Friday, September 7, 2001 Volume 67, Issue 12


'Getting by' harder than it looks

By Koroush Ghanean
Daily Cougar Staff

Many people have worked minimum wage jobs, but few have actually gone out specifically to get one. That is precisely what author Barbara
Ehrenreich set out to do one her two-year study of minimum wage work.

Her findings can be found in her new book entitled Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. Over the two years, she worked many
"unskilled" labor jobs and stayed in the cheapest lodgings possible to see if a person can really live on a minimum wage salary.

Lorrie Novosad/The Daily Cougar

Author Barbara Ehrenreich discusses her two-year mission to explore the blue-collar world at Houston's Brazos Bookstore Wednesday night.

Ehrenreich read from her book and took questions from an audience last night at Houston's Brazos Bookstore.

"A lot of this book is about the work. It is about the day-to-day experience," Ehrenreich said. "Like trying to find a place to live, trying to find a job and
trying to master the job so you won't get fired."

In the two years she put herself through these experiences, Ehrenreich moved from city to city seeing if any one city was better than any other.

"I didn't go to places like San Francisco because I thought the prices for housing would be too high," she said. "What surprised me was that the price
for housing was still too high in less glamorous cities like [Minneapolis, Minn., and St. Louis, Mo.]. That came as a shock."

To survive, Ehrenreich held many different jobs from waitress to cleaning woman, even enduring a stint as a Wal-Mart sales clerk.

"I will never refer to any job as 'unskilled labor' anymore," she said. "Every job, especially the minimum wage jobs, requires skill. In fact, the minimum
skill jobs were some of the hardest jobs I have ever had."

The hardest position Ehrenreich had was easily that of a maid.

"This was by far the most physically punishing job that I took part in," she said. "I never even knew jobs like these existed, but I signed up for one
when I found it."

The maid service she worked for had her do everything from cleaning windows to scrubbing the floor on her hands and knees. The job would not
even allow the drinking of fluids while in a house.

"I am not a stranger to sweat in large quantities," Ehrenreich said. "But at least I would always be able to replenish with water afterwards."

What Ehrenreich really discovered in her journey through the "lower-class" world was that everything is not as easy as society makes it seem.

"I grew up on blue-collar ethics," she said. "You work hard, work hard, work hard and you would be OK. But I was working harder than I had ever
worked in my life and I saw that I was getting nowhere at all."

Working in the minimum-wage world exposed Ehrenreich to many things that truly shocked her, including co-workers who did not have homes and
those who did not eat enough.

"My middle-class mentality told me that when I see someone eating a bag of chips for lunch, or just skipping lunch completely, they were just on a
diet," she said. "Later I realized that the reason they didn't eat lunch was that they couldn't afford it. To the people I was working with, a pizza would
be considered a luxury because they simply didn't have the money to afford it."

To Ehrenreich, this was not right. The conditions she saw were truly appalling to her, she said.

"We are really not only in an economic crisis, but a moral crisis," she said. "Statistics that were taken by the 2000 census show that 29 percent of
Americans are not making enough money to support themselves."

She said that the best thing anyone can do is get involved at a grassroots level.

"The subjects of poverty and wealth have gotten off the agenda of politicians," Ehrenreich said. "We need to get them back. We need to get involved
in activist groups that are trying to do something with these issues, and we can't be in denial in of the existence of poverty. We need to fix this."

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