'Getting by' harder than
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
Lorrie Novosad/The Daily
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
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
"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."