Source of book: Borrowed from the library
One of the things that has troubled me about this election season is the degree to which many of my conservative friends have gone full Ayn Rand on fiscal issues. That’s one reason why I decided to read this book. (Also because it was on my list and checked into the library at a convenient time.) At the same time, I made the decision that I was going to re-read the book of James. About this, more later.
Nickel and Dimed has a lot in common with The American Way of Eating (reviewed here) in that the author goes undercover and works in low-wage jobs. While Tracie McMillan focuses on the food industry, Ehrenreich chooses a wider variety of service jobs, from healthcare, to housecleaning, to foodservice, to retail. In both cases, however, it is readily apparent that for most of those in low wage jobs, a reasonable standard of living is unattainable under the current system, and they would be below starvation levels without social programs. As Ehrenreich puts it in the introduction:
But if the question was whether a single mother leaving welfare could survive without government assistance in the form of food stamps, Medicaid, and housing and child care subsidies, the answer was well known before I ever left the comforts of home.
This book was researched in 1998, so nearly 20 years ago, so the raw numbers are going to be lower across the board, from minimum wage to housing costs. (If you want to see more modern numbers on housing costs for a basic two bedroom apartment, this is a good place to start.)
I’m not going to rehash the book, which is short enough to read in a few sessions. If I were to summarize, I would say that it brings to light some significant problems in our society, namely the disconnect between wages and housing costs, and the vast power differential between low income workers and their employers, such that any idea that wages are “bargained for” rather than dictated is pure fantasy.
But anyone with friends who have worked service jobs could tell you that as well. One of my frustrations in discussing economics with conservative friends and family is that although they may well have briefly worked low income jobs, they did so in an era (or place) where housing was affordable, they had no need for health care, and they had a direct and fairly quick route to a middle class income within a few years. That is much less likely to be the case now for a number of reasons, none of which my older conservative friends are the least bit willing to acknowledge. Sure, they worked hard. But they also were able to afford a house on one income in their mid-20s, with a mere high school education. So there is a tremendous amount of condescension toward lower income people now, who clearly could become middle class if they weren’t so lazy/stupid/immoral.
Ehrenreich captures the essence of this in a series of conversations she has with acquaintances who were startled that it wasn’t obvious to her co-workers that she wasn’t “one of them,” the implication being that she should have been obviously superior to the “workaday drones,” as she puts it.
But this never happened, I suspect because the only thing that really made me “special” was my inexperience. To state the proposition in reverse, low-wage workers are no more homogenous in personality or ability than people who write for a living, and no less likely to be funny or bright. Anyone in the educated classes who thinks otherwise ought to broaden their circle of friends.
Yes! Every time an acquaintance - or friend or family - says something insulting to the poor or to, say, African Americans, I find myself saying that last sentence: “If you actually were friends with people outside your race and economic stratus, you wouldn’t say obviously false things like that.”
I want to mention a few other things that I found interesting. One is Ehrenreich’s experience as a waitress, one of the “higher status” jobs she did. She quickly learned to identify certain difficult customers. The “traditional asshole types - frat boys who down multiple Buds…” The disabled who needed extra assistance; not their fault, but they can suck up precious time that the waitress needs to get everyone else served. But one other:
The worst, for some reason, are the Visible Christians - like the ten-person table, all jolly and sanctified after Sunday night service, who run me mercilessly and then leave me $1 on a $92 bill. Or the guy with the crucifixion T-shirt (Someone To Look Up To) who complains that his baked potato is too hard and his iced tea too icy (I cheerfully fix both) and leaves no tip at all. As a general rule, people wearing crosses or WWJD (“What Would Jesus Do?”) buttons look at us disapprovingly no matter what we do, as if they were confusing waitressing with Mary Magdalene’s original profession.
I’m afraid this is entirely too true. I learned early in my professional life that the more a person wore their religion openly, the worse of a client they would be. Uncooperative, rude, and tried to cheat you on the bill. Sorry, just stating the truth. One reason why I will never have a Christian bumper sticker, jewelry, or wear a shirt publicly. I know the kind too well, and don’t really want to create that impression.
