Not quite a week ago, I caught an episode of Morgan Spurlock’s new “30 Days” television series on FX. In this particular episode, Spurlock and his fianc?e attempted to live on minimum wage for a month. I found this hour-long program to offer such an eye-opening window on the lives of the working poor in my own backyard that I immediately e-mailed almost everyone I know to try to get them to watch the program as well.
Within minutes of my spam message, I received two replies that recommended the same book: Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed,” detailing the author’s experiences living paycheck-to-paycheck in a number of low paying jobs in several different American cities. I went online and found that my local library had a copy available, so I placed my reserve request and picked it up on Friday afternoon. (I love my library’s online system, by the way.)
I dove into Ehrenreich’s account as soon as I got home, and if I’d not gone out with friends both Friday and Saturday nights — and Sunday afternoon, as I was having an usually social weekend — I would have easily finished the book in twenty-four hours, simply because it is honestly that engaging. Ehrenreich has an easy and entertaining writing style, even when approaching a topic so daunting, and so significant as the struggle of survivability on below-poverty-level incomes here in the richest country on the planet.
What she reveals of her experience is staggering: a nation full of low-wage workers, on whose cheap labor the rest of us unknowingly depend, themselves struggling to make even the simplest of ends meet while going without very basic needs like good nutrition, decent housing, and health insurance. While I’ve long been a supporter of a true “living wage” here in the United States — and yes, I know this means that I’d have to pay more for just about everything, to off-set the increased labor costs — I truly had no idea how desperate, depressing, and downright dehumanizing the life of a low-wage worker can be.
I’m a trained and bred member of the upper-middle class. I grew up in a good neighborhood and went to a competitive private school, later attending a private university; though I worked several jobs in college — in the bookstore, student grocery store, and student housing office — all I had to worry about was making enough money to buy textbooks and supplies and to pay for the occasional pizza or movie outing with friends, as my tuition, room, and board were taken care of for me. I always had a solid roof over my head, decent clothes to wear, and enough food to eat. I didn’t live a completely sheltered life, but I didn’t have many friends or even acquaintances whose families would be classified as “working poor.” The closest understanding I had to the stark reality of this term came from sound-bytes on the nightly news and sit-com television.
When my sister took a job as a waitress while she was in college, I heard about what difficult work that is and how tips are a very necessary source of income, rather than just something extra a customer leaves on the table to be nice. I learned to be a generous tipper and secretly congratulated myself on that.
When I was fresh out of college and entering the working world in a terrible economic slump, I felt lucky to land a $6-per-hour receptionist job in Los Angeles. I shared an apartment, went out very little, frequented the local library, didn’t eat very well, and seldom spent money on myself. Living in the glamour of LA, I knew I was poor, but I wasn’t homeless, as were so many of my fellow Angelinos. Although my share of the rent was more than $400 each month — with utilities on top of that — I still managed to save a decent amount of money, which supported me after I left my job and prepared to move back to Virginia.
Since then, there have been times of “feast” or “famine,” but all in comparison to the comfortable life of my childhood. What do I know about not making enough to pay the rent, or of not having any food to eat for days on end? Not much. Plus, even in those leaner times, I didn’t have any children to support. I had a college degree, on top of my prep school education. I had a decent car in good condition. I was young, healthy, and strong and didn’t need to worry about health insurance or prescription medications. I knew I had family to fall back on if things took a serious turn for the worse.
It is my firm belief that there is more than enough of everything to go around in this world — enough food, enough money, enough educational opportunities, enough shared smiles. We just have to get better about sharing openly with one another, about not turning a blind-eye to a brother or sister in need, and treating each other with the dignity and respect we each deserve.