catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 1, Num 5 :: 2002.11.08 — 2002.11.21


No happy ending for the real working poor

It sounded like a fairy tale bursting forth from a perfect mixture of political and economic genius: the tough welfare reform of 1996 flowed serenely into the economic boom of the late 90s. "Help wanted" signs decorated nearly every mom and pop operation and chain store and former welfare recipients took to the streets in their Sunday best armed with folders full of resumes and sun-shiny smiles ripe for hiring. Returning home to their children at the end of the day with brand spanking new jobs, these former slackers lived happily ever after in well-fed bliss.

Back to Reality
Perhaps this is the view from the top of the economic ladder (curse the truth for being relative), but as Barbara Ehrenreich found out, the view is much different from the bottom. It was in the middle of the economic boom when Eherenreich set out to do some good old-fashioned investigative journalism by joining the ranks of the low-wage workers for a year. Her experiment, begun in 1998 and chronicled in Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, involved seeing if she could manage to eat and pay rent on $6-$7/hour, much as a former welfare recipient is forced to do when the dole runs out.

Ehrenreich admittedly had several advantages. First, she allowed herself a car and start-up capital. Also, she was free of dependents and physically the beneficiary of a lifetime of adequate healthcare. While she planned emergency backup to avoid homelessness and hunger, she also placed several restrictions on herself. She could not fall back on skills related to her education or usual line of work, she had to take the highest paying job offered her, and she had to take the cheapest accommodations she could find (with reasonable amendments for safety). Her experience took her to the cities of Key West, Florida; Portland, Maine; and Minneapolis, Minnesota and through the careers of waitressing, house cleaning, and sales.

I picked up Nickle and Dimed expecting a hard-hitting, shocking analysis of the lives of the working poor that would obsess me with outrage at injustice, ala Jonathan Kozol's account of the inner-city poor. I emerged, however, with a more subtle sense of helplessness and sorrow. This, perhaps, is the ultimate dilemma for the working poor. They quietly live on the edge of poverty, being paid less than they're worth, barely (or not quite) making ends meet, but putting on a happy face for the customers who don't care to know what sacrifices are being made so they can shop, live, and eat in blind, inexpensive comfort. As Ehrenreich writes, "To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else."

The fact that most of the working poor exist under the guise of relatively comfortable middle class Americans does major damage to their justifiable cause. They are less "worthy" of media attention than their severely poor cousins, less visible than urban street people, and serve enough function in the lives of the wealthy to allow the upper twenty percent to think they're doing their housekeepers a favor by creating a low-wage job market. Meanwhile, the working poor endure questionable but unavoidable civil liberties practices on the part of employers and in the form of urine tests, searches, and personality tests. They settle for social lives that paradoxically consist of and are limited by the necessity of whatever job they can get. They try to rent satisfactory quarters, dreading the tight housing markets and tourist seasons that drive prices for "affordable housing" sometimes up to $390 per week.

Ehrenreich survived her tenure in each location, but would not have been successful much longer than she was. "Something is wrong," she writes, "very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow." The threat of changing housing prices, fear of physical injuries that interfere with work, and simple "bad" choices (only "bad" in the unforeseen future) lead to a large percentage of our population living in a constant state of anxiety. "These experiences are not part of a sustainable lifestyle, even a lifestyle of chronic deprivation and relentless low-level punishment," Ehrenreich writes. "They are, by almost any standard of subsistence, emergency situations. And that is how we should view the poverty of so many millions of low-wage Americans—as a state of emergency."

While Ehrenreich's exploration of the world of the working poor produces no overt outrage nor suggests any solutions, Nickle and Dimed does provide much-needed insight into a neglected sub-class; a compelling story with intriguing humor; and appropriate, supportable statistics. Very occasionally, her self-pity smacks of slighted-white-suburban-girl-whining, but for the most part, her struggles are genuine and her investigation is thorough. Lending her book the most authenticity, however, are the stories she tells of those who don't have an ATM card and a professional writer's life to fall back on. For the sake of those full-time workers who live in vans instead of paying $60 a night for a hotel room, who eat plain hotdog buns for lunch, who would rather work an intensely physical job with a broken ankle than not be able to afford groceries—for all of these people, we need to reject the easy and misguided notion of the welfare recipient whose problems would magically disappear if she would just go out and get a job. As Ehrenriech illustrates, getting a job is often just the beginning of more problems.

