 2008 and the economic downturn that followed it, but the brunt of the recession has been borne by the blue-collar working class, which had already been sliding downwards since de-industrialization began in the 1980s.
In 2008 and 2009, for example, blue-collar unemployment was increasing three times as fast as white-collar unemployment, and African American and Latino workers were three times as likely to be unemployed as white workers. Low-wage blue-collar workers, like the people I worked with in this book, were especially hard hit for the simple reason that they had so few assets and savings to fall back on as jobs disappeared.
How have the already-poor attempted to cope with their worsening economic situation? One obvious way is to cut back on health care. The New York Times reported in 2009 that one-third of Americans could no longer afford to comply with their prescriptions and that there had been a sizable drop in the use of medical care. Others, including members of my extended family, have given up their health insurance.
Food is another expenditure that has proved vulnerable to hard times, with the rural poor turning increasingly to “food auctions,” which offer items that may be past their sell-by dates. And for those who like their meat fresh, there’s the option of urban hunting. In Racine, Wisconsin, a 51-year-old laid-off mechanic told me he was supplementing his diet by “shooting squirrels and rabbits and eating them stewed, baked, and grilled.” In Detroit, where the wildlife population has mounted as the human population ebbs, a retired truck driver was doing a brisk business in raccoon carcasses, which he recommends marinating with vinegar and spices.
The most common coping strategy, though, is simply to increase the number of paying people per square foot of dwelling space -- by doubling up or renting to couch-surfers.
It’s hard to get firm numbers on overcrowding, because no one likes to acknowledge it to census-takers, journalists, or anyone else who might be remotely connected to the authorities.
In Los Angeles, housing expert Peter Dreier says that “peoplewho’ve lost their jobs, or at least their second jobs, cope bydoubling or tripling up in overcrowded apartments, or bypaying 50 or 60 or even 70 percent of their incomes in rent.”According to a community organizer in Alexandria, Virginia,the standard apartment in a complex occupied largely by daylaborers has two bedrooms, each containing an entirefamily of up to five people, plus an additional person layingclaim to the couch.
No one could call suicide a “coping strategy,” but it is one way some people have responded to job loss and debt. There are no national statistics linking suicide to economic hard times, but the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline reported more than a four-fold increase in call volume between 2007 and 2009, and regions with particularly high unemployment, like Elkhart, Indiana, have seen troubling spikes in their suicide rates. Foreclosure is often the trigger for suicide -- or, worse, murder-suicides that destroy entire families.
“Torture and Abuse of Needy Families”
We do of course have a collective way of ameliorating the hardships of individuals and families -- a government safety net that is meant to save the poor from spiraling down all the way to destitution. But its response to the economic emergency of the last few years has been spotty at best. The food stamp program has responded to the crisis fairly well, to the point where it now reaches about 37 million people, up about 30% from pre-recession levels. But welfare -- the traditional last resort for the down-and-out until it was “reformed” in 1996 -- only expanded by about 6% in the first two years of the recession.
The difference between the two programs? There is a right to food stamps. You go to the office and, if you meet the statutory definition of need, they help you. For welfare, the street-level bureaucrats can, pretty much at their own discretion, just say no.
Take the case of Kristen and Joe Parente, Delaware residents who had always imagined that people turned to the government for help only if “they didn’t want to work.” Their troubles began well before the recession, when Joe, a fourth-generation pipe-fitter, sustained a back injury that left him unfit for even light lifting. He fell into a profound depression for several months, then rallied to ace a state-sponsored retraining course in computer repairs -- only to find that those skills are no longer in demand. The obvious fallback was disability benefits, but -- catch-22 -- when Joe applied he was told he could not qualify without presenting a recent MRI scan. This would cost $800 to $900, which the Parentes do not have; nor has Joe, unlike the rest of the family, been able to qualify for Medicaid.
When they married as teenagers, the plan had been for Kristen to stay home with the children. But with Joe out of action and three children to support by the middle of this decade, Kristen went out and got waitressing jobs, ending up, in 2008, in a “pretty fancy place on the water.” Then the recession struck and she was laid off.
