Sunday, May 23, 2010

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

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

In 1998 and 2000 journalist Barbara Ehrenreich investigated the conditions of the working poor by taking a series of low-paying jobs - Walmart employee, waitress, hotel maid, nursing home server - and trying to live off her earnings.

She is successful at landing jobs, sometimes holding two jobs at a time, but unsuccessful in making ends meet, largely because of the cost of housing. Without money for first, last and a security deposit, she ends up, like many low-wage workers, living week to week in motels. Living without access to kitchen or refrigerator also means more reliance on higher-cost pre-prepared food. Notably, she is only trying to support herself whereas some of her co-workers have kids or extended family that they are responsible for and she also does not have any significant health issues. She recounts the huge physical and mental effort of the jobs and the strain and stress of working and living without access to resources.

Particularly interesting is the psychological environment she describes. It starts with the application process as several times she is asked to take personality tests that ask questions about one's disposition toward conformity, respect for authority and identification with the employer over fellow employees. And after passing a drug test she's told to show up for work but the wage hasn't been discussed yet. Then there's the power of approval or disapproval that supervisors hold over the employees.

The most interesting thing for me was the description of her attitude when working as a waitress serving a full room of customers. She realizes that she identifies with the "needs" of the patrons over her own needs. She's not just trying to do the job she's hired to do , but she feels the customers' needs for their ice water, their toast, their entrees, etc. So despite the impossibility of the situation, the unfairness of being expected to serve the whole room, the low pay, etc. she pushes herself and pushes herself.

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