Barbara Ehrenreich, author of this year’s Williams Reads book Nickel and Dimed, gave a talk in the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance last Thursday evening. During the talk, Ehrenreich discussed the major themes highlighted in her book, including the disconnect between minimum wage and affordable rent and how, through experiential investigation, Ehrenreich navigated this margin.
After some brief commentary on the recent election, Ehrenreich alluded to her past, explaining how, as a single mother of two in the 1970s, she supported herself and her family with freelance writing and small jobs, secondhand clothing and generic brand food. She noted that “getting by” under these circumstances today would be virtually impossible.
“I really, really get upset when I hear people speak disrespectfully of people in poverty,” Ehrenreich said. “There’s the idea that there’s something wrong with poor people … that they are lazy or immoral or promiscuous,” she added, citing a 1996 welfare reform bill that called for a $100 million chastity education program for women in poverty.
To more fully understand the life of poor people today, Ehrenreich followed the advice of a magazine editor and found out what it was like to be poor for herself. She spent the better part of a year working various low-wage jobs and trying to make ends meet each month.
“I had to leave home. I had to find the cheapest place to live … but I was always above the minimum wage,” Ehrenreich noted, indicating that many others are in fact worse off than she was.
The psychological strain of low-wage work was also severe, Ehrenreich said. “The thing that struck me was the constant suspicion of criminal tendencies,” she said, specifically mentioning the requisite drug tests for each job she applied and the interviews that would include personality tests.
She also spoke to the general lack of respect she was shown at work: She recalled conversations with Wal-mart employees whose managers would tell them to punch out for the day even though they “have a lot more work” to do. She noted that “an estimated $106 billion – with a ‘B’ – in wages and other amounts is stolen from workers by employers annually.”
According to Ehrenreich, not only are employees deprived of wages that match their work, but also are they denied basic necessities on the job. “I used to think that bathroom breaks were a human right,” Ehrenreich said, going on to indicate that was not, in fact, the case at many of her workplaces.
Ehrenreich was quick to point out – especially to the crowd at a place of higher education – that “all the jobs I had were mentally challenging,” she said. “A Ph.D doesn’t help with mastering the computer system at a new restaurant you’re working at,” she explained. And when Ehrenreich spent time working in ladies’ wear at Wal-mart, she learned that “everything has to be put away by somebody … The point is that I had to know the exact location of hundreds of items that were rotated every several days.”
“I never used the word ‘unskilled’ to describe anybody’s job,” Ehrenreich said. “Everybody’s job deserves the utmost respect.”
Segueing into a commentary on the disconnect between wages and rent, Ehrenreich told anecdotes involving the living conditions – or lack thereof – of her fellow employees. While many workers took to residential motels, where rents could be paid by the week, Ehrenreich explained that she found these lodgings scarce because “there were families [already] here, with one queen-sized bed [also] functioning as their dining room table.”
And sometimes, she simply couldn’t afford it: “This [lifestyle] was expensive,” Ehrenreich admitted. “[One] motel was $250 a week. That was more than I was making a week at Wal-mart.” Additionally, since she had no kitchen and there were no grocery stores in these low-income neighborhoods, Ehrenreich and others were forced to find meals at convenience stores, an immediately more expensive diet than leftovers and home-cooked meals that require refrigeration. “It is expensive to be poor,” Ehrenreich said.
All the experiences that informed Nickel and Dimed took place before the recession began in 2008, and Ehrenreich speculated that now she likely would have encountered college graduates and even people with Masters and Ph.D degrees competing for low-wage work.
According to Ehrenreich, “We have a society that seems to persecute people for being poor,” as demonstrated by laws in many cities across the nation that literally fine or jail people for poverty or homelessness. In New York City it is illegal to put one’s feet up on a subway seat, and people traveling to and from work have been arrested on-site for this act, Ehrenreich reported. In Sarasota, Fla., it is illegal to “be asleep [in public] and when awakened to state that [one] has no other place to sleep,” Ehrenreich said. In Orlando, it is illegal to share food with the indigent in public, a law that has caused the arrest of many pacifists involved with the organization Food Not Bombs, which distributes free vegan meals in urban areas. In Los Angeles, police can arrest children on the streets during school hours and level truancy fines of up to $250.
Ehrenreich explained that “most of these so-called truants are late to school because the city bus that they ride was full and did not stop for them … I talked to mothers who said, ‘I don’t want to send my children to school because of the risk,’” she said. She also noted that some cities even present the incarcerated with a bill for their time spent in jail after it ends.
Ehrenreich added that according to the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, upwards of 10 million U.S. citizens charged with misdemeanors see jail time or fines averaging between $200 and $500, and 75 percent of this population is made up of poor or indigent individuals.
She cited that 2.3 million Americans reside in prison and roughly the same number reside in public housing. “There’s a pattern here,” she said. “All I am asking is, ‘Could we stop the meanness?’ Stop treating workers like criminals … Stop harassing people for being homeless. In other words, my simple program: Stop kicking people who are already down.”