Kristen is bright, pretty, and to judge from her command of her own small kitchen, probably capable of holding down a dozen tables with precision and grace. In the past she’d always been able to land a new job within days; now there was nothing. Like 44% of laid-off people at the time, she failed to meet the fiendishly complex and sometimes arbitrary eligibility requirements for unemployment benefits. Their car started falling apart.
So the Parentes turned to what remains of welfare -- TANF, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. TANF does not offer straightforward cash support like Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which it replaced in 1996. It’s an income supplementation program for working parents, and it was based on the sunny assumption that there would always be plenty of jobs for those enterprising enough to get them.
After Kristen applied, nothing happened for six weeks -- no money, no phone calls returned. At school, the Parentes’ seven-year-old’s class was asked to write out what wish they would present to a genie, should a genie appear. Brianna’s wish was for her mother to find a job because there was nothing to eat in the house, an aspiration that her teacher deemed too disturbing to be posted on the wall with the other children’s requests.
When the Parentes finally got into “the system” and began receiving food stamps and some cash assistance, they discovered why some recipients have taken to calling TANF “Torture and Abuse of Needy Families.” From the start, the TANF experience was “humiliating,” Kristen says. The caseworkers “treat you like a bum. They act like every dollar you get is coming out of their own paychecks.”
The Parentes discovered that they were each expected to apply for 40 jobs a week, although their car was on its last legs and no money was offered for gas, tolls, or babysitting. In addition, Kristen had to drive 35 miles a day to attend “job readiness” classes offered by a private company called Arbor, which, she says, were “frankly a joke.”
Nationally, according to Kaaryn Gustafson of the University of Connecticut Law School, “applying for welfare is a lot like being booked by the police.” There may be a mug shot, fingerprinting, and lengthy interrogations as to one’s children’s true paternity. The ostensible goal is to prevent welfare fraud, but the psychological impact is to turn poverty itself into a kind of crime.
How the Safety Net Became a Dragnet
The most shocking thing I learned from my research on the fate of the working poor in the recession was the extent to which poverty has indeed been criminalized in America.
Perhaps the constant suspicions of drug use and theft that I encountered in low-wage workplaces should have alerted me to the fact that, when you leave the relative safety of the middle class, you might as well have given up your citizenship and taken residence in a hostile nation.
Most cities, for example, have ordinances designed to drive the destitute off the streets by outlawing such necessary activities of daily life as sitting, loitering, sleeping, or lying down. Urban officials boast that there is nothing discriminatory about such laws: “If you’re lying on a sidewalk, whether you’re homeless or a millionaire, you’re in violation of the ordinance,” a St. Petersburg, Florida, city attorney stated in June 2009, echoing Anatole France’s immortal observation that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges...”
In defiance of all reason and compassion, the criminalization of poverty has actually intensified as the weakened economy generates ever more poverty. So concludes a recent study from the National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness, which finds that the number of ordinances against the publicly poor has been rising since 2006, along with the harassment of the poor for more “neutral” infractions like jaywalking, littering, or carrying an open container.
The report lists America’s ten “meanest” cities -- the largest of which include Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Orlando -- but new contestants are springing up every day. In Colorado, Grand Junction’s city council is considering a ban on begging; Tempe, Arizona, carried out a four-day crackdown on the indigent at the end of June. And how do you know when someone is indigent? As a Las Vegas statute puts it, “an indigent person is a person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive” public assistance.
That could be me before the blow-drying and eyeliner, and it’s definitely Al Szekeley at any time of day. A grizzled 62-year-old, he inhabits a wheelchair and is often found on G Street in Washington, D.C. -- the city that is ultimately responsible for the bullet he took in the spine in Phu Bai, Vietnam, in 1972.
He had been enjoying the luxury of an indoor bed until December 2008, when the police swept through the shelter in the middle of the night looking for men with outstanding warrants. It turned out that Szekeley, who is an ordained minister and does not drink, do drugs, or cuss in front of ladies, did indeed have one -- for “criminal trespassing,” as sleeping on the streets is sometimes defined by the law. So he was dragged out of the shelter and put in jail.