I also want to mention that after reading the chapter where she works as a maid for one of the big companies (which charge clients $15 an hour while paying the workers $6), I would never pay someone to clean my house. (Okay, maybe a freelancer. But probably not.) The emphasis is on making things look clean, without actually using much water. Look, I was raised doing housework - there was no such thing as women’s work in my family - so I know how to clean stuff. And you have to use water or you are just spreading dirt around. Ehrenreich summarizes the approach as the point “is not to clean so much as to create the appearance of having been cleaned.”
Another thing that Ehrenreich points out is that most of these jobs do not have paid leave of any kind, including sick leave. (This is different in some states, like my native California - but we just applied the law to all employers last July!) In practice, this means that her coworkers have to work sick, because otherwise, they will lose their housing or have to skip food. The author comes to suspect (after cleaning the house of a woman with a whole bookcase of childrearing books - at the same time that a coworker with dreadful morning sickness passes out at work) that there is “some secret division of the world’s women into breeders and drones, and those at the maid level are no longer supposed to be breeding at all.” (Shades of The Handmaid’s Tale?)
Actually, this is one of my pet peeves about discussing economic issues with most conservatives: yes, this division is real. They truly believe that some people have no business reproducing at all.
And this brings me to what I decided I wanted to say about this book.
Over the last decade or so, I have become progressively less “conservative” in the political sense. There are a few reasons for that. I’ve already noted on multiple occasions that the GOP has moved sharply to the right since I was a kid. I also have read a more broad range of books, which does tend to expand one’s view of the world.
But I would say that there are two factors that have pushed me away from conservatism. The first is that personally and professionally, I have become acquainted with more and more people who work damn hard for a living, and yet would be unable to survive or feed their children or access basic healthcare without the subsidies that our government gives them. And it’s not because they are lazy; they work harder than I do. It’s not because they are dumb either. And it isn’t because they are somehow immoral.
And that leads to the one single thing that has driven me away from American Conservatism in the 21st Century:
The things that my conservative friends and family say.
It isn’t just the regurgitation of talking points. It isn’t just belief against all evidence that a few more tax cuts will make things better. And it isn’t just the out-and-out contempt for the poor that has become ever more unmistakable.
It is that I have discovered that a basic assumption that I thought we shared isn’t something that they believe anymore.
See, I always assumed that basic justice in a wealthy nation - the most wealthy in history - meant that anyone who is willing to put in a hard 40 hour week of honest labor should be able to afford the basics to live and have a family.
It appears that my conservative friends and family no longer share that belief. How do I know this? Well, start looking at what they say about policy. It starts with “we need to cut benefits.” Why? Well there are too many freeloaders. Cut food stamps, cut housing subsidies, and for goodness’ sake, get rid of Obamacare! Okay, one then says, perhaps we should raise the minimum wage significantly so that wages replace the subsidies? Well, you can’t do that, they say, because prices will go up and there will be fewer jobs. (Although prices would rise less than they usually claim - labor is only one cost - and many jobs won’t go away because they still need to be done.) Or, in a better argument, they might argue against a single minimum for all areas. Fair enough, costs differ. So maybe we could just push for full unionization of service workers so they can actually bargain for a fair wage? Horrors no! We need to break the unions once and for all! How about we make employers cover sick leave and health insurance? No way! They can’t afford that! And on and on it goes.
And at some point the eyes glaze over, because there is never an idea that is acceptable. Only more tax cuts. (Just for fun, I will note that Kansas actually did take the step of drastically cutting taxes. No, it hasn’t created an economic boom. No, wages have not risen. But budgets have been gutted to the point where the Supreme Court court found the underfunding of schools to be in violation of the state constitution - because of the disproportionate effect on schools in poor areas. Oh, and they are closing schools early due to lack of money, and can’t find enough teachers now, because of low pay…)
The bottom line remains: if you believe that a person willing to work hard deserves a wage that will support them and a family, then there are only a few ways to get it. You can pay them a fair wage (which will require either a higher mandated wage or a change to the power differential between employer and employee by unionization), or you can subsidize. The alternative is a return to the past, when the poor had astronomical infant and child mortality rates due to malnutrition and lack of health care.
And I am coming to the inescapable conclusion that many of my conservative acquaintances would be just fine with that.
After all, they are so very quick to say that poverty is just caused by laziness, lack of ambition, and, of course, “people having babies they can’t afford.” Meaning, if you think about it, that Ehrenreich is correct, they have separated the world into Breeders and Drones.
