Barbara Ehrenreich reports with compassion and detail on the plight of America’s low-wage workers, whom she joined to research this heartbreaking indictment.
A Painful Journey
In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich joined the working poor. This classic is her report on that experience. As welfare reform was pushing millions of Americans into the workforce, she demonstrated that no one could survive on minimum wage without government assistance. Ehrenreich, then a successful writer and reporter, details working poverty-level jobs for a month each in Florida, Maine and Minnesota.
What you don’t necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you’re actually selling is your life.Barbara Ehrenreich
Ehrenreich reports eloquently on the working poor eating potato chips for dinner and sleeping in fleabag motels, because she did the same. She found that minimum-wage workers can get by only if they don’t fall ill, need dental work or suffer a car wreck. She states that she hopes her reporting raises awareness of how her temporary colleagues toiled in poverty and invisibility.
The New York Times Book Review said, “Barbara Ehrenreich is our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism.” O, The Oprah Magazine found that this reporting marathon is “not only important but transformative in its insistence that we take a long, hard look at the society we live in.”
A small controversy ensued over the book’s cover photo, which initially featured a waitress photographed for Fortune magazine. She sued the publishers for using her likeness without her permission and later settled.
Ehrenreich vowed she would not rely on her professional abilities during her reporting venture into low-skill jobs. She would accept the best-paying job she could find and work to keep it. She would live in the cheapest, safe places. Ehrenreich explains that she pretended to be a divorcee returning to the workforce after many years.
If I am now a productive fake member of the working class, it’s because I haven’t been working, in any hard physical sense, long enough to have ruined my body.
However, she wasn’t willing to be homeless, unsafe or without food. She carried a cash reserve and admits that she would have used her ATM card in an emergency.
Starting in Florida
Ehrenreich began in Key West, Florida, where she took a job as a waitress making $2.43 an hour (in 1998) plus tips, working from 2 pm to 10 pm. She details the day to day, moment to moment grind of waitressing and shows surprising compassion for her customers. Her descriptions of waitressing offer few revelations and some readers may find them overly detailed.
Ehrenreich’s saga grows more compelling as she describes her co-workers’ housing issues. One waitress pays an unaffordable $60 a night for a motel room because she has no car and must walk to the restaurant. Another waitress lives in her van in a parking lot.
Ehrenreich makes it clear that many workers – who lack access to a kitchen – live on unhealthy fast food. Unaffordable health insurance forces them to forego routine medical care. Ehrenreich tells of working 14-hour days, and popping generic ibuprofen for back spasms.
The idea is to make myself look like someone who’s spent the night in a regular home with a kitchen, and a washer and dryer, not like someone who’s borderline homeless.Barbara Ehrenreich
She takes a second job as a hotel housekeeper at $6.10 an hour. After a manager chastises her for getting an order wrong, Ehrenreich does something which, as she makes clear, her co-workers can’t afford to do: She quits (and tells her co-workers about her real job). Next stop: Portland, Maine.
In Portland, with $1,000 in her pocket, Ehrenreich fills out multiple job applications for poverty-level pay, and decides she must again work two jobs. At this point, something in the narrative changes, and you may start to feel a powerful, oppressive tension as you hope for something to work out for the author. You may find yourself forgetting that she has options. This is Ehrenreich’s art: as you worry for her, you worry for all minimum wage workers.
Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health…who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. Barbara Ehrenreich
A cleaning service hires Ehrenreich and orders her not to smoke, eat, drink, chew gum or curse on the job. In an hilarious section, Ehrenreich conveys the true nature of the job: Make each house neat and appealing; getting it actually clean is not a priority
Ehrenreich discovers that society finds little redeeming value in those who scrub toilets. Homeowners look down on them. Other minimum-wage earners, like convenience store clerks, barely acknowledge their presence.
A month later, Ehrenreich moved to Minneapolis, where she filled out job applications at two Wal-Marts and found motel rooms from $200 to $295 weekly. She takes a second-floor room – no refrigerator or microwave – at a rundown motel and attends orientation meetings at Wal-Mart.
Is there help for the hardworking poor? Yes, but it takes a determined and not too terribly poor person to find it.Barbara Ehrenreich
Wal-Mart, as Ehrenreich describes with antipathy from her perspective years later, promotes a “We are family” philosophy and rails against organized labor. Employees can wear blue jeans on Fridays – if they pay $1. She earns $7 an hour while paying $245 cash for a week in a room with mouse droppings, one light bulb, no fan or air conditioning, no bolt on the door, and a small, screenless window with a flimsy, see-through curtain.
Ehrenreich’s theme is that consumer society denigrates poor people, no matter how hard they work. She concludes that wages remain woefully inadequate; that employers will fight wage increases to the death; that minimum-wage workers suffer economic illiteracy; and that society must assume responsibility for relying on the poor’s unpaid labor.
From the Frontline
Ehrenreich is an experienced, best-selling, gifted writer with keen perceptions and a wry sense of humor. She’s unafraid to shed light on herself, her fears and whether she ever worked a rotten gig in high school. The first section of the book seems over-reported, but as her tale goes on, the author wisely focuses less on her discomfort and more on her disbelief at what her co-workers suffer. She slowly accepts that their miserable reality will likely never change.
Turning this around is the work of a lifetime, at least. Barbara Ehrenreich
Ehrenreich shifts tones, perhaps unconsciously, and fully vests in her colleagues’ suffering, hopelessness, poor health, work habits and sense of being completely left behind. From that point to the end of the book, Ehrenreich’s co-workers’ lives take center stage. Their heartbreaking and terrifying stories are cautionary tales of the inequality of American economic life.
Barbara Ehrenreich’s other books include Natural Causes, Witches, Midwives & Nurses, Had I Known, Bright-Sided, Dancing in the Streets and Fear of Falling. Other worthwhile explorations of working poverty in America include Stephanie Land’s Maid, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted and Adam Shephard’s Scratch Beginnings.