“Can you imagine?” asked Eric Sheptock, the homeless advocate (himself a shelter resident) who introduced me to Szekeley. “They arrested a homeless man in a shelter for being homeless?”
The viciousness of the official animus toward the indigent can be breathtaking. A few years ago, a group called Food Not Bombs started handing out free vegan food to hungry people in public parks around the nation. A number of cities, led by Las Vegas, passed ordinances forbidding the sharing of food with the indigent in public places, leading to the arrests of several middle-aged white vegans.
One anti-sharing law was just overturned in Orlando, but the war on illicit generosity continues. Orlando is appealing the decision, and Middletown, Connecticut, is in the midst of a crackdown. More recently, Gainesville, Florida, began enforcing a rule limiting the number of meals that soup kitchens may serve to 130 people in one day, and Phoenix, Arizona, has been using zoning laws to stop a local church from serving breakfast to homeless people.
For the not-yet-homeless, there are two main paths to criminalization, and one is debt. Anyone can fall into debt, and although we pride ourselves on the abolition of debtors’ prison, in at least one state, Texas, people who can’t pay fines for things like expired inspection stickers may be made to “sit out their tickets” in jail.
More commonly, the path to prison begins when one of your creditors has a court summons issued for you, which you fail to honor for one reason or another, such as that your address has changed and you never received it. Okay, now you’re in “contempt of the court.”
Or suppose you miss a payment and your car insurance lapses, and then you’re stopped for something like a broken headlight (about $130 for the bulb alone). Now, depending on the state, you may have your car impounded and/or face a steep fine -- again, exposing you to a possible court summons. “There’s just no end to it once the cycle starts,” says Robert Solomon of Yale Law School. “It just keeps accelerating.”
The second -- and by far the most reliable -- way to be criminalized by poverty is to have the wrong color skin. Indignation runs high when a celebrity professor succumbs to racial profiling, but whole communities are effectively “profiled” for the suspicious combination of being both dark-skinned and poor. Flick a cigarette and you’re “littering”; wear the wrong color T-shirt and you’re displaying gang allegiance. Just strolling around in a dodgy neighborhood can mark you as a potential suspect. And don’t get grumpy about it or you could be “resisting arrest.”
In what has become a familiar pattern, the government defunds services that might help the poor while ramping uplaw enforcement. Shut down public housing, then make it acrime to be homeless. Generate no public-sector jobs, thenpenalize people for falling into debt. The experience of thepoor, and especially poor people of color, comes to resemblethat of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administeredelectric shocks. And if you should try to escape thisnightmare reality into a brief, drug-induced high, it’s “gotcha”all over again, because that of course is illegal too.
One result isour staggering level of incarceration, the highest in the world. Today, exactly the same number of Americans -- 2.3 million -- reside in prison as in public housing. And what public housingremains has become ever more prison-like, with randompolice sweeps and, in a growing number of cities, proposeddrug tests for residents. The safety net, or what remains of it,has been transformed into a dragnet.
It is not clear whether economic hard times will finally force us to break the mad cycle of poverty and punishment. With even the official level of poverty increasing -- to over 14% in 2010 -- some states are beginning to ease up on the criminalization of poverty, using alternative sentencing methods, shortening probation, and reducing the number of people locked up for technical violations like missing court appointments. But others, diabolically enough, are tightening the screws: not only increasing the number of “crimes,” but charging prisoners for their room and board, guaranteeing they’ll be released with potentially criminalizing levels of debt.
So what is the solution to the poverty of so many of America’s working people? Ten years ago, when Nickel and Dimed first came out, I often responded with the standard liberal wish list -- a higher minimum wage, universal health care, affordable housing, good schools, reliable public transportation, and all the other things we, uniquely among the developed nations, have neglected to do.
Today, the answer seems both more modest and more challenging: if we want to reduce poverty, we have to stop doing the things that make people poor and keep them that way. Stop underpaying people for the jobs they do. Stop treating working people as potential criminals and let them have the right to organize for better wages and working conditions.