I have mentioned that I grew up in a culture that believed that women were to stay home with the children. In other words, families were to survive on one income, because that’s what God wanted. Thus, in theory, this belief should mean that a single parent should be able to support a family. Apparently, not so much these days. What it turns out to mean is that there is the “godly” white middle class, and the “ungodly” poor people, who should just stop having sex and having babies and focus on serving the breeders.
A few things in summary that I think Ehrenreich states so well:
Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.
I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that “hard work” was the secret of success...No one ever said that you could work hard - harder than you ever thought possible - and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt.
And later, she makes a point that I have been trying to make to my conservative acquaintances, friends, and relatives for some time:
I have seen the rise of language pulled straight from Ayn Rand about how there are the producers and the consumers - and the poor are just a bunch of consumers, living off the hard work of others. (And basically, this includes anyone who receives any sort of public benefit - except for the elderly, of course.) The problem is, this assumes that what a person has “earned” is what the market pays for their time. In reality, people trade their lives - time is a measure of our lives. And that time has a value, whether the market gives just compensation or not.
Ehrenreich puts it thus:
When someone works for less pay than she can live on - when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently - then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The “working poor,” as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor to everyone else.
And it’s true. Employers are receiving more time than they are paying for. The slack is picked up in part by government subsidies - but also by the workers who endure hardship so the employer can pay less than a just wage. Once upon a time, I believed that there was a genuine agreement about the basic social contract: work hard, and you can support yourself and your family. We just disagreed about the best way to make that possible for everyone.
I no longer can legitimately believe that to be true.
There is so much more I would like to say about the issues raised in this book, from wages to housing to health care. Perhaps in the future. I’ll just end with the observation that - according to what my most conservative friends and relatives have said over the last few years - they truly believe that the poor need to have far less than they do now, both in income and relative power. This belief is so clearly based on contempt for the poor, and that attitude is what has driven me from my previous beliefs more than anything else. Look, I understand that these problems are hard to solve, and evade simple answers. I get that. But what I don't get is the idea that these problems aren't actually problems, and that our goal should be to take away what the poor have, rather than seek to elevate them.
I went into a bit historical detail in my review of Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems about how close the United States came to going communist in the early days of the 20th Century. Fortunately, the US - and Western Civilization in general - realized that there needed to be a fundamental change to the social contract. (I also discussed this a bit in The Taste of War in the context of the science of nutrition and the realization that it was lack of food and money, not lack of thrift that caused malnutrition.)
I believe we are seeing the start of a similar revolution at this time as well. Both major parties are looking at a serious division, and at the heart of it is the realization that there is a problem with wages and housing that is causing the loss of a true middle class. In particular, middle class whites are staring at a sea change, where they are no longer guaranteed success, and might have to deal with the poverty that their brown skinned fellow citizens have known for decades. The response has been different depending party. For the Republicans, we have seen the rise of the Toupee, who has tapped into the fear and anger - and directed it at brown skinned people. He has sold the lie that if we just get rid of the brown skinned people, wages will rise. That this is both morally despicable and delusional should be evident. For the Democrats, they have a genuine democratic socialist in the mold of Sweden, calling for policies which would be a radical remake of our entire economic system.
Neither of these should be surprising.
When the social contract fails to work, people will want to change it. In the past, this often took a violent turn. One monarch assassinated another, and the wealthy of that society got whacked. More recently, there were the French Revolution and Communist revolutions around the world. It is easy to forget that these revolutions didn’t happen just for fun, and the idea that they happened just because the poor of those nations were a bunch of atheists either. The West has escaped those (except for France) for a simple and seemingly obvious reason: democracy has worked to renegotiate the social contract without requiring violence. What we are seeing now is the beginning of such a renegotiation. To quote Ehrenreich again:
Someday, of course - and I will make no predictions as to exactly when - they [the working poor] are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they are worth. There’ll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruptions. But the sky will not fall, and we will all be better off for it in the end.
If history has proven anything, it is that it is far better to deal with problems before they become violent. And let me add this: dissing the poor is a really bad way to start.
On that note, let’s talk just a bit about the OTHER GOP candidate. After I posted about his significant Dominionist connections, [link] a few uber-conservative supporters among my friends came back with “no, he’s just a ‘Constitutionalist.’” Which means that he believes that if the writers of the Constitution didn’t provide for government to do something, it cannot legally be done. Which means ZERO social programs. Yeah, that’s really going to be a good thing, right?
