DOASKDOTELL BOOK REVIEWs of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed; Bait and Switch; Peter Uchitelle: The Disposable American: Layoffs and their Consequences; Beth Shulman: The Betrayal or Work ; Adam Shepard: Scratch Beginnings.




Author (or Editor): Ehrenreich, Barbara A.

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

Fiction? Anthology?  

Publisher: Henry Holt (Owl)

Date: 2001

ISBN:  0-8050-6389-7

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound

Relevance to HPPUB:  the workplace, fairness, meritocgracy


Author, scientist and jorunalist Barbara Ehrenreich, complete with the pride of her career and Ph. D. in Biology, went underground and lived a minimum wage life in several states to find out if people really can fairly be expected to “make it” on their own. The specific context for her journalism project was, of course, welfare reform: the laws sweeping most states forcing people (most notably single mothers) off of welfare after five years to go back to work. But there is a broader context regarding social justice in a competitive meritocracy that is quite disturbing indeed.

She tried various jobs—waitressing, cleaning, minimum wage retailing—in some states such as Florida, Maine, and Minnesota, and at the same time attempted to live on the minimum wage by living in substandard housing such as trailer parks and shared rooms. Consistently, she found that she was treated with suspicion by all employers, with their “survey” personality tests, drug screening, suspicion of theft, draconian rules about “gossip” and even bathroom breaks. And not surprisingly, she could not find acceptable housing on her own, a situation that could not work for families or single mothers.

There is a bigger context to all of this than just welfare reform.  Here is a hint:

“But guilt doesn’t go anywhere near far enough: the appropriate emotion is shame—shame at our own dependency, in this case, on the underpaid labor of others.” (P. 201).

I used to hear this all the time from the far left in my young adulthood, that even the middle class, not just the rich, consisted of parasites who lived off the toil of others. What seems scary, then, during this time of war, recession, corporate scandals, the loss of wealth, and endless layoffs is falling out of the middle class into the poverty class and living out the rest of one’s life in some kind of servitude without much self respect. As Ehrenreich points out, these jobs all require extreme regimentation, that many “spoiled” middle class and upper class people could not survive. (She points out the aerobic demands of cleaning jobs and the mental concentration and memorization of retail—she felt like she had “Alzheimer’s” while she has a Ph. D!) Yet, it does seem that the poverty trap does extend much more to those with specific problems beyond just job loss. The problems include lack of English skills, alcoholism or drug dependency, mental illness, and sometimes physical unattractiveness and handicap.  The American paradigm is tell “fending for yourself” and finding one’s special talents to bootstrap oneself out of the cellar. But the merciless fact of logic is that, in a free society of “personal responsibility” where there are winners, there will also be losers.

There is a lot of discussion these days as “good” jobs, especially in information technology, are outsourced to lower wage areas of the world.  At the outset, American workers are now competing with workers in part of the world where there is less individual freedom and lower standards for employers in the workplace. Yes, as a matter of principle, there should be minimum working conditions standards in countries when we buy goods and services from companies that operate in those countries. Imagine a time machine taking you to America before 1861 if you could “outsource” work to slaves in the South!

But it’s time to stop whining about outsourcing! People used to moderate affluence and professional working conditions may find themselves having to start over in the “low wage” world, and accepting its regimentation (wearing uniforms, graveyard shifts, time-clocks) or wind up homeless, without health care and possibly dying prematurely and being unable to provide for a previously established family. This is a kind of “free market” cultural revolution. Perhaps, besides labor unions, the answer to improving working conditions at the low-wage end is to induce more formerly middle class people to work in this world (and a few executives, too!). Politicians are unwilling to talk about it with complete candor, especially conservatives. It is very brutal!  Individuals are told that they are personally responsible for their own competitiveness in a global marketplace, where people around the world have it much worse. The fact is that anyone caught in this situation is facing competition for his standard of living from other parts of the world that is becoming increasingly resourceful and indignant. In the long run, exportation of jobs this way does raise living standards worldwide by reducing costs for everyone. If I buy inexpensive garments or electronics from overseas, if I take advantage of low-cost technology to promote my writing, I have to face the other side of this. In the long run, everyone has to get used to the idea of “paying your dues” to benefit from global efficiency, and some people will be dropped in the ditch along the way if they can’t compete as individuals as others take away their opportunities (even as the total pot grows slowly).  It’s really always been that way. Remember how it was in the days of Vietnam, what happened if you couldn’t compete in academics. 