Stop the institutional harassment of those who turn to the government for help or find themselves destitute in the streets. Maybe, as so many Americans seem to believe today, we can’t afford the kinds of public programs that would genuinely alleviate poverty -- though I would argue otherwise. But at least we should decide, as a bare minimum principle, to stop kicking people when they’re down.
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of a number of books, most recently Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. This essay is a shortened version of a new afterword to her bestselling book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, 10th Anniversary Edition, just released by Picador Books.
Excerpted from Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, 10th Anniversary Edition, published August 2nd by Picador USA. New afterword © 2011 by Barbara Ehrenreich. Excerpted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved.
Ehrenreich arrives in Minnesota, hoping to find there a slightly more comfortable environment than what she has so far experienced. It’s a liberal state, with clean air, friendly people, and affordable housing. She picks up her Rent-A-Wreck and is able to shack up for a few days in the apartment of friends of a friend—in exchange for looking after their cockatiel, whom she refers to as “Budgie.”
Next is job-hunting. “No waitressing, nursing homes, or housecleaning this time,” Ehrenreich writes. “I’m psyched for a change.” She applies to a few Wal-Marts, and winds up nabbing an interview at one of them with Roberta, “a bustling platinum-haired woman of sixty or so.” Roberta administers a “survey”, then runs the answers through a machine that “scores” them. As it turns out, a few of Ehrenreich’s answers require further discussion. Ehrenreich, who is used to allowing for “a little wriggle-room” on these sorts of tests, so as to not seem a fake, finds that when “presenting yourself as a potential employee, you can never be too much of a suck-up.”
After scheduling a drug test—which presents a major problem for Ehrenreich, since she has marijuana in her system, from a one-off downtime puff—the journalist heads off to look for more jobs. She winds up closing the deal—“drug screen results, of course, pending”—at a Menards housewares store, where she’s offered a position in plumbing, $8.50 to start. The issue of the drug test is a source of great anxiety. “It rankles—at some deep personal, physical level,” Ehrenreich writes, “to know that the many engaging qualities I believe I have to offer—friendliness, reliability, willingness to learn—can all be trumped by my pee.”
So she decides to detox—or at least to try to. She establishes a program, whereby she drinks water at all times, along with regular diuretic doses, and avoids salt. In the meantime, she goes off to meet the aunt of a friend of hers from New York—a woman named Caroline, who went through a real-life version of the scenario Ehrenreich has been creating for herself, packing up her bags and heading from New York to Florida with no connections and only $1,600 in cash. Caroline’s situation was even more precarious, we learn: she had two children to take care of. How did she do it? She found a church as soon as she arrived in Orlando, thereby found a school for her twelve year-old and day care for her baby, got a job cleaning hotel rooms, and made friends. Caroline tells Ehrenreich the whole story—the anxiety, the onset of diabetes, “bouts of homelessness” and more “interstate travel”, but also a new marriage, new friends, and new foundations.
Ehrenreich shuffles off to her drug tests—the one for Wal-Mart conducted at a nearby chiropractor’s office, the one for Menards conducted in an allopathic hospital in the suburbs. Ehrenreich notes just how long the process is for each workplace—about an hour and forty minutes, including drive and wait time. She muses that it may be one of the functions of workplace drug-testing to “limit worker mobility.” She continues: “Each potential new job requires (1) the application, (2) the interview, and (3) the drug test—which is something to ponder with gasoline running at nearly two dollars a gallon, not to mention what you have to pay for a babysitter.”
While waiting for her drug test results, Ehrenreich looks for some more jobs, attending a group interview for a sales company called Mountain Air—which bills itself as an “‘environmental consulting firm’ offering help to people with asthma and allergies as a ‘free service.’” That said, Ehrenreich finds the interviewer’s emphasis on the “bottom line” refreshing when compared to Wal-Mart’s “unctuous service ethic.” However, after a personal three-minute interview in which she explains that she wants to help asthmatics, she is told there is no job for her: “Maybe it was the residency issue that did me in,” she considers, “though I suspect it was the misplaced hypocrisy.”
