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INTRODUCTION: Getting Ready
The idea for this book evolved from a lunch meeting with Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper’s during a discussion of future articles. The conversation had drifted to poverty and welfare reform, which, at the time, had thrown approximately 4 million women into the “unskilled” labor market. How were these women, single mothers, going to be able to survive on $6 or $7 an hour? Lapham suggested that someone should initiate an investigative report on the subject—preferably after assuming the lifestyle and experiencing the hardships. That “someone” was to be his lunch partner, Barbara Ehrenreich.
Ehrenreich decided to approach the project in a scientific manner. As such, some ground rules had to be worked out:
- She could not fall back on any skills from her past work or education in her quest for employment.
- She had to take the highest paying job and do her best to hold it.
- She had to find the least expensive shelter that provided safety and privacy.
- To the best of her ability, she had to survive on the income earned from her employment.
Throughout her adventure/experience/investigation, Ehrenreich faithfully attempted to stick by these basic rules although all were bent or broken at particular times.
Ehrenreich’s first problem was how to present herself to potential employers. She solved the issue by describing herself as a divorced homemaker re-entering the job market. She used former housemates and a friend in Key West (her actual home community) as references and confined her education to 3 years of college, listing her real Alma Mater. Amazingly, no one questioned her fiction and only one employer out of a dozen bothered to check her references.
Finally, Ehrenreich set limits as to how much she would endure for the sake of the article or book:
- She would always have a car, a "rent-a-wreck" obtained in each locality.
- She ruled out homelessness as an option. (The idea was to spend a month in each setting, find a job, and earn enough for the next month. If she was paying by the week and ran out of money, she would end the experiment in that particular setting)
- She would not go hungry.
- She would begin with an initial bankroll of $1,500—a cushion totally outside the lifestyle she was about to assume.
Ehrenreich notes that she would be only visiting a world that millions of people live every day—most often for their entire lives. With all her real-life assets, there was no way she could realistically experience poverty in all of its ignoble glory. She acknowledges the undeniable advantages she brought with her: the fact that she was white, spoke English as a native, always had a vehicle, and was in a better state of health than many low-wage workers were.
She wore her usual clothes, make-up and hairstyle, and talked about real children and family relationships, understanding that for all intent and purpose, no matter what the employment, there wasn’t a way to “pretend” these parts of her life.
CHAPTER ONE: Serving in Florida
Ehrenreich began her low-wage life in Key West, Florida, where she actually lived as a writer. Initially, she was afraid someone from her “real” life would recognize her and she would have to explain her project. No one recognized her.
She found her first housing in an economy efficiency 30 miles (or 45 minutes, barring traffic) distant from the employment opportunities of Key West. Ruling out various occupations because of physical limitations or personality, she began filling out applications for jobs in such fields as housekeeping, grocery clerking, and fast food. After 3 days of job searching, one of the big discount hotel chains where she had applied for a housekeeping position contacted her. They inquired if she would be interested in waitressing at the attached family restaurant, which featured “Polish sausage and BBQ sauce.” Ehrenreich accepted and started her new job the next day, working the 2-10 p.m. shift and earning $2.43 per hour, plus tips. She learned that waitressing was not just taking orders and serving customers, but included all the “invisible” work—sweeping, filling condiment containers, or cleaning out the freezer.
Ehrenreich falls into the rhythm of living, leaning how the “other half” survives. She soon realizes that everyone around her is NOT making ends meet. After 2 weeks, she also realizes that she will not be able to meet her financial obligations for the next month. She obtains a second job at an even bigger well-known national restaurant chain that serviced three to four times the clientele as her first job. For two days she almost pulls it off but finds she cannot physically work the two positions. She quits her first job. To conserve her dwindling (and inadequate) finances, she relocates to a small trailer closer to Key West. It is so small that her knees rub against the shower stall when she sits on the toilet.
Ehrenreich, who, up to this point, had mentally and physically immersed herself into her role, suddenly realized she was NOT trapped by circumstances and COULD just walk away without financial consequence. Although she did immediately walk out—leaving behind unfinished work, collectable tips, and final wages—Ehrenreich did suffer consequences. “I had gone into this venture in the spirit of science, to test a mathematical proportion, but somewhere along the line, in the tunnel vision imposed by long shifts and relentless concentration, it became a test of myself, and clearly I have failed.”
