Thursday, August 11, 2011

Barely Scraping By in the USA

Barbara Ehrenreich's award winning book "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" was published ten years ago. It was a ground breaking look at the lives of folks who were barely scraping by on low wages. Ehrenreich went under cover, working at jobs like waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, and discount chain worker and quickly learned the realities of how hard people working for $7 an hour actually had to work to manage to live indoors.

Ehrenreich has written an afterward to the book, ten years later. Seen here in MoJo:

At the time I wrote Nickel and Dimed, I wasn't sure how many people it directly applied to—only that the official definition of poverty was way off the mark, since it defined an individual earning $7 an hour, as I did on average, as well out of poverty. But three months after the book was published, the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, DC, issued a report entitled "Hardships in America: The Real Story of Working Families," which found an astounding 29 percent of American families living in what could be more reasonably defined as poverty, meaning that they earned less than a bare-bones budget covering housing, child care, health care, food, transportation, and taxes—though not, it should be noted, any entertainment, meals out, cable TV, Internet service, vacations, or holiday gifts. Twenty-nine percent is a minority, but not a reassuringly small one, and other studies in the early 2000s came up with similar figures.

Sorry to keep saying it - but remember, this was 10 years ago.

When you read about the hardships I found people enduring while I was researching my book—the skipped meals, the lack of medical care, the occasional need to sleep in cars or vans—you should bear in mind that those occurred in the best of times. The economy was growing, and jobs, if poorly paid, were at least plentiful.

And now for the chilling part:

In 2000, I had been able to walk into a number of jobs pretty much off the street. Less than a decade later, many of these jobs had disappeared and there was stiff competition for those that remained. It would have been impossible to repeat my Nickel and Dimed "experiment," had I had been so inclined, because I would probably never have found a job.

She's right. At a time when it's harder to get into McDonald's than Harvard, she wouldn't be able to get the same kind of low wage jobs that sustained her while she researched "Nickel and Dimed."

And speaking of depressing - the results of a survey in The Consumerist:

According to the NFCC survey, 64% of Americans don't have enough cash available to them to cover a $1,000 emergency.

As wages remain stagnant, increasing numbers of working folks are living paycheck to paycheck, one emergency away from financial disaster.

cross-posted at MainSt/

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