May 8, 2001
12:13 PM   Subscribe

An exchange between James Fallows and Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

[L]et me explain that your book is the account of three month-long episodes of attempting to live entirely on earnings from $7- or $8-per-hour jobs. You show up in low-wage cities and try to get on your feet, like someone "graduating" from welfare to work. One of many intriguing aspects is the juggling of three challenges: landing a job (not that hard, in the "tight" economy of the late nineties); doing the job (sometimes quite hard, as you make vivid); and finding a place to live (nearly impossible, for reasons we will get to).

The material questions are 1) Do we care? 2) What should we do about it? The author makes a couple of suggestion a couple of links into the article. What do you think?

link via adam
posted by Sean Meade (51 comments total)
It brings up the thought that people like me, the comparably comfortable, live off of the low-wage labor of the working poor and aliens and immigrants. That's how the price of services and products we value can stay so low. If we had a living wage in this country, say, 15$/hour, I'm sure the economy would do a belly-flop. That's not to say we shouldn't do it. That's just tracing the implications.
posted by Sean Meade at 12:14 PM on May 8, 2001

Oooohh, I can tell right now this is going to be a long and nasty thread. I love this link, btw.
posted by mecran01 at 12:49 PM on May 8, 2001

The bigger implication isn't necessarily about the wage scale, but the way in which low-wage jobs explicitly challenge basic civil liberties. Robert Downey Jr. gets handed jobs on a plate by "caring" types in the business, while the people who clean the studio toilets are drug-tested in case they happen to smoke a joint when off work.

I've done my share of shitty jobs, and have the good fortune not to have to resort to the assembly line again. But both my parents have done low-wage jobs and suffered indignities beyond the paucity of their wages. And, for sure, you can come up with the line that people in call centres who have their toilet break times monitored should be "grateful to have a job", but surely their employers should be grateful to have a workforce that isn't offended enough to sue them?

Although that's one thing that Mr Tony can put on his list of achievements: the minimum wage, which (shock horror) didn't result in the millions of lost jobs that miserly bosses predicted.
posted by holgate at 12:55 PM on May 8, 2001

The material questions are 1) Do we care?

I think that we all should, how could you not care?

I can remember being a teenager with a string of horrible low-paid jobs (which reminded me that finishing college wasn't a choice but a necessity) and knowing that living off minimum or near-minimum wage was impossible.

I would think it takes quite a bit of arrogance and selfishness to not care about how low wage workers survive, get paid, and are treated in the US. I'm sure others will have good ideas, but there are plenty of alternatives to $15 minimum wages - education incentives, job training, school grants, etc.
posted by mathowie at 12:56 PM on May 8, 2001

"frank talk about class isn't encouraged in wealth-ridden America. It's our last taboo."

The final frontier! It is my duty as an official stirrer-up-of-the-shit to attack and break down this taboo at once.
To Arms!
posted by DixHuit at 1:09 PM on May 8, 2001

Property is theft, baby.
posted by greensweater at 1:15 PM on May 8, 2001

"what we have we steal."
- the toadies.
posted by jcterminal at 1:22 PM on May 8, 2001

Mathowie: Yes, but . . . who then works at Wendy's, etc.? Or not just Wendy's, but any of the low-paying jobs, period. Immigrants, maybe? All those folks who aren't included in the workforce totals? Robots? How many people can work service jobs anyhow? It's Problems of Capitalism and Any Economic System for That Matter 101, seems to me.

Meantime, heard callers on C-SPAN this morning talk about traffic cameras on the George Washington bridge, which has suddenly become a Congressional issue. The host asked one caller who was all upset about this whether she thought cameras in workplaces was OK. She said, after a long pause, that it's OK because they're private.