Meanwhile, housing is becoming a real problem. Listings are hard to find, vacancy is down, and Ehrenreich is finally compelled to take a spot without fridge or microwave, with “a deranged-looking guy hanging out by the coin-op washer-dryer who follows me with bloodshot blue eyes.”
Ehrenreich passes her drug tests, and is told by Menards and Wal-Mart to show up for orientation. At no point is she actually told she has been hired; that seems to be assumed. At Menards she is told she will be making $10 an hour—an incredible amount. With little intention of actually taking a Wal-Mart position, Ehrenreich goes to their orientation all the same—“in the spirit of caution and inquiry.”
The Wal-Mart orientation is an exhausting eight hours—eight hours stuck in a chair listening to supervisors and managers drone on about what a fantastic place Wal-Mart is and about its “three principles”, which are “respect for the individual, exceeding customers’ expectations, [and] striv[ing] for excellence”. Coupled with the propaganda—Ehrenreich describes the orientation almost as though it were a fascist rally, albeit of a much smaller scale—the rules are laid out: no facial jewelry; earrings must be small; no blue jeans except on Fridays, when you must pay $1 to wear them; no time theft. The prospective employees are given “kindergarten-level tasks”—sticking things on ID cards, spelling their names with punch-out letters—and by the time Ehrenreich drives herself all the way home, she is spent.
She is so spent, in fact, that she considers blowing off Menards the next day; the prospect of an eleven-hour shift seems too daunting. She calls Menards to clear things up, and the implication is that she will not be making as much as $10 an hour after all, and that she will not be receiving overtime. Fed up, Ehrenreich reneges—and so Wal-Mart it is.
Wal-Mart, however, only pays $7 an hour. Ehrenreich reflects on how she wound up in this crutch, unable to bargain her way up. After all, Minneapolis has a tight labor market; surely her labor is in high demand. Part of the answer, she realizes, “lies in the employers’ deft handling of the hiring process.” First you’re an applicant, then you’re an orientee, and gone is the intermediate time during which you know you have been offered the job and can negotiate with the employer as a “free agent.” The drug test “tilts the playing field even further,” Ehrenreich explains, “establishing that you, and not the employer, are the one who has something to prove.” It’s all a way of making sure the employee feels perennially “one down, way down, like a supplicant with her hand stretched out.”
Ehrenreich moves, gets her motel—the Clearview, which she likens to the worst motel in the world. She feels unsafe, exposed. She starts work at Wal-Mart, in what is called “soft-lines”. This, in short, means she deals with clothes—rearranging them, returning misplaced or returned items to their proper racks, zoning individual shirts or dresses. It seems absurdly easy work at first, but quickly proves a challenge, with the cartloads of clothes that must be reckoned with on a minute-by-minute basis. Ellie is her manager, and she actually takes quite a liking to her: “Ellie,” she notes, “must be the apotheosis of ‘servant leadership’ or, in more secular terms, the vaunted ‘feminine’ style of management. She says ‘please’ and ‘thank you’; she doesn’t order, she asks.” Howard, the assistant manager, is another story, and constantly rails about “time theft” (i.e. employees standing around talking to one another). Melissa is a coworker she mentions, who once buys her a sandwich because she has heard that Ehrenreich lives in a motel and only eats fast food, and feels sorry for her; Ehrenreich is overwhelmed by the generosity of this simple gesture.
That may be an example of the workplace inspiring the best in people. The opposite effect gets its due shortly thereafter, when Ehrenreich describes her mounting feelings of hostility. When a short coworker berates her for placing shirts in the wrong spots, Ehrenreich begins to imagine the woman falling from the stepladder she must use to access most items. When Ehrenreich spots a wheelchair-bound employee looking melancholy, she thinks: “At least you get to sit down.”