Oh, and as I pointed out, the head of Cruz’s Super PAC has actually said in public that God Himself says there should be no minimum wage, no progressive taxation, no capital gains tax, and no social programs. I am not making it up.
As I said, this is the Gospel of Ayn Rand, not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I mentioned the book of James at the outset, and I wanted to circle back to it a bit. I memorized the first chapter as a kid, and I know my Bible fairly well. Still, one brings different things to it at different times, and it was really interesting to re-read it.
One of the problems with how we tend to read our Bibles is that we look for little verse nuggets - proof texts - without necessarily reading the whole context at once. I think this is very much the case with James. Any good Evangelical knows that “faith without works is dead,” and that we should use the word of God as a mirror, putting it into practice, and that we should tame our tongues, count it as joy when we have trials, and so on.
But what is the context of all this?
It starts in chapter 1 verse 9, with a note that the poor have an elevated position in the Kingdom of God. (Echoing Christ’s teaching in Luke, by the way.) It continues with the admonition that true religion is helping widows and orphans. In chapter 2, it starts getting really interesting, with a whole discussion on not showing favoritism to the rich. (If you don’t believe this plagues modern churches, look at the socioeconomic status of the elder board.) And right in the middle of this discussion, there is the famous line that whoever keeps the law but misses at just one point is guilty of breaking it all. Guess what comes right before it? “Love your neighbor as yourself” in the context of favoring the wealthy. Wow. I hadn’t heard it taught like that before - but there it is. And guess what comes right after that? Faith and works. Here’s what it really says:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (2:14-17)
Wait a minute. Is that actually saying that the proof of our faith is how we deal with those who lack basic resources? I believe it is.
Skipping to the last chapter, James brings it home:
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you. (5:1-6)
I think we also need to realize that the Bible doesn’t just address individual sins. You can see the same calls for justice to the laborers in the Old Testament, where the nation and the leaders are condemned for the injustice. Here in a modern democracy, this implicates all of us, because we govern ourselves. And what we allow to happen to the working poor isn’t something we can blame on other people. Our votes - and how we speak and act toward the poor - implicate us.
One final bit is relevant I believe. In the discussion on favoritism in chapter 2, James notes that God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith and inherit the Kingdom, and then says “But you have dishonored the poor!” Some translations use “insulted.” From what I can tell, both senses are in the original Greek. It is an insult, but it is an insult directed at the honor of the poor.
Maybe like “lazy, stupid, immoral” and things like that. Or perhaps “consumers,” mooching off the wealthy “producers.” To me, this has gotten perilously close to the “useless eaters” that became the target of extermination.
Just saying. And James has no words of comfort for such people.
Just a note on some of the criticism the book has engendered. Much of it is the typical “well, you should have spent your money more wisely” sort of thing, which misses the author’s point that lack of resources force you to make bad choices. It is hard to eat frugally and healthfully without a stove and refrigerator. It is hard to get an affordable apartment if you can’t save first month’s rent and can’t wait 6 months for one to open up. (These are real life issues I have dealt with in cases.)
One that I do think warrants a look is the claim of a man who said that he tried it and was able to work his way into a higher paying position in a few months. (Namely, management.) Ehrenreich actually notes this tendency in her book, which is that the males are promoted to management. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why. Sexism is real, as is the belief that only men truly work to support families. Women are just in it for a hobby, so you can exploit them all you want. Seen that one in real life too. Not to mention the fact that female-dominated professions tend to have lower wages for the same level of education than male-dominated one. Gee, I wonder why?
It also ignores the obvious that our world needs, as my father-in-law likes to say, “fewer chiefs and more indians.” Not everyone can be a manager. Someone still has to do the work - and those people should be paid a just wage too.
I forgot to put this in when I posted it, but this great song, written by the recently departed David Bowie fits well:
My eldest daughter is a huge Queen fan - and loves this song.
I forgot to put this in when I posted it, but this great song, written by the recently departed David Bowie fits well:
My eldest daughter is a huge Queen fan - and loves this song.
Since this is a politically charged post, please review my Comment Policy. In particular, I am not interested in the regurgitation of talking points. Such comments will be deleted. Feel free to go call a talk radio show or something.