CHAPTER TWO: Scrubbing in Maine
Ehrenreich chose Maine for its whiteness. She had once been to the Portland area for a speaking engagement and had noticed the almost total lack people of color—in any walk of life. In addition to the population being primarily white, everyone spoke English (or some New England dialect thereof), and the Portland area employment base seemed anxious for new bodies.
Traveling by bus from Florida, Ehrenreich arrives in Portland August 24, nearly 2000 miles away from everything she is familiar with. Her personal inventory includes a suitcase of clothes, a tote stuffed with toiletries, books, and whatout to be useless hiking boots, and her laptop. She also has $1,000 in cash.
Her first surprise is that there are no low-rent apartments in Portland. Affordable housing seems to be clustered in an area about 30 minutes away. The following day she finds a tiny cottage in Old Orchard Beach for $120 a week—bed/living/kitchen area that includes linen and cable TV. It is now time to find a job.
Due to the ending of the tourist season, waitressing jobs are scarce. Clerical or office work is scrapped due to her wardrobe limitations. She calls about cleaning (both home and office), warehouse and nursing home work, and manufacturing. “It’s humbling, this business of applying for low-wage jobs, consisting as it does of offering yourself—your energy, your smile, your real or faked lifetime of experience—to a series of people for whom this is just not a very interesting package.”
“The main thing I learn from the job-hunting process is that, despite all the help-wanted ads and job fairs, Portland is just another $6-$7-an-hour town.” After two days of applications, employment tests, and interviews, Ehrenreich is offered two positions—a weekend dietary aide position at a nursing home for $7 an hour and a 40 hour per week maid position at $6.65 per hour.
As a former waitress, Ehrenreich assumes the aide position will be old hat—serving up pre-prepared menus and chatting up the residents. What she did not realize is that the residents reserved the right to make off-menu choices and that a dietary aide is not only responsible for serving the meal, but cleaning it up—clearing tables, scraping plates, loading (and re-loading) dishwashers, scrubbing pots, and vacuuming carpets. (Elderly people, along with palsied food loss are also incapable of picking said tossed food up off the floor).
Ehrenreich, having no experience as a professional maid, but having spent a lifetime picking up after other people (i.e. husband and children), is given a uniform (ill-fitting Kelly green pants and “a blinding sunflower-yellow polo shirt”) and the RULES: No smoking. No drinking, eating, or gum chewing. No obscenities. While waiting for her first assignment, Ehrenreich notes “…all but one of the others are female, with an average age I would guess in the late twenties, thought the range seems to go from prom-fresh to well into the Medicare years.”
Freelance maids in the area make an average of $15 an hour. Ehrenreich overhears her new employer telling a prospective client that the service charges $25 per person-hour. Her wage is $6.65 an hour. Some overhead. “..the only advantage of working here as opposed to freelancing is that you don’t need a clientele or even a car. You can arrive straight from welfare or, in my case, the bus station—fresh off the boat.”
The maids sort out into teams of 2 to 3 people and are dispatched to the scheduled houses. There is no guarantee that you will be assigned to the same team or even the same locations from day to day or week to week. The regulars leave (in green and yellow company cars) and Ehrenreich is led into a closet-sized room to learn the trade by videotape. The four tapes explain dusting, bathrooms, kitchens, and vacuuming—each starring an attractive, possibly Hispanic young woman, moving about serenely in obedience to a male voice over.
One video warns against oversoaking rags with cleaning solutions. The manager pauses the tape to point out that there is a danger of undersoaking as well. “Cleaning fluids are less expensive than your time. Good to know that SOMETHING is cheaper than her time.”
Life is never like the movies. The training tapes are all in slow motion. Maids, however, never walk. They run to the cars, run with buckets to doors, run through houses dusting, etc. Lisa, a team leader, explains that the teams are only given so many minutes per house—ranging from under 60 minutes for a 1 ½-bath apartment to 200 or more minutes for a multi-bathroom “first-timer” (a new client).
