"To go from the bottom 20 percent to the top 20 percent is to enter a magical world where needs are met, problems are solved, almost without any intermediate effort. If you want to get somewhere fast, you hail a cab. If your aged parents have grown tiresome or incontinent, you put them away where others will deal with their dirty diapers and dementia. If you are part of the upper-middle class majority that employs a maid or maid service, you return from work to find the house miraculously restored to order - the toilet bowls shit-free and gleaming, the socks that you left on the floor levitated back to their normal dwelling place. Here, sweat is a metaphor for hard work, but seldom its consequence. Hundreds of little things get done, reliably and routinely every day, without anyone's seeming to do them."

Barbara Ehrenreich
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

Title: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America
Author: Barbara Ehrenreich
Publisher: Owl Books, 2001
ISBN: 0-8050-6388-9 (hardcover, 2001); 0-8050-6389-7 (trade paperback, 2002)

The current federal minimum wage is $5.15, set in 1997. The idea behind minimum wage is that it's the lowest possible wage someone can live on, though the definition of "living" is highly subjective, especially if you work for minimum wage in area with a high standard of living, such as New York City, San Francisco, etc.

Barbara Ehrenreich, in 2001, published Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, after having spent a good year working as a low-paid waitress, maid, Walmart worker, and stocker in an old-fashioned journalistic effort to find out if it was possible to make a living on minimum or close to minimum wage. The book will be eye-opening to some reading it or horrifyingly familiar, possibly evoking post traumatic stress disorder flashbacks.

Barbara's goal was simple: to find the highest paying job she could get with no education and work there, seeing if she could survive with a roof over her head. Her one major luxury was that she drove a car to work; out of the assorted six or seven jobs she works, only one job does she mange to eke out a reasonable living. In several cases, she found herself dipping into her real savings when things got bad (as she decided that she would not push her own health and well-being for the sake of a story).

The book is a sobering read, made all the more palpable by the stories she wrote about the co-workers she met and worked with.

We are the invisible world. We have no names. We are "mister", "senora", "miss", or better yet, "hey, you".

On a warm summer day in 1999, after browsing a plethora of campus ads that all seemed to require work study (despite being classified as lower class, I was not eligible for it), I took one of the few jobs that paid cash: campus dining. The reason they paid flat out, instead of resorting to work study, was because with work study, no one would choose to work in campus dining at practically minimum wage ($5.25 an hour), not when you could pick a cushy $13 an hour job filing documents for the better part of the semester.

The ads were sterile, plain block text emphasizing how I could get up to six raises in one year and two free meals a day. I walked into a dining hall, asked to apply, and was given a form. I was hired. My heart sank when I saw the schedule: 5 to 10 PM at night and no flexibility on hours. Still, money was money. It was on campus, I had no car, and there were no other jobs on campus, so I started working.

I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that "hard work" was the secret of success: "Work hard and you'll get ahead" or "it's hard work that got us where we are."

I was assigned to be the fry cook, which meant cooking fries, chicken tenders, fried shrimp, and mozzarella sticks. This was not your sterile environment of McDonalds (yes, sterile!), where all you had to do was drop the damn fryer into the vat of murky oil and press a button to start the timer; this was a more old-fashioned type of deep fryer, where only guesswork and experience would teach you when things were done.

Training in these premises, like all training, was done by coming into work every day and learning not to kill yourself. Fries were done when they achieved a certain hue; mozzarella sticks were done when the tiniest fragment of cheese puffed out from one of its myriad holes; fried shrimp were done when the oil on the surface of the breading stopped bubbling. These were the little things that no amount of telling could teach you, only time and experience. A minute too long in the fryer and mozzarella sticks would explode in a mass of gooey cheese sprawled all over the wire mesh that would require me to pick it out with one greasy gloved (size medium, the only size they stocked and a size too big) hand. Fries could burn, but if you left them to burn, the stock of fries to give to the customers would dwindle and then you'd suddenly be rushing to fill orders.

I worked next to the grill, which might have been some sort of subtle metaphor for hell on earth; if there was a lesson I was supposed to learn, I don't know what it was supposed to be. Dying was an appealing option, except that the floor was so matted with mashed fries and fallen burgers and buns that even dying, too, had its disadvantages. There was always the niggling thought that even if I did die, those at work would simply step over me and continue to work until the shift was over before cleaning me off the floor.

