Hear the name Barbara Ehrenreich and it may not ring any bells. Hear the words “Nickel and Dimed,’’ and you’ll likely remember.
That’s the name of a best-selling book and she’s the journalist who wrote it, going undercover waiting tables, cleaning toilets, selling for Wal-Mart and caring for nursing home patients to experience and write about life for America’s working poor, people working two or more jobs for $6 to $7 an hour. Trying to make a living wage.
Shocked and moved by her revelations about life lived at or below minimum wage when I read the book many years ago, I sought Ehrenreich out to talk about poverty this week as Minnesota legislators voted to raise the state’s minimum wage.
The Senate on Thursday voted to bump it up from $6.15 to $7.75 per hour by August 2015. Last week House members in their own version upped the basic wage to $9.50 an hour. Both bills have inflation-related raises in future. The two bodies must now settle their differences. (In reality, the majority of Minnesota's hourly minimum wage workers are paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.)
I told Ehrenreich of our Legislature’s actions and then asked: Given your experience, is that enough to live on, to support a family on?
“No, and I’m not basing this on my experience,’’ she said.
“There are people who figure these things out…” she said, referring me to the Living Wage Calculator, which reports a minimum cost of living income for one adult living in Hennepin and Ramsey counties as being $9.69 an hour. That wage supports an adequate but not a middle-class life style. Add two children and the supporting wage rises to $26.09.
To hear her tell it, life these days for America’s low-income, employed people isn’t any better now than it was when she researched the book, which includes her experiences working at low-paying jobs in Minnesota.
“When I speak to college students reading “Nickel and Dimed” – written 12 years ago — I tell them, ‘Those were the good old days,’’’ she told me by phone from her home in Alexandria, Va., though implementation of the new federal health-care law may ease life for the working poor, she acknowledged.
Life for some of the women Ehrenreich, 71, wrote about changed little if at all during the recent Great Recession, she said. She wrote in an op-ed piece for the New York Times:line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> I don’t think it should be a negative term. We have to revive the notion of being poor but proud. In practice I end up using a lot of different terms because I don’t want to deal with the stereotype in people’s minds.
MP: You talk about the “criminalization of the poor.’’ Will you elaborate?
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BE: I fell into a housing trap in the Twin Cities. I finally ended up in an over-priced, residential hotel — a real dump. But if you don’t have the first month’s rent as security deposit, you’re not going to get an apartment. As for the rich, affluent people comforting themselves with the thought there is nothing wrong with our country, our system, that there is something wrong with poor people — a lack of character, a lack of discipline. They eat too many chips, drink too much Mountain Dew, have too many children. [They don’t stop] to look at the hard-core fact that at the bottom poverty is not the matter of your character. It’s a matter of a shortage of money. You don’t have the means for a better choice.line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Other projects
Since writing “Nickel and Dimed,’’ and several others, including “Bait and Switch” about the ease with which college-graduates can slip into low-paying jobs, this former college biology major and anti-Vietnam-War activist, has inspired the Economic Hardship Reporting Project “to produce compelling stories on poverty and economic insecurity."
“We have to be aware of all the ways people are ground down to poverty and the mechanisms that are in place to keep them there,’’ Ehrenreich said.