“How poor are they, my co-workers?” Ehrenreich finds that while no one is homeless, most live with extended families or housemates. There are signs of real misery. Half-smoked cigarettes are returned to the pack. There are discussions about who will come up with 50 cents for the toll and whether a quick reimbursement can be counted on. One teammate, frantic about a painfully impacted wisdom tooth, makes phone calls from the houses, trying to locate free dental care. A scrubber is forgotten at the office and the team cannot put $2.00 together between the four of them to buy one at a convenience store. There are childcare problems, food problems (not enough), rent problems, vehicle problems…a never-ending cycle of sacrificing the solution to one problem to solve another, more desperate, issue.
Ehrenreich rushes home to the cottage at the end of the day, pulls down the blinds for privacy, strips off her uniform in the kitchen—the bathroom is too small—stands in the shower for a good 10 minutes, thinking all this water is MINE! She paid for it. She earned it. Her body is issuing no complaints because she is numb. If she can do one week, she can do another, which is a good thing because she hasn’t any free time to hunt for a different job. She rewards herself with a sunset walk on Old Orchard Beach. Walking back, she encounters a couple of Peruvian musicians playing on a grassy island in the street near the pier. The musicians wink and smile at each other as they play, and Ehrenreich imagines them as the secret emissaries of a worldwide lower-class conspiracy to snatch joy out of degradation and filth.
Ehrenreich initially gloated internally about her ability to keep up with and sometimes outwork women twenty or thirty years younger. One person’s infirmity can be a teammate’s extra burden. “So ours is a world of pain—managed by Excedrin and Advil, compensated for with cigarettes and, in one or two cases, and then only on weekends, with booze.” Her ability to work tirelessly hour after hour is a product of decades of better than average medical care, a high protein diet, and workouts in gyms that charge $400 to $500 a year. She realizes that she hasn’t been working, in any hard physical sense, long enough to have ruined her body. She makes a notation to herself: “Slow down and above all detach. If you can’t stand being around suffering people, than you have no business in the low-wage work world, as a journalist or anything else.”
Maids as an occupational group are not visible, and when they are seen, they are often sorry for it. Ehrenreich’s co-workers agree—maids are looked down upon, if they are seen at all. “We’re nothing to these people. We’re just maids.” Even convenience store clerks, who are $6-an-hour employees themselves, project attitudes of superiority.
Friday arrives. Ehrenreich discovers that, due to the management’s arbitrary decision that the tourist season was not quite over, the rent for her cottage is $200 per week, not the $120 off-season rate. This is complicated by the fact that her first paycheck from the maid service will not be forthcoming until the following Friday. She foresees a lean weekend and begins an investigation into alternative resources for the poor—food pantries and emergency aid.
The first call requires explanations of why she doesn’t have any money if she is employed; of why she did not find housing at a lower cost. Another “assistance” number is proffered. This contact advises Ehrenreich to travel to Biddeford (approximately 20 miles away) between the hours of 9 and 5. What is the assumption that the hungry are free all day to drive around visiting “community action centers” and other charitable organizations? She is given another number, which, upon reaching the new party, is told she is residing in the wrong county and is not eligible. She carefully reiterates her time and geographical constraints, underscoring that she works 7 days a week, 8 hours a day. No cash is offered but a food voucher is available. The choices are limited, however, as to what can be purchased: One box of spaghetti noodles and one jar of spaghetti sauce; or one can of vegetables and one can of baked beans; or one pound hamburger and one box hamburger helper; or a box of Tuna-Helper. No fresh fruit or vegetables, no chicken or cheese, and, oddly, no tuna to help the Helper! For breakfast she is allowed cereal with milk OR juice. Bottom line: $7.02 worth of food acquired in seventy minutes of calling and driving, minus $2.80 for the phone calls.
“If you hump away at menial jobs 360 plus days a year, does some kind of repetitive injury of the spirit set in? I don’t know and I don’t intend to find out. I can guess that one of the symptoms is a bad case of tunnel vision. Work fills the landscape, co-workers swell to the size of family members or serious foes. Slights loom large and a reprimand can reverberate into the night…Work is supposed to save you from being an “outcast”,…but what we do is an outcast’s work, invisible and even disgusting. Janitors, cleaning ladies, ditch diggers, changers of adult diapers—these are the untouchables of a supposedly caste free and democratic society. Or maybe it's low-wage work in general that makes you feel like a pariah.”