Work technically ended at 10 PM. That meant I had to dump out all the excess fried goods into the trash can, haul the trash out into the garbage dump, take the dirty pans to the dishwasher, clean my area of the excess ice, wipe the glass and metal down until it was shiny (hunting for a clean rag was a job all by itself), drag the filthy matted rubber mats from the floor to hose off, and sweep and mop the floor.

And if you were the poor sod who finished early and extra quickly? That meant you could help clean the plates from the dining room and wipe down the tables, not to mention sweeping the crumbs off the carpeted areas and sweeping and mopping the non-carpeted areas. And if you were somehow done with that as well? Then that meant you could help with the dishwashing.

The work never ended. College kids are by far the filthiest, meanest, most selfish subspecies of humanity. By the time I left, it was usually midnight, maybe 1 AM. God forbid it was the day before inspection, where the discovery of a single cockroach would cause all of us to be fired, on the spot.

I was supposed to be paid 5.25 an hour, but a mistake in the processing put me at 5.15. For an entire year, I pled, begged for the backpay they owed me. They never gave it. The six raises a year was a lie; to get six raises, one would have to put in nearly 60 hours a week. The two meals a day was a blatant, undisputed lie.

At 25 hours a week, I made less than $225 every two weeks after taxes. Being a chemistry major at the time, books cost me nearly $1000 per semester, even used. That meant working 2 months straight just to begin to cover the cost. And there were school supplies, and the $3000 school bill over my head...

No one ever said that you could work hard - harder even than you ever thought possible - and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt.

And yet I took an obscure sort of pride in my work. I had nothing else, did I? No customer thanked me for my work. I was nobody. But I was never late. I did my share of the work, and when the high school kid who worked the salad counter next to me was fired because he got the 16 year old cashier girl pregnant, I took over that station on top of my own, making salad wraps and dishing out hotdogs with cheese and chili and onions. When others took a day off, I helped cover shifts just to keep spoiled college kids fed. We were some sort of club. We went through hell and back and nobody knew it but us.

When you work at a food place, you lose all appetite for the food you make. I had a meal plan in college that I could not get out of and could not get a refund for; I never used it, not once. Sometimes we would take pity on this athlete or that athlete who ran out of meal points early on (as they are wont to do), and pay for it. Just another thing to keep things running.

The "working poor", as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.

Now, the only way to get through this, day by day, is not to bleeding use some Imaginary World to escape to. You’ll mess up an order here or there and then there'll be angry pissed college kids bitching at you about how they wanted chicken tenders, not fucking fried shrimp, they're fucking paying six dollars for this shit... No, rather than drifting away, you shut yourself down and let the non-human part of you do the work and hold your nose from the smell and close your eyes to the sight of grease and stop you from feeling the heat. You let your own hands move of their own volition.

You don't look at a clock, you look at the line that is left to serve.

You don't feel anything when someone chews you out; you stare at them blankly, owlishly, dumbly. It’s easy to say sorry. Sorry, I messed up your order, you gotta wait another five… ten… fifteen more minutes. And then you move on.

I did not say a word when the vegetarians ordered caesar salad wrap, though I knew that the dressing had anchovies. I did not mention to the skinny sorority girls that the salad wrap they ordered had more calories (1200+) than the greasy cheeseburger (900+), as I found out when I idly flipped through the nutritional binder located in a dusty corner of the dining hall.

I never said a damn word to anyone about the bird that flew in one Saturday that hit its head on the steam vent and fell into the deep fryer, unnoticed.

I never skimped when they asked for extra cheese, extra fries, extra mozzarella sticks. I was not doing them a favor, really. They were happy, I didn't have to hear them bitch, the business I worked for would lose a little more money, and they'd die a hell of a lot sooner if they kept up their eating habits.

You don't get angry; the job erodes your emotions. I'd get home at midnight or 1 AM, my shirt reeking of undefinable odors that no amount of Tide or Downey or bleach could take out, no matter how hard I tried. Under the white lights of the dorm bathroom, I'd stare at the mirror and see my cheeks smudged with the powder that the sanitary gloves were dusted in, white and chalky and smelling of baby powder. And there was more of it wedged in my fingernails. Sometimes I'd take a shower; sometimes I'd just strip and go to bed to take a shower the next morning, just too damn exhausted to care how disgusting I felt.

One day in the freezer, I slipped on ice and cut my leg open. I worked for the rest of the shift only to peel off my sweats and find a thin crust of dried blood across my thigh. To this day, I can still see a pale 3 inch line, shiny and smooth, a hint of an uneven surface of skin. I received wounds and gave them; a friend of mine has a burn mark on his elbow, when I walked right into him with a still hot fryer basket. Friendly fire, wounds just from the job - they were one and the same.