Of course, politically we have to be conscious of the ethics and human rights records of societies that we trade with (and export jobs to). And people have a right to bargain collectively for their jobs, pay, and working conditions. But union activism (possibly leading to calls for protectionism) needs to be balanced by employee education, professionalism, ability to keep up with technology, and downward competency expectations. And even all of this is a two-way street.

The January 2004 The American Prospect has a detailed account of the low-wage problem, “Can We Give America a Raise?: The problem of low-wage work” with contributions by Christopher Jencks, William Serrin, Harold Meyerson (on Wal-Mart), Merrill Goozner, Ayelish McGarvey, Matthew Yglesias, Joan FitzGerald, and Robert Kuttner.

On April 1, 2004 Jim Lehrer NewsHour on PBS, author David Shipler discussed his book The Working Poor: Invisible in America (February, 2004, Knopf, ISBN 0375408908). One of his points is that underpaid low-wage work artificially elevates living standards for middle class and upper class Americans, and that corporations who pay low wages and benefits are getting “corporate welfare” from government who supplement care for the working poor. Furthermore, the lack of medical care, poor diet, and other problems hamper the ability of low wage workers to move up in a meritocratic society. Again, there is a temptation to bring on the “pay your dues” type of thinking.

On Good Friday, April 14, 2006, Oprah Winfrey had a segment (on ABC) on what it is like to live on a minimum wage. Morgan Spurlock, from Supersize Me, and a girl friend participated in a thirty day experiment in Chicago, where they went to temp services for day labor and were not allowed bank accounts or credit cards. They found a run down garden apartment for $325 a month. Both had medical emergencies. Then they showed a working single mother living in a homeless shelter, sharing a shower with twenty other people. The single mother kept the child rather than put her in foster care. This was all definitely a “paycheck to paycheck” existence in which it was easy to fall into the hole. Then, Ophrah showed “raising a family of six on $9 an hour.” The examples pointed out that hospital nurses aides, medical emergency technicians, and nursing home and day care attendants make very little, as do teachers’ aides. Sometimes these jobs involve giving custodial care and are jobs that no one wants and may be held by illegal immigrants. Teachers’ aides and public health attendants sometimes provide personal care to retarded students. One minimum wage worker at age 22 had four kids already.    

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (2005, Henry Holt: Metropolitan, New York, ISBN 0805076969) is Ehrenreich’s sequel, this time about downward mobility in the middle class, in the face of corporate downsizings and buyouts, and especially offshoring, all motivated by short-term thinking and investor capitalism. 

Here, Ehrenreich posed as a job seeker, looking for a communications job with a major corporation, perhaps a pharmaceutical company or a hospital chain. She went through the outplacement and headhunter companies, the boot camps, the networking, some of it even “faith based.” She took the personality tests. Not to her surprise but perhaps her chagrin, she found all of this conducted in very bad faith. Plenty of career consultants were all too happy to collect thousands of (fake) dollars from her for all kinds of advice ranging from resumes to interview styles to dress and appearance. The corporate world seem to be like a popover appetizer for dinner—a lot of air and not too much substance. The recruiting practices seemed not to even make real business sense.

Particularly disturbing is the intellectual dishonesty of the endeavors. Barbara, after characterizing herself as a writer, early on distinguishes between journalism, which is supposed to be objective and faithful to the truth, and public relations, in which one is paid to announce the company line.  Toward the end of the book she characterizes what companies seem to be looking for, as “passion,” a willingness and eagerness to put the company’s aims above all else.

I have encountered some of this since my own “retirement” at the end of 2001. I went through the outplacement companies and interviews that ended in sudden disappointment. Trying to tack on to I.T., I encountered a system where people move to distant cities for W-2 contracts with no benefits, and where very specific technical matches are required for the job. But, because of my twelve years in insurance, I have also been approached at least twice to become financial planning advisor and life insurance agent. One company would have paid for all my training but would have prohibited my having any outside income (even when all of my income would come from commissions), an arrangement which would prevent my pursuing attempts to sell my own writing. They said this was required by securities law but I suspect they wanted my soul.

Ehrenreich talks about some of these Faustian deals, as she found a couple of these “jobs” herself toward the end of her search. She recommends much more political and social solidarity among the middle class, whose members have gotten used to competing with each other individually as a kind of social Darwinism exercise. She also mentions Chaiman Mao’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, where professionals and intellectuals were forced to toil in the countryside as a kind of political purification brought on by their having been “parasites” on the manual labor of others.