CHAPTER THREE: Selling in Minnesota
Despite thoughts of California, Ehrenreich’s next stop is Minnesota. “Don’t ask me why Minneapolis came to mind, maybe I just had a yearning for deciduous trees. It’s a relatively liberal state, I knew that, and more merciful than many to its welfare poor.” In addition, although the labor market was tight, entry-level jobs advertised at $8 or more an hour and studio apartments for $400 or less. “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.”
Allowed a few days respite in the apartment of vacationing friends, Ehrenreich immediately sets out to find a job. “No waitressing, nursing homes, or housecleaning this time; I’m psyched for a change—retail, maybe, or factory work.”
“Friday evening: I’ve been in Minneapolis for just over fifteen hours, driven from the southern suburbs to the northern ones, dropped off a half dozen apps, and undergone two face-to-face interviews. Job searches take their toll, even in the case of totally honest applicants, and I am feeling particularly damaged. The personality tests, for example: the truth is I don’t much care if my fellow workers are getting high in the parking lot or even lifting the occasional retail item, and I certainly wouldn’t snitch if I did. Nor do I believe that management rules by divine right or the undiluted force of superior knowledge, as the “surveys” demand you acknowledge. It whittles you down to lie up to fifty times in the space of the fifteen minutes or so it takes to do a “survey,” even when there is a higher moral purpose to serve. Equally draining is the effort to look both perky and compliant at the same time, for half an hour or more at a stretch, because while you need to evince “initiative,” you don’t want to come across as someone who might initiate something like a union organizing drive. Then there is the threat of the drug tests, hanging over me like a fast-approaching SAT. It rankles—at some deep personal, physical level—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.”
Ehrenreich is eventually hired by both Wal-Mart and Menards (a large-box building supply retailer), passing both the personality and drug tests and enduring their respective new-employee orientations. After discovering that Menards not only back stepped on the initial starting wage of $10 per hour but would demand 11-hour shifts, Ehrenreich opted to accept the Wal-Mart position, despite its lower wage scale. “There’s no intermediate point in the process in which you confront the potential employer as a free agent, entitled to cut your own deal. The intercalation of the drug test between application and hiring tilts the playing field even further, establishing that you, and not the employer, are the one who has something to prove. Even in the tightest labor market…the person who has precious labor to sell can be made to feel one down, way down, like a supplicant with her hand stretched out.”
Job in hand, Ehrenreich puts her energy into housing, a task that, despite her pre-move Internet research, proves daunting. The Internet-quoted median low-income housing rate of $400 or less a month does exist—those particular housing units are just not available in quantity. Several phone calls and apartment inspections later, she reluctantly accepts the fact that she will have to settle for a kitchenless motel room that rents by the week. Room 133 contains a bed, a chair, a chest of drawers, mouse droppings, fresh paint, and a TV fastened to the wall. The single small window does not have a screen and the room has no AC or fan. The curtain is transparent and the door has no bolt.
“Sometime around five in the morning it dawns on me that it’s not just that I’m a wimp. Poor women—perhaps especially single ones and even those who are just temporarily living among the poor for whatever reason—really do have more to fear than women who have houses with double locks and alarm systems and husbands or dogs. I must have known this theoretically or at least heard it stated, but now for the first time, the lesson takes hold…As far as I can tell, the place isn’t a nest of drug-dealers and prostitutes; these are just working people who don’t have the capital to rent a normal apartment. Even the teenagers who worried me at first seem to have mother figures attached to them, probably single mothers I hadn’t seen before because they have to work.”
Ehrenreich maintains her job at Wal-Mart on the 2:00 to 11:00 shift. The work is fast paced and unending. Wal-Mart shoppers, not particularly known for their education or “genteel” status, are notorious for popping something into their cart, deciding against it later in their stroll through the store, and simply unloading it on the rack or shelf (or floor) closest to them. Ehrenreich’s, and nearly every other Wal-Mart employee’s, primary function is to find and return these discards to their proper places.