Guilty Christians
The question that begs answering now is: where do we go from here? Ehrenreich returned to her comfort zone where "sweat is a metaphor for hard work, but seldom its consequence," but she has made a peace offering of her gathered information, wrapped up in a neat, affordable package from your local book store. In true journalistic style, she has done the investigation and the analysis, but has left the job of solving the problem to her readers.

In approaching solutions, people of faith would do well to notice the subversive theme of Christianity in Ehrenreich's book. While she displays a profound respect for the Sermon on the Mount and the example of Christ, she professes atheism and tells of the often antagonistic role played by Christians in the world of the working poor. As a waitress in Key West, her experience is that


the worst [customers], for some reason, are the Visible Christians—like the ten-person table, all jolly and sanctified after Sunday night service, who run me mercilessly and then leave me $1 on a $92 bill. Or the guy with the crucifixion T-shirt (SOMEONE TO LOOK UP TO) who complains that his baked potato is too hard and his iced tea to icy (I cheerfully fix both) and leaves no tip at all. As a general rule, people wearing crosses or WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) buttons look at us disapprovingly no matter what we do, as if they were confusing waitressing with Mary Magdalene?s original profession.


Her other significant encounter with Christianity is in Maine when she attends a tent revival for the sake of free entertainment. For me, the point she makes about this sad "revival" rings with sad truth:


Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.


As she leaves the service early, she is "half expecting to find Jesus out there in the dark, gagged and tethered to a tent pole."

Helping the Happy Ending
I can't begin to guess Ehrenreich's motivation for including this scathing commentary on the state of contemporary Christianity, but the connection between these thoughts and the subject matter of her book should serve as a major kick in the butt to any follower of Christ. We are characteristically stingy, judgmental, self-absorbed jerks who find humanity less compelling than a dollar bill. The challenge to Christians who want to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem is clear and twofold.

First, be visible. For those who aren't into Christian "kitsch," this is more difficult but extremely rewarding. It involves developing sincere relationships, however brief, with waitstaffers, housekeepers, and Wal-Mart employees everywhere by offering pieces of your life in conversation. It involves investing mental and emotional capacities as well as creating a foundation of interaction in which you can expose your faith without the formulaic tract, WWJD? bracelet, or Gideon Bible.

The second part of the challenge follows naturally from the first and that is being a loving servant in the example of the living Christ. Even if you have to choke down a freezer burned Boca burger because the waitstaff seems to have suddenly been taken hostage by the Bennigans mafia, your waiter is still made in the image of God and deserves a good tip. As Dorothy Day says (specifically of an ugly man in her soup kitchen), "For all we know he might be God Himself come here to test us, so let us treat him as an honored guest and look at his face as if it is the most beautiful one we can imagine." At this point, I can't help getting the comical image of God storming back through the doors of heaven, waving a credit receipt showing the measly tip I left after using a coupon and asking for all my condiments on the side.

The tip we leave behind us at a restaurant serves as a good metaphor for the impression we leave behind us in every situation in which we employ the services of another. The amount is an evaluation of the service we received, but at the same time, it evaluates us, our servanthood, our sacrificial love. It can identify us as the middle managers, merely seeking employee compliance and defending the bottom line, or as the low-wage workers, making personal sacrifices for the sake of others.

The person-to-person element of easing the hardships of the working poor is essential, even mandated, but there is also another level on which we can participate. We can encourage compassionate legislation that affects the working poor, like job-training, nation-wide child-care subsidies, a living wage and access to affordable housing and healthcare. Bread for the World is one organization that strives to work for the poor through legislation. They offer loads of information and yearly letter-writing campaigns on various topics. You can find more information at the Bread for the World web site.

Barbara Ehrenreich did her part and now it's time for us to do our parts, even if we are members of the working poor ourselves. Nickle and Dimed is a call to action on all levels of all kinds, from mundane to creative, personal to political, poor to wealthy. We have voices to raise, hands to hold, and more love than we can possibly give in a lifetime. All these together make a beautiful song of praise to the Creator of the universe and make that universe just a little bit better for a single mother, a homeless short order cook, a chronically ill housekeeper, a stranger in this land.

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