About every thirty years for the last one hundred, a crusading journalist somewhere has gotten the same idea: Abandon the middle-class literary life (for a brief period), get a real job, gain firsthand experience in the underclass, go home and write it up.
Not surprisingly, most practitioners of the genre have been left-wing whistleblowers–notably, Jack London and George Orwell. London’s 1902 book People of the Abyss chronicled the misery of urban and agricultural workers, plus the unemployed, in turn-of-the-century England. “Work as they will,” he discovered, “wage-earners cannot make their future secure. It is all a matter of chance. Everything depends upon the thing happening, the thing about which they can do nothing. Precaution cannot fend it off, nor can wiles evade it.”
Already a renowned writer, London entered this new world of poverty and insecurity “with an attitude of mind which I may best liken to that of an explorer.” Orwell’s expedition, at the time of the Great Depression, followed in London’s footsteps in the same East End neighborhoods, later ending up in Paris. Published in 1933 as an autobiographical novel, Down and Out in Paris and London records the author’s experiences toiling under terrible conditions as a plongeur, or restaurant dishwasher, in the bowels of a great Paris hotel. In both cities, Orwell’s narrator struggles to make ends meet–just like his co-workers and fellow tenement dwellers.
A plongeur is better off than many manual workers, but still, he is no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive; his only holiday is the sack. Except by a lucky chance, he has no escape from this life, save into prison. If plongeurs thought at all, they would strike for better treatment. But they do not think; they have no leisure for it.
T hree decades later, on the eve of the civil rights revolution in the United States, journalist John Howard Griffin was down and out in Dixie. His book, Black Like Me, featured the additional twist of an author trying to cross both class and racial lines. To find out, as a white, what it was like for African-Americans to live and work in the segregated South, the author darkened his skin and traveled about in the guise of what was then called (appropriately enough for Griffin) a “colored” person. Black Like Me had a great impact at the time because of the novelty of the author’s assumed identity and the book’s shocking (for many whites) account of the routine indignities and monstrous injustice of apartheid in America.
It took far less makeup for Barbara Ehrenreich, the well-known socialist and feminist, author and columnist, to “pass” among the mainly white working-class people she met while researching Nickel and Dimed. Between 1998 and 2000, she took jobs as a waitress and hotel maid in Florida, a nursing-home aide and a house cleaner in Maine, and a retail sales clerk in Minnesota. Her trip across the class divide did require that she temporarily leave behind most of the accoutrements of her normal existence–home ownership, social connections, professional status, “the variety and drama of my real, Barbara Ehrenreich life.”
Retaining, as her private safety net, credit cards (to be used only in emergencies) and a series of “Rent-a-Wrecks” to make job-hunting easier, she set out to determine how a person with every advantage of “ethnicity and education, health and motivation” might fare in the “economy’s lower depths” in “a time of exuberant prosperity.”
Her attempt to “match income to expenses” on the $6-$8 an hour wages of the working poor succeeds only briefly, though–and then just barely–in Portland, Maine, where she is able to juggle two jobs at once. Like Orwell living in Left Bank penury in Paris, she quickly becomes obsessed with counting her pennies and staying within a daily budget that does not allow for any splurges or unexpected financial adversity. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of single mothers with children who’ve been dumped into the job market by “welfare reform,” she doesn’t have to worry about finding and paying for childcare while holding down a draining, low-income job (or two). Nevertheless, she ends up being defeated by the same fundamental obstacle they face: Despite much hard work, “many people earn far less than they need to live on.”
“How much is that?” she asks. “The Economic Policy Institute recently reviewed dozens of studies of what constitutes a ‘living wage’ and came up with the figure of $30,000 a year for a family of one adult and two children, which amounts to a wage of $14 an hour.” The problem is that “the majority of American workers, about 60 percent, earn less than $14 an hour,” while 30 percent, according to the EPI, made $8 an hour or less when Ehrenreich joined their ranks in 1998.
At each stop on her low-wage tour, the author tests out local support services for the working poor. Not surprisingly, the things that people need most to make their lives better–health coverage, affordable housing and access to mass transit–aren’t available at the agencies she visits. (Instead, she gets the occasional bag of free groceries, plus referrals for apartment rentals she can’t afford.) She finds that many of her co-workers–particularly those without family support networks–lack sufficient funds for the rental deposits and one month’s advance rent needed to acquire an apartment. As a result, they are forced into overcrowded, ripoff lodging arrangements at seedy residential motels, which charge by the day or week. Even trailer-park living, which Ehrenreich tried in Key West, is now prohibitively expensive in tighter local housing markets. The nation’s widespread deficiencies in public transportation also limit workers’ options about where they can live–and work–if they don’t own a car.
Many low-end employers don’t offer health insurance, of course. Even when they do, workers in places like Wal-Mart often can’t afford the payroll deductions required for family or even individual coverage when their starting pay is only $7 an hour (rising to $7.75 after two years in the Minneapolis store where Ehrenreich worked). The resulting lack of preventive medical and dental care leads to a cycle of daily discomfort and, sometimes, life-threatening deprivation. The work that Ehrenreich describes in painful detail–scrubbing floors, waiting on tables, lifting Alzheimer’s patients–is hard on the body. Years of it breeds myriad aches and pains, injuries and allergic reactions, which, left untreated, become a never-ending source of misery, not to mention missed work, lost income and potentially ruinous bills. As Ehrenreich notes, she held up as well as she did in several of her jobs only because she hadn’t been doing them for long; without her personal history of regular exercise, proper diet and medical care, a woman her age (late 50s) would have been struggling to stay on her feet all day as a Merry Maid or Wal-Mart sales clerk.