“Why does anybody put up with the wages we’re paid?” Ehrenreich discovers that most of her co-workers also have second and sometimes third jobs. Don’t they get tired? Nah. It’s what they have always done. She takes the opportunity to ask a co-worker how she lives on $7 an hour. “The answer is that she lives with her grown daughter, who also works, plus the fact that she’s worked here (Wal-Mart) two years, during which her pay has shot up to $7.75 an hour. She counsels patience: it could happen to me.”
After several weeks, Ehrenreich’s natural tendency to question, rebel, and incite change overwhelms her. After being told that employee discounts are not valid for clearanced merchandise, she suggests the need for a union at an associate’s meeting. “…there’s something wrong when you’re not paid enough to buy a Wal-Mart shirt, a clearanced Wal-Mart shirt with a stain on it…Wal-Mart isn’t working for [it’s associates], if the goal is to make a living.”
Suddenly, her whole purpose has changed. Instead of just living as a low-wager, she will put forth an effort to raise the standards. Almost everyone is eager to talk to her and she becomes a walking repository of complaints. No one gets paid overtime at Wal-Mart although there is a lot of pressure to work it (Wal-Mart is currently being sued for forced, unpaid overtime), the health insurance is expensive and the benefits meager. There is frustration over schedules—they are often irregular, which prohibits scheduling a second job, and uncompromising in regards to outside obligations such as weddings, appointments, etc.
And there is always the abysmal wages. “Wal-Mart would rather just keep hiring new people than treating the ones it has decently…Wal-Mart’s appetite for human flesh is insatiable.” Ehrenreich admits she is not totally serious about the union, citing her own reservations about union’s effectiveness. “The truth, which I can’t avoid acknowledging when I’m in those vast, desertlike stretches between afternoon breaks, is that I’m just amusing myself…Someone has to puncture the prevailing fiction that we’re a “family” here, we “associates” and our “servant leaders,” (managers) held together solely by our commitment to the “guests.” (customers) After all, you’d need a lot stronger word than dysfunctional to describe a family where a few people get to eat at the table while the rest—the “associate” and all the dark-skinned seamstresses and factory workers worldwide who make the things we sell—lick up the drippings from the floor: psychotic would be closer to the mark.”
“The first thing I discovered is that no job, no matter how lowly, is truly “unskilled.” Every job Ehrenreich took on during her sojourn as a low-wage worker required concentration, mastery of new terms, techniques, tools, and new skills. None of these things came as easily to her as she previously thought they would. “Whatever my accomplishments in the rest of my life, in the low-wage work world I was a person of average ability—capable of learning the job and also capable of screwing up.”
During the course of her investigation, Ehrenreich realized that just learning to do the job was not really the most important factor. “Each job presents a self-contained social world, with its own personalities, hierarchy, customs, and standards.” Although this is true in any work environment, white or blue collar, Ehrenreich notes that the low-wage worker treads on much thinner ice when dealing with these issues. Misinterpreting the particular social world of a job can have devastating results.
She displayed the traits deemed essential to job readiness: punctuality, cleanliness, cheerfulness, obedience. “These are the qualities that welfare-to-work job-training programs often seek to inculcate, though I suspect that most welfare recipients already possess them, or would if their child care and transportation problems were solved.
Ehrenreich real question to herself was not so much how well she performed her jobs, but how well she succeeded in survival. “In the rhetorical buildup to welfare reform, it was uniformly assumed that a job was the ticket out of poverty and that the only thing holding back welfare recipients was their reluctance to get out and get one.” She notes that despite a few ill-thought extravagances, she was fairly thrifty with her finances. Food was down to a science: “lots of chopped meat, beans, cheese, and noodles”,when she had a kitchen, and fast food when she did not. Her largest failure to balance income against expenses turned out to be housing—usually a factor outside of her control as evinced by the absence of “safe and affordable” housing in Minneapolis. She acknowledges that she came close in Portland, but that it was at the expense of working 7 days a week. Further, her cottage was rented at off-season rates. If she had truly been a low-wage worker, her rent would have increased fourfold the following summer.