“This is not me,” she writes, “at least not any version of me I’d like to spend much time with, just as my tiny coworker is probably not usually a bitch.” She reflects on what the workplace has made her, how the “Barb” on her nametag represents a different entity, the person she might have become for good had her father not “managed to climb out of the mines.”
A major problem facing Ehrenreich around this time is the perennial issue of affordable housing. The Clearview Inn is not a sustainable option—especially given that the daily rate has risen to $55 for any additional time. Ehrenreich had hoped to move into the Hopkins Park Plaza, but that itself is not a long-term option either, at $179 a week. The Rainbow supermarket—a potential second job to buttress her income—will not let her work only weekends, so it proves not an option at all.
So what does Ehrenreich turn to? The Comfort Inn—at a whopping $49.95 a night. She knows this model won’t last her long; at her $7-an-hour wage at Wal-Mart, she simply does not have the income to allow it. She cannot even afford buying a clearanced Wal-Mart collared shirt for her uniform at the retailer, and manages to pass by with her bare-necked tee-shirt without notice. She seeks help at the Community Emergency Assistance Program, a charitable agency that proves unable to help her, suggesting Ehrenreich move into a shelter until she has enough income accumulated for first month’s rent on an apartment and loading her with a stack of sugary and decidedly unhealthy food items. (Ehrenreich reflects on the stereotype of the poor “eating habits” of the working class, and how this agency seems to be actively promoting “empty calories”.)
The Comfort Inn is a revelation, with its AC and bolted door, but Ehrenreich recognizes how unsustainable her situation has become. Better-rested because of her improved lodging, she is able to do a better job at work, and finds herself dwelling on the paltry figure she is paid as a wage, and commiserating with other employees on this matter. When she hears news of a hotel workers’ strike in the area, she tries to spread the word, albeit covertly, and the word “union” is constantly on the tip of her tongue. By this point, she knows she will be leaving Wal-Mart soon. With no affordable housing available in the Twin Cities and with no other job prospects on the horizon, Ehrenreich’s working-class narrative is essentially forced to an end.
Once again, Ehrenreich sets her hopes on a new, idealized slice of the country. Once again, those hopes meet with a rude dose of reality. A tone of defensiveness has by now crept into her writing, as though she senses her enterprise is hitting the rocks: “If some enterprising journalist wants to test the low-wage way of life in darkest Idaho or Louisiana, more power to her. Call me gutless, but what I was looking for this time around was a comfortable correspondence between income and rent, a few mild adventures, a soft landing.” At the same time, hitting the rocks is the point. Ehrenreich’s investigation, time and again, demonstrates a central, salient fact: wages are too low in America and rent is too high.
Juxtaposed with the defensiveness is a streak of increased confidence in Ehrenreich’s tone and prose style. Her writing tends at times toward comedy—in the form, some might argue, of mockery of her subjects. Consider, for example, Roberta, the Wal-Mart employee and interviewer with “people skills”. Ehrenreich writes: “She personally read Sam Walton’s book (his autobiography, Made in America) before starting work here and found that the three pillars of Wal-Mart philosophy precisely fit her own, and these are service, excellence (or something like that), and she can’t remember the third.” The joke is clear, but there’s an undeniable trace of condescension in Ehrenreich’s voice—
pointing to a notion she echoes in her interview, i.e. that employees should use discretion when following rules, that otherwise “you might as well have machines doing all the work.” She is once again positing, but through sly comedy this time, a vision of the modern American work-environment as a 1984-style dystopia, a land of automatons and blind followers, of brainwashing and four-hand salutes, where Sam Walton is a prophet and Made in America a Bible. Roberta serves, therefore, as a useful caricature of the willingly (one might even say eagerly) submissive and content low-grade employee.
Add to this Ehrenreich’s swipes at the cockatiel, swing music, and her comic portrayal of the rough-and-tumble Menards’ personality test—“Am I more or less likely than other people to get into fistfights?”—and Ehrenreich’s persona seems to have evolved from the trepidacious, uncertain journalist of the first chapter, venturing into unknown territory, to a jaded, fast-mouthed worker-woman—her own variation of the stereotypical version of the hard-lipped female laborer. Perhaps one becomes what one writes about; author and subject merge here, for the author is the subject. When tonality follows form, what results is faux-autobiographical self-deprecation; the humor does not pierce the act, and thus it rings hollow. Perhaps, of course, that is the point.
