I caught myself ranting about the problems with the minimum wage today as I rode in the car with my father. I've always had problems with the minimum wage, being a good bleeding heart liberal, but for a variety of reasons the issue has been on my mind a lot lately, and Barbara Ehrenreich just reinforced my sense of injustice when it comes to how much we1 pay people to do the work that we think of as beneath us: maids, customer service clerks, waiters. These are people who exist to take care of our basic needs when we can't (or don't want to) do it ourselves. They're paid to clean our homes, to make us feel important, to be nice to us, to feed us — and essentially, their careers often impede their own ability to meet those needs for themselves and their families.
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America was released in 2001 and received a fair amount of fanfare for its examinations of these issues. The basic premise sends Barbara Ehrenreich, a PhD-holding professional writer, to spend a month in each of three different cities, where she would work the kind of job that people entering the workforce post-welfare reform would be likely to get. The book chronicles the difficulties and demeaning moments in the jobs themselves, in finding affordable housing and in generally trying to exist on minimum wage.
Ehrenreich winds up working as a maid, a waitress, a housekeeper and a Wal-Mart associate. At one point, she is working seven days a week; at another, she briefly works two consecutive shifts in the course of a day. Whether these choices would be something that could be maintained for longer than a month is an unspoken question.
If you hump away at menial jobs 360-plus days a year, does some kind of repetitive injury of the spirit set in?
Ehrenreich herself doesn't manage to keep up with the double shifts, but the people whose lives she is emulating don't necessarily have the luxury of choice. We are reminded of the advantages Ehrenreich has that simply don't exist for her temporary colleagues. After a particularly bad day at work near the end of a month's stint, for example, Ehrenreich simply walks out.
And the surprising thing is that you can walk out without permission, that the door opens, that the thick tropical night air parts to let me pass, that my car is still parked where I left it...I had gone into this venture in the spirit of science, to test a mathematical proposition, but somewhere along the line, in the tunnel vision imposed by long shifts and relentless concentration, it became a test of myself, and clearly I have failed.
Of course, if walking out means that your children and you will have no home, the opening of the door, the parting of the air, are not going to be the items that you worry about.