“The problem of rents is easy for a noneconomist, even a sparsely educated low-wage worker, to grasp: it’s the market, stupid. When the rich and the poor compete for housing on the open market, the poor don’t stand a chance.” Ehrenreich points out that there seems to be a general complacency about the low-income housing crisis. “The reason for the disconnect between the actual housing nightmare of the poor and “poverty,” (the rate of which has remained static for years) as officially defined, is simple: the official poverty level is still calculated by the archaic method of taking the bare-bones cost of food for a family of a given size and multiplying this number by three. Yet food is relatively inflation-proof, at least compared with rent.”
Ehrenreich goes on to explain that when the market system fails to provide (i.e. housing), it is usually suggested that the government step in to fill the gap as is done with healthcare. She notes that, unfortunately, this has not really happened in any significant way. “It did not escape my attention, as a temporarily low-income person, that the housing subsidy I normally receive in my real life—over $20,000 a year in the form of a mortgage-interest deduction—would have allowed a truly low-income family to live in relative splendor.”
Ehrenreich goes into great detail about low-wages, first arguing against the ‘official’ platform that wages ARE rising by stating that, yes, they are, but not at the percentage rate of increase of the costs of survival. She notes that one of the most obvious reasons for low wages is that employers resist wage increases through mollifying “freebies” (employee discounts, break room donuts, etc.).
“But the resistance of employers only raises a second and ultimately more intractable question: Why isn’t this resistance met by more effective counterpressure from the workers themselves?” Ehrenreich puts forth several explanations:
- Low-wage people without cars are often dependent on others for transportation. A change in job could result in the loss of that transportation.
- Low-wage people are not often well informed about their options. They do not have the luxury of intense research into wages/benefits/future when faced with the loss of a job or even a change in job.
- Many low-wage people, through lack of education or experience, fall into the psychological traps devised by employers. The Maids boss, the only male, exerted a paternalistic kind of power. Wal-Mart employees are made to feel like “associates” through profit sharing plans (after several years service), meetings that are held as “pep rallies”.
- Rules against “gossip” or even “talking” deter the building of personal relationships that may encourage the airing of grievances.
- Those who step out of line often face little, unexplained punishments—schedules changed, assignment to the tasks no one else wants to do, or even termination. “When you enter the low-wage workplace—and many of the medium-wage workplaces as well—you check your civil liberties at the door, leave America and all it supposedly stands for behind, and learn to zip your lips for the duration of the shift.”
Ehrenreich plainly states that most low-wage employers are essentially dictators. “Any dictatorship takes a psychological toll on its subjects. If you are treated as an untrustworthy person—a potential slacker [No talking directives], drug addict [employment drug testing], or thief [personality tests]—you may begin to feel less trustworthy yourself. If you are constantly reminded of your lowly position in the social hierarchy, whether by individual managers or by a plethora of impersonal rules, you begin to accept that unfortunate status…If you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you are actually worth.”
Ehrenreich concludes with a statistic. The Economic Policy Institute, after many studies, declared that a “living wage” was approximately $30,000 a year for a family of one adult and two children. This is not the minimum as it includes health insurance, telephone, and licensed childcare but not such luxuries as restaurant meals, Internet access, cigarettes, or alcohol. The “living wage” works out to be about $14 an hour. Unfortunately, over 60 percent of American workers earn less than that per hour—many less than half.
“It is common, among the nonpoor, to think of poverty as a sustainable condition—austere, perhaps, but they get by somehow, don’t they? They are “always with us.” What is harder for the nonpoor to see is poverty as acute distress: The lunch that consists of Doritos or hot dog rolls, leading to faintness before the end of the shift. The “home” that is also a car or a van. The illness or injury that must be “worked through,” with gritted teeth, because there’s no sick pay or health insurance and the loss of one day’s pay will mean no groceries for the next. These experiences are not part of a sustainable lifestyle, even a lifestyle of chronic deprivation and relentless low-level punishment. They are, by almost any standard of subsistence, emergency situations. And that is how we should see the poverty of so many million of low-wage Americans—as a state of emergency.