This last point seems relevant to me. When I worked as an individual contributor in information technology, with no direct reports or public visibility or sales culture, I still made six or seven times what minimum wage workers get, with good benefits. Of course, too, we have outsourced out dirty work to near slave-like conditions overseas. The “decadent middle class” offers a personal moral hazard; executives can tap our moral vulnerability. I sensed this in the late 1980s when (my career seemingly threatened by leveraged buyouts and hostile takeovers) I would work so much unpaid overtime to keep my own systems perfect, because weaker programmers were already falling out. I got a break in the 1990s partly because of the Internet and partly because Y2K concerns kept my skills in demand until after the millennium turn.

I would find myself, while making myself indispensable in a world of numbers and dumps, working alone, drifting away from socialization and meeting the needs of others, in order to enjoy a relatively sheltered, comfortable lifestyle. Even I could make enemies this way. Things changed after 9/11 for me. What is needed to get the social justice that Ehrenreich seeks through political solidarity is a way to hold every individual person accountable for any advantages he or she had, by expecting the sharing of burdens in an individual way. This is the “pay your dues” philosophy. It would seem that Ehrenreich missed the opportunity to argue along this subtle path.

Two more recent books in this area are:

Uchitelle, Peter. The Disposable American: Layoffs and their Consequences. New York: Knopf, 2002. A portion was printed in The New York Times business section, March 26, 2005, “Retraining Laid-Off Workers, But for What?” Bibliography: New York: Knopf, 2006. ISBN 1-4000-4117-1, 283 pages incl. endnotes and index, hardcover.

This book contains a lot of detailed anecdotes that trace the history of job market stability since the depression era. In the 1970s, during the period of stagflation and oil shocks, a new kind of economic warfare started that again pitted capital against people. At least, that’s the typical left wing perspective. The book rambles, but it hits hard a few points. Most of all, on page 7:

“The new economic theory, making each worker responsible for his or her own job security, interacted fatally with actual layoff experience. Layoffs, we are told, do not happen to people who improve their skills and are flexible, innovative, congenial, and hardworking. The layoff says you have failed in those endeavors, no matter how hard you tried to follow the prescription.”

The author proceeds to present many case histories of individuals with at best dubious success in getting back on their feet, both in blue collar and white collar areas. He maintains that there are not enough high-paying jobs to go around for the highly educated or well-trained. He views early retirements as hidden layoffs, as are the ends of W-2 contracts, common in information technology. He mentions a lot of interesting details, such as outplacement firms like Right Management and also the idea that sometimes older people engineer their own layoffs to increase their severance and start over.

He does make some progressive recommendations toward the end of the book. Particularly, employers (even privately held ones) should be required to provide detailed labor accounting of their hiring. Minimum wages should rise, as should the progressivity of the income tax over certain levels (now $150000). I do like the idea of the detailed labor accounting, because having the information on the table will help people figure out what is really going on.

I went thirty years (from 1971 to 2001) without another layoff, after one layoff in early 1971, but my “retirement” was terminal was far as a conventional IT career was concerned. I did make a few prophylactic resignations, and a couple of them may have been questionable. (One consulting company that I left in 1990 turned around and did very well later after Clinton tried to sell his health care plan.)

In information technology, there is a tendency for employers to look for contractors to fit very specific short-term needs. Candidates must match a list of requirements exactly to get a position. Some of this “objectivity” is motivated by discrimination laws. But systems could be developed to match these employer requirements to school and outplacement training resources in much more detail than in the past.

My perspective on this is mixed, with layers of subtlety. For example, if you have a career as an analyst or technical person say, in life insurance, you may find that people will pressure to consider selling insurance post “retirement.”  It’s attractive to push people into jobs that pay by commission only, because they are easy to budget. But many “content oriented” people (myself included) are not temperamentally suited  to “peddle” other people’s products and services by manipulating the demand of others. This can create issues if someone is drawing unemployment.

There are philosophical issues to consider, also, when people invest their own resources to start business or pursue their own dreams (let’s say, making a movie). The same forces that drive conventional jobs overseas do make possible opportunities for “average people” not imagined in the past. A person’s presence on the Internet can also affect his or her employability, depending on what career is desired; this is another problem showing up with social networking sites and students, and employers checking people with Google.

Beth Shulman: The Betrayal of Work: How Low Paid Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans (New York: The New Press, 2005, ISBN 1-56584-735-4), 254 pgs, soft, 5 x 8, index, endnotes, text ends at p 184). Ms. Shulman gives a somewhat telescoped, textbook exposition and development of the low-wage issue, without the personal perspective of the Ehrenreich books, and it seems a bit partisan, perhaps. She does explain how we have allowed our standard of living to depend on the underrewarded labor of many jobs: janitor, hostel domestic, fast-food worker, call center rep, convenience store clerk, poultry factory, day care worker and nursing home attendant. She makes a good point of the fact that before 9/11, we had auctioned our airline security off to the lowest bidders with our “market” solutions.

