With wit and anger, a celebrated social commentator paints a brutal portrait of the world of low-wage work during the 1990s, when “welfare as we know it” was about to end and America was at the crest of its biggest economic wave in history.
How do millions of the poor (especially the unskilled and often illiterate young mothers now forced off welfare and into the labor market) get by on minimum-wage jobs? Ehrenreich (Blood Rites, 1997, etc.) decided to try for herself, and began a new life as a waitress in Florida earning $2.43 an hour plus tips. Moving next to Maine, she worked during the week for a housecleaning service ($6.65 an hour), and on weekends for an old-age home ($7). Later on, she moved to Minnesota and took a job at Wal-Mart ($7). Everywhere she went she faced a great scarcity of affordable housing, and at one point she was paying $245 a week (more than her net salary) for a run-down motel with no lock on the door and no screen on the window. As for health care—well, what can be done about illness or pain when (1) you can’t afford to miss a day of work, and (2) health benefits, if they even exist, are lousy? Ehrenreich found that most of her fellow workers, despite their financial, physical, and emotional burdens, were kind, generous, and diligent—not slothful or embittered as some observers would have it. Her personal experiences are bolstered with statistics on jobs, wages, and services available (fewer and fewer). Is there an answer? More government support in terms of housing and childcare subsidies would help, she says; so might unions. But the most important improvement would be a better understanding (on the part of those who can effect change) that it is the working poor who are the “major philanthropists of our society,” sacrificing health, family, even nourishment, to sustain those above them in the food chain.
Sharp, empathetic, astute, Ehrenreich speaks loudly and eloquently for a group of workers who are often too tired and too manipulated to speak for themselves.