Tuesday, November 10, 2009

While I was home, I bought a ton of books (between my father giving me gift certificates at the Bolton bookstore and Indigo and all those coupons designed to get people shopping at Canadian stores like Roots and Indigo, I had fun). In addition to lugging all of those back to Korea to read (minus the perhaps six or so I read while at home), I also grabbed Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch from my shelves and threw them in my suitcase.

Reading books on (not) getting by in America and the (futile) pursuit of the American dream seemed to be a logical choice, given the current state of the American economy. Interestingly, I didn't find Canada to be in a particularly difficult economic situation and read all about why Canada wasn't hit in the same way as the States in various magazines. However, Time Magazine's articles on Vegas prompted me to finally get around to reading Ehrenreich's books.
"When someone works for less pay than she can live on - when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently - then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The 'working poor', as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else."
I really enjoyed reading Nickel and Dimed. After getting past my own recollections of my days working minimum wage jobs (and the summer that I worked two, back to back during the week, one of the two on weekends as well), I found it an insightful look at low-wage America and the impossibility that the working poor could ever live in decent conditions on minimum wage. It also touched on the intrusion of the workplace into the personal lives and minds of their workers: psychological tests for hiring, the make-work tasks that come when workers have a free moment, rather than allowing them time to use the bathroom or rest, drug tests, shifts that aren't regular enough to allow for scheduling of other commitments, and complete lack of not just benefits but even unpaid sick days. It is then that you see how the state of the working poor connect to the state of the middle class.

Because in Bait and Switch, when Ehrenreich enters the world of the white-collar unemployed, she finds that the corporations require from their employees the same personality assessments, aimed at producing people with likeability, under a certain age, who maintain a positive attitude and passion and dedication for a workplace that makes no promises in return: no job security and hence no security of their benefits, including health and pensions. The promise that hard work will equal success when in fact often success and high salaries lead workers to be identified as prime cost-cutting targets.

Both of the books end calling for workers to unite, to work together to confront the corporations that make all the rules and yet offer so little to the people who work for them. As Ehrenreich points out, corporations get lots of advantages from governments largely in return for jobs - jobs that they often don't provide or if they do are not at wages that allow a decent life. She calls for the power of numbers of the unemployed, or underemployed, or working poor to be directed at looking at the systemic problems that exist in the way we have chosen to set up our society as it relates to work.

If you've read the books, what do you think of Ehrenreich's analysis?


Blogger Smithie said...

I think she's freaking brilliant, is what I think.

She didn't make me feel too great about childcare, but then, there's not too much that one should be feeling great about with American childcare. Even the workers in the top-tier centers charging 4-5k/month are not paid a true middle class wage. The only way for most of us to decently compensate somebody for "women's work" is to hire a self-employed daycare provider/cleaner/etc. And even then, you just have to hope like hell that she's got access to health care coverage.

I assigned this book to several English 101 classes, and they universally told me that minimum-wage work was supposed to be a stop on the path to better things, and that anybody who let themselves get stuck there was not really trying. The book was way less compelling for them (actual minimum-wage workers going to night school) than it was to me (pampered upper middle class liberal).

10:21 AM  
Blogger antijen said...

Good review, Amanda. I really liked "Nicked and Dimed" and "Bait and Switch" and have "Bright-sided" on my list.

I've known a lot of people who get defensive when social and economic inequities are pointed out to them. They've typically responded that they've worked HARD to get where they are! No one gave it to them! The point that they're missing is that it may only take a small change in circumstances to be in a situation where they are working just as hard or harder AND GETTING VERY LITTLE BENEFIT FROM IT.

10:13 PM  

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