March 11, 2006

Can $1.85 make a difference?


Aside from bashing the President, praising the President, and decrying the uselessness of BYUSA, the recent editorials at the Daily Universe have curiously focused on the pertinent topic of minimum wage in Utah.

From what I gather, the Utah state legislature recently rejected a bill that would raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.00. Some students support the raise, while others vehemently reject it by citing potential inflation and unemployment. These cynics surprise me for two reasons: one, many BYU students are paid less than seven dollars an hour, thus making me assume that the student body would unanimously support the bill. Two, I just finished the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. I don't think I can ever view America's working class in the same way again.

Nickel and Dimed is an exercise in "old school" journalism. Ehrenreich, a renowned writer with credits in Harper's and Time, undertook the assignment to chronicle what life was like as a blue-collar worker in contemporary America. Her main objective was to see if she---a competent woman with intelligence and a hard work ethic---could make a living in the lower dregs of our society.

So for a few months, Ehrenreich worked undercover at three blue-collar jobs: a waitress in Florida, a maid in Maine, and a Wal-mart associate in Minnesota. To start, the writer had certain advantages over many of her working class counterparts---she is white and speaks English fluently. Yet despite her race and her ability to communicate in our native tongue anddespite her intelligence and a doctorate degree, Ehrenreich desperately struggled to make ends meet. She oftentimes found herself having to work two jobs to get the rent paid and to put food in her stomach. And she was only taking care of herself---most lower-class workers have two or three children in tow.

For two hundred pages, Ehrenreich chronicles the struggles and despair of the working class. Her waitress friend Gail lives in a truck and doesn't have the money to pay for pills that alleviate her migraines. Living in an apartment is out of the question too because she lacks the resources to pay for a deposit and first month's rent. While in Maine, Ehrenreich works with a woman named Holly who is pregnant and continues to work despite her morning sickness that leaves her weak. When Holly sprains her ankle on the job, she refuses to go to the hospital because she can't afford taking time off of work and she doesn't have proper health coverage anyway. And while in Minnesota, Ehrenreich witnesses the corporate cruelty of Wal-mart and how the company carefully guides its employees from forming unions. In her view, Wal-mart prefers to hire new employees rather than treat their existing ones decently.

The Economic Policy Institute has concluded that a "living wage" for a single adult and two children translates into $30,000 a year, or about $14 per hour. Of course, this is not the bare minimum that a family can live on, but it includes things like health insurance and child care at a licensed center. Obviously, Ehrenreich was a single woman and wouldn't need $14, but she did work with women with young children who made the same $7 that she made an hour.

I am not an economist by any means and I do realize that raising the minimum wage would bring consequences like inflation, but I also cannot deny that there is a real problem here in America. There are people living among us who are worked to the bone and still can't make ends meet. I think it is easy for us middle-classers to say that hard work is the key to success, but Ehrenreich clearly demonstrates in her book that this isn't the case. Her co-workers probably work a lot harder than most of us white-collar workers or university students. Have any of you ever worked as a maid or as a waitress? It's tough stuff. It's mentally and physically demanding. And imagine doing this type of work for ten hours a day for a mere sixty dollars. Forget about overtime.


Before I read this book, I also had the sanctimonious thought that education is the key to advancement. And while such a statement is true, how does a single mother of two who works two jobs a day expect to fit in college classes? Who is going to take care of her kids when she goes to school? How will she get there if she doesn't have a car and doesn't have the money to pay for the bus fare? And when will she sleep?

The answer to these problems is much more complicated than raising the minimum wage. The answer would have to be a combination of raising income, providing more opportunities for advancement in the work place, and perhaps most importantly, helping the lower classes get a higher education.

Yet in my mind a dark and lingering thought continues to tremor---are our comfortable American lifestyles dependent upon the thankless work of the underclass? Is this the way our country functions? On the last page of her book, Ehrenreich writes: "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."


What a frightening thought. How many times have I dismissed the people who served me at a fast food restaurant? How many times have I failed to leave an adequate tip at a diner because the service was too slow?

For a thought-provoking read that will shake some humility into your soul, read Nickel and Dimed. And if you don't have the chance to read it, be nicer to the people who work at Wal-mart!

3 comments:

  1. I think it's funny you have focused on two books I had to read for my sociology major. I really enjoyed the books, but you know how it is when you have to read them for a class, you don't actually enjoy them as much. You have inspired me to go back and read Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Nickel and Dimed to get a different perspective on them:)

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  2. I, too, read this book for a sociology class. I couldn't put it down. Her experiences were eye-opening.

    Speaking of Wal-mart, my professor had a vendetta against the super-beast, and had us read other books which touched on several issues within that dominating superpower. Not only does Wal-mart mistreat their employees, they also mistreat the communities where they reside. I, too, have a certain disdain for Wal-mart (thanks to Dr. Brown) and I consciously try to buy elsewhere. I admit, though, it's difficult at times when there are certain items that they simply offer for much lower than the competitors. Maybe it is as simple as you suggest--do the best you can to shop where you can afford, and treat the employees kindly.

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  3. Hopefully one day I will be a college professor (who knows when I'll get my PhD though!) and I will try to integrate this book into my classes.

    I've always been a fan of Wal-mart because their low prices appeal to the college student. But after reading this book, I will try to take my business elsewhere. It's sad though to realize that Wal-mart has become such a huge corporate entity and it looks like it will be around for a long time.

    Is there any way we can get them to treat their employees better?

    What other books did you read for Dr. Brown's class, J?

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