I remember the first time I saw cameras in an office for a business that was not involved in finance. Seemed pretty wild, but even then I thought, fine, whatever floats your boat. Now surveilance is everywhere, and the private/public matter seems besides the point. It's gone too far. Read Weber. Capitalism, like democracy, is built on trust. Now employers are eating away at not only future profits, but democracy. Inequality hurts that same trust. The solution is tied in not only with giving people a hand up, but expecting some fairness from employers.
posted by raysmj at 1:25 PM on May 8, 2001

Since when is $15/hr full time (31,200 /year) a living wage?
posted by SpecialK at 1:30 PM on May 8, 2001

SpecialK: this is a figure discussed at some length in the link. more details there.
posted by Sean Meade at 1:31 PM on May 8, 2001

I’m not quite sure what makes you think the economy would “belly-flop”. For everyone living in stagnation or pitiously slight raises through the longest economic peace-time expansion in history, this would be an incredible boon. Any Smithian economist will tell you distributing capital is a boon to economies.

I agree. The upper-classes are by far the most class-conscious strata in America. Just take a look at who gets to rule the country, the implications are obvious.
posted by capt.crackpipe at 1:41 PM on May 8, 2001

i think one major factor in all of this is the glamorization of wealth by the media. it seems to be standard behavior for people to spend every last cent they earn, not on things they need but things they want; which are dictated to them by the media. i worked my way through college delivering pizzas 15hrs/wk and didn't really have to struggle at all. the first time i made 20,000 bucks in a year, i thought i was the richest guy around. if you can avoid living up to other people's "standards" and actually pay attention to what you spend your money on, you will find that the average american is EXTREMELY wasteful with their income. "reduce, reuse, recycle" is not only a great way to deal with your garbage but also your entire life. people making $30,000/yr complain about how difficult it is to get by as they cruise their 2000 jetta to the mall to buy some new shoes and a few cds. stop being the mega-consumer the government wants you to be and you'll be suprised how much money you can save.

** disclaimer - i am aware of 'special' cases and exceptions, this post is in reference to the majority of the people out there. not everyone can be 'special'.
posted by ggggarret at 1:57 PM on May 8, 2001

Dixhuit--see Paul Fussell's book Class. Says it all. I am surprised that no one has yet said that a lousy job and/or wage is the "reward" for not being capable of doing a job that pays better and offers more emotionally.
Meanwhile, there is always something suspect about "living" the life of someone on welfare, collecting garbage, being a member of a minority group--all of which have been done. The person play- living this life is merely doing it for a short time and has the escape of returning to "regular" life--writer, professor, journalist. By thus doing this sort of thing, you miss the total hoplessness involved in knowing things are not likely to change for you.
posted by Postroad at 1:58 PM on May 8, 2001

If you were to raise everyone to the 'living wage' of $15/hour, would that then become basically the minimum wage? Then those making $15/hour would be the equivilant of those making $7 or $8 after the prices at the Wal-marts and Wendy's go up to compensate for the increased labor cost. Then we are back to the current situation with higher numbers. It seems to me that there will always be low-end jobs and those who work them beyond puberty will continue to struggle to get by regardless of what they may be paid. Do I care? yes, in as much as it motivated me to get through college. Do I have a solution? I'm not sure there is one.
posted by srw12 at 2:01 PM on May 8, 2001

I'm floored that people have to go to such lengths to learn how the underclass lives; these vignettes are my life, people. Pay certainly shows us what we value as a society. We don't value those who prepare our food, teach our children, and data entry; but we do value those who exploit the labor of those that do these things (i.e., Temp Agencies) and those that do little and bill for phone calls (i.e., Attorneys). Education doesn't necessarily have anything to do with it; I make as much working as a supervisor in a warehouse as my mom, who has a Ph.D. and has tenure.

Nonetheless, the living wage problem is a big one for the small businesses out there; and the market has problems with dealing with government interferences with the Supply Curve. There is an oversupply of English Professors with Ph.Ds out there, yet there is a shortage of Nurses. I would expect nursing salaries to increase, and then the Supply would begin to increase to meet it. I would rather mandate fewer hours working than increasing the money, nice as it would be (although I'm not making minimum wage. That baby needs to upped to about $10/hour, minimum). I think in general the problems are less with governmental response and more with poor consumer choices. We can direct the market by our actions; if we insist upon better wages we should get them.