One background trend, not always clear when dealing with specific issues, is that employers had tended to offload their costs onto employees. Employers maintain that they can offer more jobs if they do not have to pay benefits (indeed, the benefits came into being in a time when there was a big demand for workers). They could sometimes avoid layoffs by paying only commissions or “piece work.” We saw this argument in the 1990s. Sales jobs are always easier to budget than true “production.”

The underlying question is: to what extent is this a political issue, and when it is a personal morality issue?  One obvious issue is illegal immigration: it is easier to allow it and have a caste society. Another is the rise and fall of labor unions, and their lack of effectiveness. Still another is globalization and competition with cheap labor overseas—which starts to invoke the personal moral question since consumers take advantage of these products. Another would tie to other political debates, such as universal health care.  She starts her last chapter with a “Compact with Working Americans.”

But it is not possible to propose political solutions without hidden invocation of the issues of personal and particularly family responsibility.  Ideas like the Dependent Care Tax Credit and proposals for paid family leave all would result in persons without children making more financial sacrifices to help those with children. At a couple points, the author grazes by the “family wage” issue (she calls it the “family supporting wage”).  One problem is that increasing regulation to protect workers could interfere with small business or with entrepreneurs. In some scenarios, I might no longer have the freedom to run this website. The other way that her discussion grazes on personal accountability is her criticism of depending on volunteerism. The Bush administration has indeed pushed faith-based volunteer initiatives, has encourage individuals to get involved in mentoring low-income children (not necessarily a good idea for everyone, and based on some naïve assumptions). Hurricane Katrina resulted in enormous calls for volunteerism, for individuals to spend weeks in the Gulf or to take in displaced persons into their homes; a bird flu pandemic could make demands on those who have been exposed but who have recovered (becoming immune) to provide care.

Deeper moral questions, however, concern how we tie self-worth to work and the whole low-wage problem. I digress a moment, to mention that after my “retirement” in 2001 I had to encounter the issues of the low-wage workplace. I worked for a year in telefunding for a symphony orchestra, for minimum wage plus commissions. It wasn’t that bad, but I would hear at least one coworker say, “the people that work here aren’t bad people, but this [a phone bank job] is the only kind of job they can get.” Then I would work a while for a reputable collection agency (there has been a lot of press about bad ones) and deal with the regimentation of staying on the phones and placing at least 175 calls a day. It could have been worse. I would apply for a job with the post office as a letter carrier and be warned how “physical” the job is. I would take the test to become a TSA screener and fail that test—possibly the part on recognizing bags because I had never had the training. All not good. Can I pay my dues?

That’s what my own father had called “learning to work.” I think I caught on quickly as a teenager that we had a caste system, and that family values were invoked to help support it. In my own adult life, I would learn the indignation of the Left, that the burdens of dangerous and menial labor-intensive jobs are not shared more equitably at a personal level. What we have today is a “free market cultural revolution,” perhaps, with a little spice of the self-righteous justice of Chairman Mao.

Shulman mentions the “contempt” that many employers have for low-wage workers, which sometimes extends to a lot of us personally. To put it bluntly, they might be seen as persons who failed to “compete” as individuals (although that hardly makes sense when talking about immigrants from poor countries and especially illegal immigrants). It can be reciprocated. I experienced a lot of contempt from low-income minority students (with subsequent discipline problems) when I substitute taught, because I had not “paid my dues” to their world.  Sharing of these kinds of skills makes sense if one expects a major disruption of our interdependent infrastructure, whether from terrorism, a pandemic, or other natural disasters.

Adam Shepard. Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream. Collins, ISBN 0-06-171436-8, 2009. 221 pages, hardcover. Adam, a college graduate from New England but raised in North Carolina, performs a social experiment, arriving in Charleston SC with $25 in his pocket to prove he can make it, challenging Barbara Ehrenreich’s view of the death of the American Dream. So is this another version of “paying your dues”? Blogger.

Here is a discussion of the outsourcing problem and lower wages.

Also, the “pay your bills, pay your dues” essay

Blogging policy  Workplace chapter from DADT, from old DADT draft


See also:  Anya Kamenetz: Generation Debt; Film, Supersize Me   


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