Getting By On Minimum Wage Essay

Getting By On Minimum Wage

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of “Nickel and Dimed”, decided to join the millions of Americans who work full-time, year round, for poverty-level wages, in 1998. After hearing the politicians spout that any job was the answer to a better way of life, she decided to find out if it was possible to survive, or even get ahead, at a job making $6 or $7 an hour.  She left home and took whatever lodgings and jobs she could find. What she discovered is appalling and shameful.

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In The Intro: Getting Ready, Barbara’s first thoughts about her endeavor set the stage. “Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism-you know, go out there and try it for themselves.”  She had three challenges for herself. Rule One: No falling back on skills derived from education or usual work. Rule Two: Take the highest paying job offered and do the best to hold onto it. Rule Three: Take cheapest accommodations found. “Almost anyone could do what I did – look for jobs, work those jobs, try to make ends meet. In fact, millions of  Americans do it every day, and with a lot less fanfare and dithering.”

            In Chapter One: Serving In Florida, the author sets out looking for a place to live and finds a $500/month “efficiency”.  She aces the interview and submits to a drug test. She decides not to take a $6/hr job and instead scours the want ads to find that the listings are actually “insurance” for the companies against constant turnover. She finally lands a job at a restaurant earning $2.43/hr plus tips and began to miss the feeling of competency while on the job. She begins to feel that her mission failed due to the long shifts and relentless concentration.

            In Chapter Two: Scrubbing in Maine, once again begins looking for housing and finds a “share…with a woman described…as a character, but clean…” She works as a housekeeper for a maid service during the week and at a nursing home on the weekends. Her cleaning job is more like smearing dirt around rather than actually cleaning. She and her co-workers have little or nothing to eat during lunches and breaks. She discovers that cleaning million dollar homes is backbreaking work.

In Chapter Three: Selling in Minnesota, she makes a vow: “No waitressing, nursing homes, or housecleaning this time. I’m psyched for a change-retail, maybe, or factory work.”  She is put through another drug and personality test and lives in a motel. She finds work at Wal-mart where she discovers very little human-interaction is required. She could be deaf-mute or autistic and be a Wal-mart employee. Even for a worker holding two jobs, wages are too low, housing costs too high for minimally decent survival.

            Her evaluation sums up the state of affairs: “Something is very, 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.”

            This piece is important to sociology because of the many economic and political issues it addresses. First, Mrs. Eihrenreich attacks the notion that low-wage jobs require “unskilled” labor by describing how the work required incredible feats of stamina, focus, memory, quick thinking, and fast learning. Constant and repeated movement creates or contributes to repetitive stress injury, pain must often be worked through to hold a job in a market with constant turnover, and the days are filled with degrading and uninteresting tasks (e.g. toilet-cleaning and shirt-reordering). She argues “personality” tests, questionnaires designed to weed out “incompatible” potential employees, and urine drug tests, increasingly common in the low wage market, deter potential applicants and violate liberties while managerial apathy and austereness contribute to class separation and promote an unhealthy, stressful work environment. She reports that “help needed” signs don’t necessarily indicate an opening, more often their purpose is to sustain a pool of applicants to safeguard against rapid turnover of employees. She also argues one low wage job is often not enough to support one person let alone a family; with inflating housing prices and stagnant wages, this practice increasingly becomes difficult to maintain. Many of the workers encountered in the book are forced to live with relatives, strangers in the same position, or in their cars in parking lots. She concludes by responding to the frequent claim that low-wage workers, recipients of government or charitable services like welfare, food, and healthcare, are simply living off the generosity of others. Instead, she suggests, we live off their generosity

This book forces Americans to face the fact that more people than we care to acknowledge are struggling day-to-day to make ends meet in some very unappealing jobs.

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