As for me, I'm going to Law School. If you can't beat them...
posted by norm at 2:04 PM on May 8, 2001

capt.crackpipe: The quote from Hamilton about how the "rich and the well-born" will rule doesn't seem to me to mean that he'd love the system as it is today. He was stating the obvious, for his day, which applies in our day, only in a different way. There are no longer the rich and well-born and masses. Not that Hamilton himself an aristocrat, but . . . . Anyway, there was no modern capitalism in Hamilton's day. There are now the well-schooled and professionally trained and the administrators, journalists, etc., and masses. And surveys consistently show that those at the lower strata of the economic system hold more authoritarian views, year after year. That's a big reason why inequality hurts democracy.

Too many of the elites of our day, I think, seem not to care or are blind to the harm they cause. Also, everything is tied to not "the rich and well-born," who no longer exist anymore except in some people's fantasies, but Big Money. How else can you explain, say, NY Times columnist and economic Paul Krugman saying it's good to hire child labor in Burma or somewhere, because otherwise those children will be prostitutes? Why does the (extremely well-schooled) Krugman go along with this party line? Because otherwise he doesn't get paid?
posted by raysmj at 2:06 PM on May 8, 2001

SpecialK: The official poverty line was set in the 1960s, based upon the cost of food. Food took up approximately 1/3 of a family budget, hence the poverty line was set for three times the cost of the minimal food budget for a household. This was before the gas crisis of the '70s. Nowadays, food takes up maybe 1/5th of a family's budget but the official government poverty line has only been updated to reflect the effect of inflation, not the rising cost of housing, medical care, and transportation. I'd say that the minimum amount a family of four could live upon is 50% more than the official poverty line, and that's even stretching the budget. These figures are all from John Schwarz' The Forgotten Americans, published in 1992. It's a little bit older, but still relevant today, I think.

What's most concerning is Schwarz' analysis of the causes of working poverty. A majority of low-wage employment would still exist even if we eliminated pay inequalities between men and women, as well as between minorities and whites, even if the high school dropout rate fell to zero, and even if we were able to raise everyone's academic skills to those of the upper half of the population. Something is seriously amiss when the usual culprits cited for economic hardship fall short of providing answers.
posted by kathryn at 2:12 PM on May 8, 2001

Yes, it was written almost thirty years ago, but Studs Terkel's Working is among the most moving books I've ever read, a profound assembly of the thoughts of people in largely non-profound jobs. To think that it documents the endgame of a manufacturing-based economy and heralds the start of a degrading, low-paying service-based economy is to look into a future that resembles a void.

And if this subject doesn't matter to you then don't try to tell me; you just might not be worth knowing.
posted by argybarg at 2:14 PM on May 8, 2001

By the way, raysmj, I'd put journalists spiritually, perhaps, among the elite, but financially among the masses. Granted that it was a few years ago, but a good-sized daily paper here in the Pacific Northwest was offering reporters, many with doctorates in journalism from Ivy League schools, a starting salary of ...

(drum roll) ....

posted by argybarg at 2:18 PM on May 8, 2001

argybag: Oh, I used to be a journalist and making less than that, in the Deep South. We had an Ivy League grad where I worked, just sorta ended up there. But in the Pacific Northwest that figure seems hard to believe. Pathetic. Must have Ivy Leaguers just dying to work in journalism anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, I'm assuming. In any case, I was thinking national/higher level, and also Krugman level, which aren't necessarily the same. Many people at the larger dailies or wire services do quite OK, near upper middle class, at least.
posted by raysmj at 2:26 PM on May 8, 2001

argybag: I'm also thinking "spiritually" elite, more in regard to influence, with certain journalists. And maybe it's just me, I'm only 34, but I don't remember seeing so many blatantly slanted articles regarding trade/economic policy as I've seen in recent times. You can't tell based on ideology -- or what you presume the journalist's or pundit's ideology or point of view to be -- much anymore either. Particular opinions seems to be based more on the journalists are working, sorry to say. (A nutball like Charley Reese, tough, he can be tolerated, for even if he's disgusted with the current economic system, he tells you there's nothing that can be done and it's always been this way, sadly, and government is all 100 percent evil, etc.)
posted by raysmj at 2:36 PM on May 8, 2001

argy: excuse me, that's "based on *where* the journalists are working." Also couldn't help but notice, someone said there are too many English PhDs and not enough nurses, and maybe problems like this affect wages, etc. Then he's going to law school? All right.
posted by raysmj at 3:05 PM on May 8, 2001