By acting, Ehrenreich realizes how much real low-wage workers need to act. She describes the difficulty of the personality tests, how “draining” it is to “look both perky and compliant at the same time, for half an hour or more at a stretch.” She notes that while an applicant needs “to evince ‘initiative,’ [he/she doesn’t] want to come across as someone who might initiate something like a union organizing drive.” Real low-wage workers are not acting out of desire, but out of need; they are required to conform to a certain image, to play the part assigned to them. Isn’t that what a low-wage job is all about, after all? Isn’t that what the whole debilitating idea of “service” connotes? In a footnote, Ehrenreich adds, regarding the subject of drug testing in the workplace, that she suspects “the demeaning effect of drug testing may hold some attraction for employers.”
In other asides, Ehrenreich emphasizes the sense of separation between the low-wage and high-wage worlds; to work at Wal-Mart is to be “Wal-Martian”—as though one might as well be an alien. She also notes the physical dangers of the low-wage world. Her motel makes this clear to her: “Poor women […] really do have more to fear than women who have houses with double locks and alarm systems and husbands and dogs.” She adds: “I must have known this theoretically or at least heard it stated, but now for the first time the lesson takes hold.”
There remains the question of acting within acting, here raising its head in the form of “Wal-Martian” theater. Ehrenreich and the fellow employees may be women outside, but in Wal-Mart they are “ladies”—forbidden to curse or even raise a voice, forced to wear a perpetual mask of “gentility”. Ehrenreich writes: “Give me a few weeks of this and I’ll femme out entirely, my stride will be reduced to a mince, I’ll start tucking my head down to one side.” Such formalist concerns, however, might seem irrelevant in the face of the dire social issues Ehrenreich does address in her prose. In particular, when describing her fruitless quest for affordable housing, she notes that prosperity forces rents upwards, thereby severely restraining the ability of low-wage workers to find shelter they can afford. In other words, it should not be so much a surprise that people are as desperate as Ehrenreich finds herself in the midst of the Clinton-era boom as an obvious correlative: a boom for the upper classes can mean a bust for the lower. It is the opposite of the trickle-down model: instead, prosperity from above crushes the poor.
Stuck (temporarily of course) on the losing end of the equation, Ehrenreich finds herself watching Survivor in her motel one night. “Who are these nutcases who volunteer for an artificially daunting situation in order to entertain millions of strangers with their half-assed efforts to survive?” she asks. Of course, she is rhetorically aiming the question at herself. But consider her word choice: the situation is not “daunting” but “artificially daunting”, the efforts to survive it “half-assed”. Here, Ehrenreich seems—intentionally or not—to be critiquing her own performative stance. Is what she is doing—laptop still in tow, a bank account at her disposal in times of emergency, the tendency to switch cities once one becomes too much to handle—half-assed?
Certainly, her final efforts toward the end of “Selling in Minnesota” bear that mark of complacency. She doesn’t seem to actively look for new jobs, stopping her search after the Rainbow supermarket refuses to grant her a weekends-only gig. One would think that a real working-class woman in Ehrenreich’s situation would essay a few more options before throwing in the towel. And what, exactly, does throwing in the towel mean for a real working-class woman, a woman who is living what Ehrenreich merely acts? Ehrenreich has a safety net; the women into whose shoes she pretends to step do not. To be fair, Ehrenreich notes and concedes all these points, turning inward during these closing pages to question, once again, the legitimacy of her own endeavor. Intriguingly, she seems to posit a possible alternative for her role, a means by which she could be of real use to the low-wage world—namely, as a fomenter of rebellion, a catalyst for revolution, spreading strike news, instilling the word “union” in fellow employees’ minds, and stoking the embers of resentment that are an undeniable feature of Wal-Mart and its workforce.