Barbara Ehrenreich is a writer and journalist who decided to conduct an experiment and find out for herself what it is like to live on the minimum wage. For one month at a time she entered various communities, taking on minimum wage positions and trying to stay ahead. Ehrenreich detailed her experience in the book Nickel and Dimed. This books offers insight into the real lives and struggles of these people, showing just how difficult life is for them. As well as this, it is a striking account of how the lower class are treated by their employers and by people in general.
The first thing that was immediately noticeable in the book was just how hard it was for people on the minimum wage just to achieve the basics of having food and shelter. Ehrenreich started the experiment in Key West and was not planning to live an extravagant life at all. Her plan was to find a job that would pay $7 an hour and a place to rent at a low enough price that she could afford food and gas. Ehrenreich's plan is to live in a trailer home. However, she soon finds that even a trailer home comes at a rent that is too high.
Ehrenreich describes this realization saying that "it is a shock to realize that 'trailer trash' has become, for me, a demographic category to aspire to" (Ehrenreich p. 12). This was surprising and shocking to read and changed my opinion about conditions for people on the minimum wage. I had considered that people living in trailer homes were struggling, but had never considered that they were struggling to the extent that just affording a trailer home would be so difficult. I also assumed that people living on minimum wage would be able to at least afford basic items such as food and shelter, even if they were not able to afford luxuries.
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This immediately opened my eyes to just how much people struggle just to get the basic essentials. This same problem is revealed again later in the book where Ehrenreich experiences the same thing in different towns. At one point, she is working two jobs and working seven days a week. Even then, she is only just able to supply herself with the basics. Ehrenreich also offers an opinion on the housing problem where she states that the high rent is a problem in all places "where tourists and the wealthy compete for living space with the people who clean their toilets and fry their food" (Ehrenreich 12).
This suggests that the minimum wage earners are pushed out of decent accommodation by the people who are better off. The higher wage earners can afford higher rent and so rents go as high as these people can afford. Ehrenreich's reference to the wealthy though, doesn't seem to refer to those that would typically be considered wealthy. Instead, the wealthy are labeled from the point of view of someone who is on minimum wage. The wealthy then are really the skilled workers who are by no means rich, but are rich enough to afford to live reasonably well and at least manage to meet their basic needs and achieve a basic living standard.
This strongly suggests that there is a major problem in society, since it seems absurd to think that you have to be wealthy just to have enough to have a decent place to live and be able to eat. This is a basic right that every person should have and it seems wrong that it is not available to everyone. It seems especially wrong that it is not available to a person working as hard and as many hours as Ehrenreich does. Ehrenreich also provides further analysis of the problem. As she sees it, there is a supply and demand issue at the heart of the problem.
Workers need to work, but there are more workers then there are jobs. This gives employers the ability to keep wages current and still have those jobs filled. In fact, this just created more demand for jobs because workers will be looking for two or three jobs. In this situation, there is no need for employers to increase wages so they do not. This results in the wages being fixed. At the same time, there is demand for rental properties, food, and all the other essentials. This demand is not driven by the people on minimum wage, but by the population overall.
While the people on minimum wage may not ever be moving forward, the economy overall and the population overall is always moving forward. This means that the cost of everything is always increasing, which includes the cost of food and the cost of rent. The question this raises is how people on minimum wage are ever supposed to catch up. How can they save anything to better themselves or improve their situation if every cent they earn is spent just trying to live? And if they cannot move ahead but everything else keeps moving ahead, what other option is there but for the people to fall further and further behind?
This suggests that the conditions will continue to worsen. People on minimum wage will have to work more jobs and longer hours and will be able to do less and less with that money. In the book, Ehrenreich shows that she came very close to having to live in a shelter. It seems that life will only become harder and this downhill spiral may be the only direction that life can go for people on the bottom levels. Another important point in the book relates to how Ehrenreich is treated. From her first attempts to get a job, there is always the sense that she is being looked down upon by others.
The job application processes seem uncaring at best and often humiliating. The working conditions seem just as bad. And for the customers that she serves in her roles, it seems like she is treated as barely human. The only real kindness or consideration she receives is from people in the same position as her. For employers and the public, she is either not noticed at all or seen as inferior and not deserving better treatment. For the public, I think this is something that happens naturally, rather than something is done out of cruelty.
As long as someone is in a job and performing a job task, they tend to be though of as existing to perform that task. This applies to all positions, whether it be minimum wage or not. For example, it is natural to think of doctors and dentists in terms of the jobs they perform and not to consider them as people. For this point then, I don't think that the book shows a special disregard for minimum wage earners. Instead, it is more like there is just a lack of awareness about these people. In the end though, I don't think it is up to the public to show regard for minimum wage earners or any other type of worker.
Instead, it should be up to the employer to treat all employees fairly. As noted though, there is no requirement for companies to do so. And the companies are always thinking of employees as a cost and not considering their personal needs. What can be done about the problem them? Ehrenreich does not provide an answer and there is no clear solution. However, just noticing that there is a problem to be solved is a good start. The book also shows power issues between employers and employers.
Ehrenreich suggests that employers are keen to maintain their power over employees, including making it clear that employees should not join unions. During the interview process, Ehrenreich has to answer questions about whether she has children that would interfere with her ability to get to work and whether she thinks safety is the responsibility of management. Ehrenreich also describes trick questions asking about things like the amount of stolen goods purchased per year and the attitude on drugs. It seems clear that the interview process is created with the belief that the person will be a problematic employee.
They might injure themselves and expect management to care. They might be late for work because of their children. They might be on drugs or steal from the company. The situation does not get any better when Ehrenreich gets a job, with her boss then constantly watching her for signs of drug abuse, stealing, or any other form of rule breaking. The situation that Ehrenreich describes is one where the employer has complete power. Despite all the laws on equal opportunity, it seems that employers can discriminate and choose not to employ someone who has children.
Despite the law protecting the safety of workers, it seems that employers can ignore their duty of protecting employees. Overall, it seems that employees have no rights at all and no power at all. The companies can make demands and the employee's situation gives them no choice but to accept the demands. The power issues also seem to be increased by the view that the employers have of the employees. They seem to expect employees to be drug abusers, to be likely to steal, and to be barely intelligent or capable enough to perform basic duties.
It is this attitude that has minimum wage earners like Ehrenreich being looked down on and treated with no respect. As Ehrenreich notes several times, minimum wage earners are seen as nothing more than people who have no choice but to do the jobs that are above everyone else. What can be done about this problem? Ehrenreich does not provide any answers to this questions. However, what she does do is make it clear that there is a very real problem. After reading the book, the daily battle of minimum wage earners becomes disturbingly clear.
It is even more concerning when is it considered that Ehrenreich has trouble surviving as a minimum wage earner even though she has a lot more going for her than most, including that she only has herself to support. If Ehrenreich can't do it, it seems clear that nobody can. The end result of the book is the realization that there is a major problem in society that needs to be fixed. This is what the makes the book powerful, with Ehrenreich's account of her struggle able to open people's eyes to the world that they either couldn't see or didn't want to see.
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