Well, if you've worked as a reporter (I was only at a suburban weekly, but that qualifies), then you know the subtle influences that editors apply to get certain types of stories published and certain types kept out. Ehrenreich is right to point the finger at the evil influence that advertisers have on journalism (with the invitation of marketing departments and publishers). Stories seen as "negative" about business (one VP I worked for called any negative story "back-stabbing") are seen as revenue killers. It should be said that the media is mostly self-policing; most stories that get killed, get killed out of the fear of what the advertiser might say.

However it works, I think the general bent of journalism away from discussing the issues of the working classes has less to do with haughty reporters than business-model thinking directed from the management level.

Perhaps the same explains why there are so very few great songs, movies, books, TV shows made on the same issue. The poor are made as invisible as possible.
posted by argybarg at 3:06 PM on May 8, 2001

I dunno, there was a survey (last year?) saying that median income for journalists was pretty high in relation to the areas they lived in, resulting in a skewed perspective of things...
posted by owillis at 3:08 PM on May 8, 2001

There are no longer the rich and well-born and masses.

You don’t believe there is an American aristocracy? That’s absolutely baffling to me. I’d point to the current President for evidence to the contrary. He, and his former opponent represents plutocracy, because they are plutocracy. The upper-class overwhelming staffs and advises the government and are neither elected nor chosen by any democratic means. Sounds like plutocracy to me.

Also, everything is tied to not "the rich and well-born," who no longer exist anymore except in some people's fantasies, but Big Money.

I’m sorry, abstractly seperating the upper-class from their assets is logically inconsistent. Regardless of how the ruling class is indoctrinated into believing governmental management (which is only occasionally referred to as “public service”) is birthright, I refuse to believe the majority was born to endure the whims of a minority’s fashionably inter-changable ideology.

I think the general bent of journalism away from discussing the issues of the working classes has less to do with haughty reporters than business-model thinking directed from the management level.

You’re so right. Most big circ newspapers could care less about the working classes, because they’re not in an affluent demographic. Readers are the product newspapers pitch to advertisers, and the middle- and upper-classes have a disposable income advertisers want to get at. Which is why there is a consistent derth in of media for the lower-classes: no advertisers, which means it’s not profitable to run a media outlet geared to them.
posted by capt.crackpipe at 3:16 PM on May 8, 2001

Newspaper marketing departments talk quite nakedly about "delivering readers" to advertisers. When you talk to them about the newspaper itself, they go all blank.
posted by argybarg at 3:18 PM on May 8, 2001

capt.crackpipe writes: You don’t believe there is an American aristocracy? That’s absolutely baffling to me. I’d point to the current President for evidence to the contrary.

Bush is absolutely not an artistocrat in the old European sense, nor in the sense that Hamilton used. No. He is simply wealthy and well-connected, and to a large degree dependent on others much, much wealthier than himself for his election and nomination, correct? There were people out there wealthier than himself. Also, Bush was as much of a brand name as anything else in American politics. He's always described as a "tool" on these pages. Of whom? His dad? Nope. I presume the reference is made to the aforementioned Big Money.
posted by raysmj at 3:31 PM on May 8, 2001

cap'n: Bush is also not well-spoken enough for Hamilton to have even begun to consider him "well-born." Why?
posted by raysmj at 3:34 PM on May 8, 2001

Most big circ newspapers could care less about the working classes, because they’re not in an affluent demographic

Contributing to the slight topic drift: What's the cause for this? Hearst made his zillions by pandering to the mass market; is it just that blue-collar readers are presumed not to exist any more, having all been swallowed up by that great Moloch, television? A mass medium should appeal to the masses, right?