And I did all this - just to pay for goddamn textbooks.

When someone works for less pay than she can live on - when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently - then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high.

My job ate away at other parts of my life. When you are treated like shit, you feel like it, too. I never got angry at other people, but neither was I happy. One day bled into another, seamlessly and unremarkably. I never tried to recall what I did at work, and this seeped into other parts of my life; even now it somehow amazes me, vaguely, that I passed chemistry and calculus with good grades. But I cared very little about it; I cared very little for making friends, or going to class, or life just in general, really.

This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time.

And you know the funny thing? I consider myself lucky. I had a choice.

My story, and Ehrenreich's stories, make a very specific point, and it's that you can't say that the poor continually stay poor because they are lazy/over-breeding/living off handouts/stupid/addicted to drugs and/or drink. You also can't say that working hard will change your situation all that much. Ehrenreich wants to point out the fact that you can work hard and still not be able to survive, and that there is a serious problem with the way America is structured that no amount of "handouts" can solve.

You can easily extend her observations into other facets of life. The poor don't vote not entirely because they are lazy/uneducated, but because they have no voice; if they have no voice for their job, why would they believe they have a voice in the way the country is governed? Sickness is a luxury, not an option; and when you're a woman, you can't help but have kids because you can't afford the fees to stay on the pill, pay for the condoms all the time, or get a vasectomy. The 16 year old cashier girl at my job kept her baby because she couldn't afford the $600 abortion fee. So she had her baby.

It's as simple as that.

Sometimes you are born to it, and sometimes you fall into it, but poverty is a trap that is hard to get out of. Low paid jobs generally are mind-numbing, exhausting, even painful work. It is not just your job, but it is your life and a mindset; you work to survive, you survive to work, and everything else is incidental.

On second thought, Barbara Ehrenreich should have titled her book “Why Project Mayhem Would Never Work.”

All those lines in blockquotes: the first line is mine; the rest are quoted from Barbara's book; the last line is from Fight Club.
I am very sad to say that my story is true, including that of the bird.

Some perspective...

While I respect the concept of this book to a point, it has definite flaws.

First and foremost is Barbara Ehrenreich's attitude towards the project. She puts herself on a very, very high horse - her attitude towards her 'coworkers' is condescending to say the least. She feels the need to constantly remind her audience that she doesn't NEED to be doing this, that she's doing it for our benefit (and for SCIENCE!) and thank heaven she's got a good job waiting for her back home. It's extremely irritating, and makes any empathy she seems to feel for her subjects ring hollow.

There's also the fact that she never tells the people she's studying that they're under a microscope. I don't mean to say she should've told them up front (the way Mitchell Duneier did in his excellent Sidewalk - the setup was totally different) but you'd think she'd have the integrity to inform these people what she was doing after she was done with it. She supposedly befriended these people and, I'm guessing, didn't want to hurt their feelings by letting them in on her little secret. It's a bit of a catch-22 - if she informed them they might be hurt, and if she didn't she'd be exploiting them. It seems to me that the first is more intellectually honest - how many psychologists conduct experiments on people and don't TELL them the nature of the experiment when it no longer matters?

I think the reason this book has been such a success (and it is a success - it's still selling steadily after having been in print for close to three years) is that the state of lower-class worker's lives comes as a bit of a shock to middle-class America. Ehrenreich knows this, knows her audience and panders to it. The history of the businesses she works for and their records of dealing with employee complaints is interesting (and hard) information in and of itself; her shock at it is not and is rather unnecessary.

I guess if I were being generous I could say that that's part of the point, that it's difficult to remain neutral when enmeshed in her particular (self-imposed, remember) situation, but that argument comes across as self-aggrandizing and trite. If she had broken down and helped some of the people she was studying instead of simply shaking her head at their situation, I might be able to pull something from the endeavor. As it is, her reaction sits badly with me, like the people who drove with their headlights on during the one year anniversary of September eleventh instead of actually doing something to help.

I believe Ehrenreich's concept was fundamentally flawed - she had to choose between using people the same way their employers do (but again, in the interests of SCIENCE!) to keep her data intact (an impossibility anyway in a situation as biased as hers) or being morally upright and compromising her integrity. She choose to stand up for the data and I find that to be...extremely sad.

I have to laugh - She proved her point in the opposite way than she intended.

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