What makes Nickel and Dimed so engaging, however, is not its tutorial on the economics and ergonomics of low-wage life and work. Rather, it is the author’s insights into the labor process in the retail and service sectors, and into workplace power relationships. If Wal-Mart had been around in Orwell’s era and he, rather than Ehrenreich, had worked there, he would have written 1984 much sooner. The private empire created by Arkansas billionaire Sam Walton boasts both a Big Brother figure–the late “Mr. Sam” himself–and a work force of “proles” (now 825,000 strong) whose docility, devotion and nonunion status are major corporate preoccupations. Entering this “closed system,” replete with its own “newspeak” and “doublethink,” Ehrenreich discovers that all the workers, like herself, are “associates,” all the customers “guests,” and the store supervisors “servant leaders.”
One of management’s top priorities, she learns, is eradicating “time-theft”–a crime most often committed by associates who violate Wal-Mart’s strictly enforced “no-talk” rule, linger on their smoke breaks or otherwise dally in the never-ending task of stocking, straightening and restocking shelves. Potential malingerers (and others with rebel tendencies) are ferreted out during the prehire process of personality screening and drug testing. Once you’re on the job, close surveillance by “servant leaders” and continuing “education”–via taped messages and training videos featuring Mr. Sam–are a constant feature of company life. To leaven this atmosphere of brainwashing and intimidation, “team meetings” for associates often end with a special “Wal-Mart cheer”–a morale-boosting device personally imported from Japan by the founder himself.
Given the widespread existence of such demeaning conditions and “the dominant corporate miserliness,” why don’t the wretched of this low-wage world revolt? What’s holding them back? Nickel and Dimed offers several explanations for the absence of collective action: high job turn-over among the unskilled, their low self-esteem, the universal fear of being fired for speaking out or challenging management authority and, in some cases, actual workeridentification with corporate values or individual bosses. Even with a background quite different from that of her fellow restaurant workers, Ehrenreich finds herself being affected by the culture of low-wage work in ways that she doesn’t like:
Something new–something loathsome and servile–had infected me, along with the kitchen odors that I could still sniff on my bra when I finally undressed at night. In real life I am moderately brave, but plenty of brave people shed their courage in POW camps, and maybe something similar goes on in the infinitely more congenial milieu of the low-wage American workplace.
In the course of the book, after much buffeting by rude customers, abusive supervisors and unreliable co-workers, a kind of working-class alter ego of the author emerges–the “Barb” of her Wal-Mart ID who “is not exactly the same person as Barbara” (nor as sympathetic):
“Barb” is what I was called as a child, and still by my siblings, and I sense that at some level I’m regressing. Take away the career and the higher education, and maybe what you’re left with is this original Barb, the one who might have ended up working at Wal-Mart for real if her father hadn’t managed to climb out of the mines. So it’s interesting, and more than a little disturbing, to see how Barb turned out–that she’s meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I’d hoped.
The author sounds more like her usual self when, as a house cleaner for Merry Maids–the McDonald’s of its industry–she is forced “to meet the aesthetic standards of the New England bourgeoisie” down on her hands and knees, with a scrub brush. A particularly obnoxious client, the owner of a million-dollar condo on the coast of Maine, takes Ehrenreich into the master bathroom whose marble walls have been “bleeding” onto the brass fixtures–a problem she wants Ehrenreich to address by scrubbing the grouting “extra hard.”
That’s not your marble bleeding, I want to tell her, it’s the worldwide working class–the people who quarried the marble, wove your Persian rugs until they went blind, harvested the apples in your lovely fall-themed dining room centerpiece, smelted the steel for the nails, drove the trucks, put up this building, and now bend and squat and sweat to clean it.
Unable to deliver this political tirade–lest she blow her cover–Ehrenreich instead fantasizes about exacting revenge similar to that witnessed and described so memorably by Orwell in Down and Out (i.e., the disgruntled cook who spat in the soup, the waiters who put their dirty fingers in the gravy, etc.). “All I would have to do,” she muses angrily in a gorgeous country house, “is take one of the E. coli-rich rags that’s been used on the toilets and use it to ‘clean’ the kitchen counters.” No one, she concludes, should be asked to wipe out someone else’s “shit-stained” bathroom bowl or gather up the pubic hairs found in their “shower stalls, bath tubs, jacuzzis, drains, and even, unaccountably, in sinks.”
Ehrenreich has long been a rarity on the left–a radical writer with great wit and a highly accessible style. While often sad and grim, Nickel and Dimed is nevertheless sprinkled with the author’s trademark humor. She is, for example, frequently struck by the oddity of her circumstances. Sitting alone in a cheap motel, eating takeout food after a hard day at Wal-Mart, she watches an episode of Survivor. “Who are these nutcases who would volunteer for an artificially daunting situation in order to entertain millions of strangers with their half-assed efforts to survive? Then I remember where I am and why I am here.”
Half-assed as her attempts to learn unfamiliar jobs may have been–and as funny as she sometimes makes the experience seem–Ehrenreich is still engaged in a serious project. Nickel and Dimed may not be prime-time fare for millions. Yet, hopefully, it will still reach enough readers to expand public awareness of the real-world survival struggles that many Americans faced even before the current economic downturn. If anything, this book should command greater attention now because the life of the working poor–never easy in good times–is about to get harder in ways we’ll never see on “reality TV.”