Secondary question -- If television has entirely replaced newspapers as the mass media of choice for less-affluent Americans, where's the rabble-rousing? Does it not sell?
posted by snarkout at 3:35 PM on May 8, 2001

I think gggarrett has an excellent point about consumerism helping to keep people stuck in the poverty cycle, and the role media plays in heightening the (innate in all humans, IMHO) desire for "more." It makes me furious to see lottery tickets, sports and designer clothing & paraphernalia, etc., marketed to people who need to be spending money on job training or education.

This is not to decry Ehrenreich's point that the wages paid to people are inadequate without benefits like health insurance to fill in the gaps.

Yet a pure economic approach would say that the wage is so low because that is what the work is WORTH in the marketplace, and as srw12 points out, and I agree, a higher wage would just lead to higher costs for production of all things, leading to an overall inflation of prices throughout the economy and we might be right back where we started.

Perhaps then, the answer IS in a social safety net of benefits. (Yes, I am a yellow dog Democrat, fire away if you want to.) And I am a hypocrite -- I'm paid a lot more than a living wage, but do I give any of it away as an individual? Not as much as I should. And I feel I earn it. I'm in middle management and I work 55 hours a week at a high-stress job. But do I earn it more than someone who folds shirts all day? I really, REALLY do not know.
posted by jfwlucy at 3:43 PM on May 8, 2001

snarkout: More aptly, perhaps, Pulitzer held center-left views, and editorialized in a populist direction. This is highly relevant. He steered the direction of mass opinion in a way you could hardly imagine possible today. And, sure, he was a member of the elite strata, both in terms of influence and money, of his day.
posted by raysmj at 3:48 PM on May 8, 2001

there was no modern capitalism in Hamilton's day

Oh, that one can't get past without qualification. Hamilton's father was a merchant; and most of the revolutionary leaders were exemplars of the emergence of modern capitalism during the eighteenth century. And it was that empowerment of the middle-classes which came from the century's expansion of trade which motivated the desire for both political and intellectual enlightenment. The classic comment on the period, at least in relation to Anglo-American relations, is that people only start talking about "liberty" when they don't have to think about where their next meal is coming from.

(Which I think has a bearing on this thread. What better way of preventing the low-paid from organising themselves than to place them under constant threat of redundancy and employer scrutiny? After all, the Low Pay Unit in Britain, and I assume its equivalent in the US, is as paternalistic as it gets. The highest and lowest paid in society, invariably, are the least unionised.)

Which is why I'm drawn to the Zapatista philosophy, which distinguishes itself from most radical leftists in one simple way: it demands justice for the dispossessed, not power. Leave politicking to the politicians, but make your case for justice irresistible.

Although there's the famous bit of Plato's Republic where Socrates argues that the fastest path to misery is to try and escape the class into which one is born. And in Britain, that's quite true. Noel Gallagher of all people said in an interview that it generally takes two generations to join the middle-classes, because no matter how much you earn or where you live, your accent and your attitudes will betray you, if not your kids'.

Perhaps the same explains why there are so very few great songs, movies, books, TV shows made on the same issue. The poor are made as invisible as possible.

Ahem. The blues. Woody Guthrie. Billy Bragg. The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist. All of John Steinbeck's output. George Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier. Boys From The Blackstuff. I could very much go on.
posted by holgate at 3:54 PM on May 8, 2001

As someone who has worked for minimum wage (which at the time was $4.25) at a fast food restaurant for more than three years, only to switch to another low waged job but instead in retail, I read with interest this story on someone going "undercover" in low paying jobs.

The thing that struck me was how aloof the writer of the book seemed. These people need their stories told. What's that, we can't speak for ourselves.

Currently, with 600 dollars in credit card bills to pay every month and another $350 dollars to pay for rent, I manage to squeak by at a job that pays $7.00, a job that I took because I hated my better paying retail job. I've never made more than $12,000 a year.

As for journalists pay, starting out, you squeak above poverty. For example, I applied for a video editing job at a television station in one of the top twenty news markets in America. The job requires knowledge of how to edit video, and near-degree level knowledge of the news. The job paid $7.00 and hour.

