Working poor

(this comes from Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, ‘Nickel and Dimed’)

Nickel and Dimed was a journalistic experiment. Barbara Ehrenreich decided to try to see what working low-wage jobs was like by doing it herself. She ended up working in a restaurant, retail (WalMart), in a nursing home, and for a housecleaning service. And writing about all the other things that accompany low-wage work, like stress, budget crises, housing insecurity, etc.

How can we learn about the circumstances of the poor? Especially women, single mothers?

  1. Cling to social theory of some sort (Murray, Wilson, Gans, etc.)
  2. Read the literature and do secondary data analysis (that is, try to learn from the research of others and build some sort of synthesis).
  3. Ask them through surveys, interviews.
  4. Do participant observation. Do what they do. This is what Ehrenreich set out to do, in a limited way.

But why bother? Why not just report on this stuff? Take the average wage, try to figure a budget, do it from the comfort of her office?

Here are some relevant statistics from her book and the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • Wage needed to afford a one-bedroom apartment: $8.89
  • Odds of typical welfare recipient landing an $8.89/hr job: 97 to 1
  • Percent of workforce making less than $8.00/hr (1998): 30%
  • According to BLS: about 15% of below-poverty individuals are ‘working poor’ (this doesn’t include their children)
  • Working poor:
    • are twice as likely to not have finished high school (Oregon is about 12 percentage points below national average)
    • are more likely working in the service sector (at least 1/3 of working poor)
    • are predominantly doing domestic work (especially women)

She had rules as she went about trying to mimic the plight of the working poor:

  1. spend a month at each position she got, see if she could afford the second month’s rent; if she ran out of money, project was over;
  2. locations-stay away from places with lots of immigrants (why? Out of place? What does this say about poor, dirty work?)
  3. kinds of jobs?
    1. Housekeeping
    2. Waitressing
    3. Retail
  4. no falling back on her human capital (assuming low level of job skills, even though she had a PhD in biology and has written several award-winning books)-either in interview process or in applying for work;
  5. would take highest-paying job offered and do her best to hold it;
  6. take cheapest accommodations she could find (accounting for safety, privacy); homelessness was not an option
  7. Describing herself to employers:
    1. divorced homemaker re-entering the workforce after many years
    2. 3 years of college
  8. She would have a car (rent-a-wreck at the least, paid for on her credit card), which set her apart from many co-workers
  9. She would NOT go hungry (among other things this is not good for the writing process);
  10. She wore her usual clothes, talked about her real children, marital status, etc.
    1. Could anyone tell? Maybe, but no one mentioned she was ‘faking’ it-the thing they probably noticed was her inexperience. When she would ‘come out’ at the end of the month, it wasn’t a big deal. The main question she got was ‘does this mean you’re gonna miss work next week?’ As she said though, you can’t ‘fake’ being a waitress, or you get fired because you’re not keeping up.

Obviously there were some key differences between her experience and those in genuine need:

  1. She could leave at any time–might this affect one’s aspirations, goals in life?
  2. There was no desperation (for instance, of having to scrounge money to eat, feed children, find an apartment or be on the streets). It’s always more difficult to find work, seem to be an appealing job candidate, when one is desperate.
  3. She didn’t try to juggle welfare, too. This might have been interesting, and is what single mothers on welfare must do–work if they want the assistance.
  4. She did this during a relative economic boom, which ended near the end of 1999.

Issues faced by working poor

Housing hassles –

  • affordable housing crises (especially in cities)
    • 2/3 of low income families can’t find affordable rental units, and this number is increasing. Why?
    • difficulty of coming up with first/last month’s rent, security deposits
    • long-term motel/hotel residence (what goes with that? Food costs?)–this is extremely expensive housing
    • safety issues (either health issues with the housing-exposed wiring, infestations, raw sewage, or lack of door locks, bad neighborhoods, etc.)
    • In addition, housing situations are often less than desirable (living with relatives, for instance–placing a burden on families versus placing it on the government)
    • at the bottom, homelessnes

Child care

  • Quality can be a problem, especially if one requires state certification
  • Availability is often a problem as well
  • Location (how does this limit the job search?)
  • Absenteeism because of sick children

Non-living wage: working two jobs (Erhrenreich did a bit of this; for some it is necessary). There are many more, obviously–this is what became most apparent to her in a short time (e.g., medical crises, financial crises, other unforeseens ….).


The job:

  • Applying
    • Screening process-the personality tests (sort out the ones too naïve to lie)
    • Drug screening (not a cost-effective investment for employers-doesn’t lower absenteeism, accidents, or turnover)
    • The drug-testing industry may depend on it …
    • There’s often an inconvenience (of getting to testing facilities)
    • Costs (beating drug tests …who can afford it? Is this another example of preying on the poor as a business model?)
  • What are employers looking for?
    • Initiative
    • Presentation
    • Trainability
    • Comformity
  • Disclosure
    • E.g., the WalMart process goes from applicant directly to associate-wages are rarely discussed, not up for negotiation. Asking about wages could be risky. Prospective employees have little if any leverage.
    • Benefits??
  • Cost cutting
    • These jobs generally offer no health benefits, no sick pay (or at least fear of getting fired for using it)
    • No pension, retirement
    • De-skilling of work. This means an employee’s value may not increase over time, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy work.
    • Free labor (at the beginning, end of the day, for instance, or punching out and working more, or no overtime, no breaks during the day)
    • keeping out the labor unions helps keep costs down. How?
    • Low standards of work (e.g., the Maids service engaged in swishing around germs with dirty rags)
    • Customer self-service (fast food restaurants are good at this–getting customers to do free labor)
    • Making employees pay for uniforms, equipment, etc.
  • Employer leverage
    • Depends on how desperate workers are. There are costs to changing jobs (going without a paycheck-often a delay to get first paycheck, risks of losing housing, shortage of food, etc.)
  • Health issues
    • Being sick, working sick
    • Job-induced: Working sick (or with bad backs, joint pain, etc.)
    • hazardous jobs-working fast in a risky setting (e.g., remember the woman who was ‘clumsy’ and burned herself in the grease vat)
  • Corporate ideology
    • indoctrinating workers (WalMart’s 8-hour blitz, ‘associates’ not employees, ‘guests’ not customers, etc.)
    • ‘time theft’–employees are potential thieves (I mean associates. Associates are potential thieves)
    • anti-union–the evils of labor unions are ingrained, anyone talking of organizing is identified quickly.
    • predation on the needy (the Maids service, workers looking for approval from their supervisor, Ted)
    • seeking personal commitment to organization-Citizen WalMart!
  • Management ‘techniques’
    • Divide and conquer-Ted used snitches (looking for slackers, people stealing from the company-in exchange for small perks). Pit people against each other in hopes of small favors.
    • Worker aspirations-there’s always held out a hope of a promotion, raise. Many workers don’t complain because they aspire to be management one day–from a structural perspective, how likely is this?

Some questions:

  • What is the problem?
  • What can workers do? (organize?? You kidding??)
  • Why wasn’t Ehrenreich suspected as different? Why didn’t people seem to care?
  • What do you think about the human capital philosophy?
  • Work and independence, self-sufficiency, responsibility-TANF and 40 hrs
  • Why don’t people rise up (or at least organize?)
  • What does low-wage work to do the spirit?
  • We often say that it’s easier to find a job if you have one-is this so (or a class-based assumption)?
  • What about the assumption that the poor are lazy and unmotivated?
  • Homeless culture and resistance to work ethic