As you move up, pay shoots up, but I really have no delusions of making more than $30,000 or $40,000 at most... I think if there is any liberal bias in the media, it would be because most beginning journalists are poor.

Back to the subject of the airs the writer had... Didn't any of the students in Berkeley work low paying jobs? Maybe it's just a midwestern state university thing to pay your way through by working at an embarrassing low paying job...
posted by drezdn at 5:25 PM on May 8, 2001

Don't assume a law degree=$$$, write me if you'd like some info on the subject. Don't get me wrong, love my career, but if money is your only motivation you could be in for a shock.
The minimum wage should be enough so that someone working full-time can pay rent, eat, etc. That would be at least $10/hr. here in Dallas and more other places. Big companies like Wendy's and Wal-Mart would not have to jack up their prices, but they would have to trim their profit margins. That's why they've kept the minimum wage so low. Market forces have already driven it up to $7 or $8 for most of the fast food jobs and things in my neighborhood.
posted by sixdifferentways at 5:35 PM on May 8, 2001

ggggarret complains about other people being consumers, buying worthless things like "shoes" and "CDs" while driving that whoo-hoo extravagant Volkswagen, Yet this same guy has a site with a Web cam and little Flash bubbles everywhere. One man's conspicuous consumption is another's simple lifestyle.
posted by Erendadus at 6:37 PM on May 8, 2001


Ahem. The blues. Woody Guthrie. Billy Bragg. The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist. All of John Steinbeck's output. George Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier. Boys From The Blackstuff. I could very much go on.

And Raymond Carver. And Vittorio De Sica. And -- give him credit -- Bruce Springsteen. And The Clash. So yes, much great art has been made over the issue of the low-wage life. But I should have clarified: the issue isn't taken up much now. And it has always been outshouted by the sufferings of the upper classes.
posted by argybarg at 7:54 PM on May 8, 2001

Argybarg, have you ever listnened to rap?
posted by keithl at 8:07 PM on May 8, 2001

A couple of people have hit on it here, and they talked about it a bit but sort of skated over it in the article - it's not just about increasing the minimum wage. That just sets the bar that much higher and through inflation becomes relatively the same as today. It is still a part of things, but not the whole story.

The other part is social services, and giving people the ability to use them. Medical coverage is the big thing, but also daycare, decent schools (and after-school programs usually), and a decent unemployment insurance system. Plus laws that are enforced/enforcable, with some level of free legal council available (or alternative dispute resolution mechanisms in place). It's an organic system, and it can't be improved by paying attention to just the pay issue.

And people have to be able to use the services that are available. To take reasonable time to see a doctor when necessary, to not fear being fired without cause (documented cause, referring to written policies that conform to laws on the matter).

We have things slightly better here in Canada along these lines than in the US, and many of the things mentioned in the article don't happen to the same extent here. There is no employer drug testing that I know of, for instance. Our medicare system, though under seige and far from perfect, is still available to all - and most provinces go to some lengths to make the systems accessible, not just free (I'm thinking of the CLSC system here in Quebec - basically, neighbourhood free clinics). We also have mandated $5/day daycare, which I'm sure is helpful to many.

The huge fear here is that the powers that be in Corporate America will sue the Cdn gov't over medicare, saying it is an unfair subsidy and inappropriate under NAFTA. To some extent all of our social policies are under that threat (and many others).

Point being that we have a huge interest in seeing both our own country improve, to live up to its promise - but also to see the US get a handle on some of these things.
posted by mikel at 8:08 PM on May 8, 2001

I don't know if there are any economists here, but the main reason the minimum wage is not $15/hr is because the companies would simply *fire* the workers and work with less than keep the workers paid. At $6.50/hr, my local McDonalds will hire basically anyone who walks through the door. To someone of my political persuasion, *this* is a safety net.

If you work hard, in America 2001, it's not hard to get a job that pays well within a couple of years.

Additionally, why do we talk about "families" when we talk about the minimum wage? While we've discussed this before, it's worth repeating: If you can't afford a family, don't have one. I have all the sympathy in the world for a hard-working man or woman who loses their job when they already have a family. But...

Also, as someone mentioned above, the "poverty level" in America would make someone rich in many, many nations in the world. A local study showed that someone could, at the prices in the States, eat for $1.40 or so per day per person and get all the nutrients that they need for an active lifestyle. You don't have a right to a new TV. Or a giant apartment. You do have the right to the opportunity to make yourself better.

To end on a less negative note, though, I do think the minimum wage should be raised to something equivalent to $7.50 here in Oregon (of course, the housing and food prices are different everywhere, so the cost should be adjusted by state). Such a small increase would not be enough to trigger any large scale changes in the way American Business operates.

(In addition, I think the Western Nations should jointly establish an "Overseas Minimum Wage" for products made by Western Nations in the Third World, introduced gradually, but that's another topic)

posted by Kevs at 8:34 PM on May 8, 2001

Since when did McDonald's take upon itself the role of the Victorian workhouse?
posted by holgate at 8:58 PM on May 8, 2001

Kevs: Did no one ever teach you about the impossibility of full employment? Whatever your political persuasion may be, you should know that simply by hearing that Alan Greenspan wants to raise interest rates when the unemployment rate reaches too low. Nothing against the work ethic as spelled out in your note -- not at all -- but don't go overboard. And you can't eat on $1.40 a day here in the U.S., so what's your point?
posted by raysmj at 9:13 PM on May 8, 2001

You can too. Not gourmet food, but $1.40/day is well within the realm of possibility. A pound of uncooked pasta is 79 cents, tomato sauce $1.50. A loaf of bread is $1. A can of beans (12-16oz) is less than a dollar. Rice is dirt cheap. Green peppers are $1.50/lb. Zucchini is 69c/lb. Bananas can go from 20-80 cents a pound, potatoes for little more (and you can eat the whole potato. You might not enjoy it, but it's possible. (Not counting gas/electricity to heat the food, water to cook it in, rent to have somewhere to cook and eat, etc.)
posted by fable at 9:53 PM on May 8, 2001

fable: please. Tomato sauce is $1.50. Do you eat that alone and call it a day? Green peppers at $1.50 is less than $1.40. Zucchini at 69 cents times two is $1.38. Enough strawberries to last you a weekend will cost more than $1.40, and I don't consider them to be "gourmet food." Strawberries are required foodstuffs at the Mikell compound, which is a tiny apartment without a big screen TV.

You may repsond with "pets or meat" if you wish, though.
posted by raysmj at 10:23 PM on May 8, 2001


Where do you suppose one of your upward looking workers of 2001 get the spirit to continue laboring so that one uncertain day in the future they'll have attained that "well paying" job? And then there's the uncertainty that your job is yours to keep. When has our laborer become a cell of the worthless corporate fat that needs to be trimmed away? What does that worker do then?

If, as you say minimum wage was $15 an hour, employers would "*fire*" most employess, you're wrong. Say, another company recognizes that productivity is down, positive cash flow running the wrong direction as nobody buys the shoddy goods, he hires more, gets the job done right and and they who choose not to pay their employees livable, dignified wages go out of business because they're unable to deliver their particular goods to the consumer. But of course the real world of WTO's, FTAA's and the like would take those jobs elsewhere to an even greater degree than they've already done.

Like Ehrenreich states in her volley: Who tells the story of the unrepresented working poor? It is that which impels the liberal to better the world for all. It is about as black and white as you can get: Do you care about others who have less than you? And are you willing to do something about it?

There is no argument. Indeed, some may rise from the grease trap of endlessly vicious poverty and make a mark. What mark that is and who it benefits is something that would remain to be seen. Would that previously impoverished worker dedicate his life to those still mired in his old alma mater or would he join the ranks of careless minions for whom the media mostly speaks? If the latter, has he truly succeeded? I guess it depends on your political slant.

It's been said, something like at least:

You can break a man's legs, his arms or his back and he'll still find a reason for living. But when you break his spirit. . .
posted by crasspastor at 11:16 PM on May 8, 2001

How many freakin' syntax mistakes can a man make in a post? I'm so embarrassed. But I think the gist remains.
posted by crasspastor at 3:50 AM on May 9, 2001

I'm reminded of the university student in Edinburgh who decided to live entirely on porridge oats for his first term, buying sacks in bulk, so that he could devote his remaining money to "entertainment".

His was the first case of scurvy recorded in Scotland since the war.

Isn't a simple fact, though, that the poorest in society are also those with the worst diets, because they tend to rely upon processed, quick-cook foods that can just be bunged in a microwave? (My gf still has "ramen weeks" when the grad school funds run low.) After all, if you're working long hours, or taking that second job, you're not going to spend your mid-evening break in front of the stove -- that is, if you have access to a stove.
posted by holgate at 6:03 AM on May 9, 2001

Salon's rundown on the book includes a link to NPR's Poverty Poll results from Jan-Feb this year. Haven't spent a lot of time there, but it looks interesting. Link includes a run-down of the results, links to NPRs reportings based on the findings, and--best of all to my mind--the straight-up results (frequencies) and an on-line version of the poll. A brief overview makes it look like a model of how polls ought to be reported.
posted by claxton6 at 6:47 AM on May 9, 2001

The thing that struck me was how aloof the writer of the book seemed. These people need their stories told. What's that, we can't speak for ourselves.

apparently not, since so many parts of this story are new to some people. or at least, the story isn't getting out.

the Canadian stuff sounds good to me. what's the downside?

Kevs: i disagree in general, though you seem an agreeable enough sort of person.

the link is about why McDonalds is not a safety net and why If you work hard, in America 2001, it's not hard to get a job that pays well within a couple of years. i guess you're just disagreeing, but do you have evidence or something else to appeal to beside your opinion?

While we've discussed this before, it's worth repeating: If you can't afford a family, don't have one. I have all the sympathy in the world for a hard-working man or woman who loses their job when they already have a family. But...

it's not that simple. okay advice, but the system needs to account for more.

Also, as someone mentioned above, the "poverty level" in America would make someone rich in many, many nations in the world.

if you took the money there. but the cost of living is a lot higher here.

then i like your more progressive minimum wage ideas at the end.


ps: claxton6, thanks for adding the great links!
posted by Sean Meade at 10:55 AM on May 9, 2001

fable: please. Tomato sauce is $1.50. Do you eat that alone and call it a day? Green peppers at $1.50 is less than $1.40. Zucchini at 69 cents times two is $1.38. Enough strawberries to last you a weekend will cost more than $1.40, and I don't consider them to be "gourmet food."

The comment was that a person (not a couple or a family) can live well-nourished and healthy on $1.40 worth of food per day. Tomato sauce may be $1.50 for a jar but you don't eat the whole jar in a day. If you tried it -- budget yourself, $42 worth of groceries per person for the entire month of June -- I bet you'd find that you can be very creative and very well-fed for a lot less money than you'd imagine.
posted by Dreama at 12:26 PM on May 9, 2001

Dreama: The original comment was that *outside of the U.S. one could live that well on $1.40 per day*. I live very cheaply here, tanks, and managed to even save a bit while on a grad school/freelancing budget but . . . strawberries for a weekend cost $2.25 or something, grapes are unbelievable. If you want to go it alone and live on rice and tomato paste and bananas, go ahead, though. Chances are, you'll be working so much you won't have time to cook much. Also, I used to buy potatoes when I first started working -- they were eaten away by bugs. You'd put them in the refrigerator, then have to leave them out later. Bananas spoil awfully fast, especially if you're single and there is no one around to help eat them. Grapes, even in the fridge or a ziplock bag, can spoil within a week or so. Apples keep a lot longer, but they're not especially cheap. Groceries have also increased in the past year. I could keep going.
posted by raysmj at 1:54 PM on May 9, 2001

Congratulations to mecran01 for recognising how popular this topic was going to be!
I always remember the saying that it costs more to be poor than it does to be rich. Your car breaks down, you can't get to work, there goes a day's wages. Your washing machine's on the fritz, you've got no savings, hello laundromat!
posted by flowerdale at 9:17 PM on May 14, 2001

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