Monday, April 28, 2008

On (Not) Getting By in America

Have you ever eaten at a mom and pop restaurant? Have you ever paid attention to the waitresses? Have you ever wondered what their life must be like given their vocation? What's it like to live in their shoes?

Ever been to Wal-Mart? Or K-Mart? Or any other kind of big-box mart? Ever wonder how the non-smiling employees are doing economically? Ever wonder what the promise of always low prices means for employee satisfaction and well-being?

How about all the other low-wage jobs that pay anywhere from $5 to $10/hour? Ever wonder how people make it on those wages? Under what circumstances do people take those kinds of jobs? Why do they keep those jobs? What's life like for them?

Barbara Ehrenreich cares about poverty, and she tried to walk, work, and live in the shoes of a low-wage employee. What is it like to earn poverty-level a single woman, with a Ph.D, a strong work ethic and lots of personal motivation? Hers is a fascinating story full of humor, wit, painful realities and deeply rooted injustices. Note that her point in writing the book is not about how people can't find a way to make it, but rather, they can't if they get hired at many of the businesses that we frequent often. Nickel and Dimed is a must read.

Here's some of what the backcover states:
Millions of Americans work full-time, year-round, for poverty-level wages. Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them, inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that any job equals a better life. But how can anyone survive, let alone prosper, on six to seven dollars an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich moved from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, taking the cheapest lodgings available and accepting work as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing home aide, and Wal-Mart salesperson. She soon discovered that even the "lowliest" occupations require exhausting mental and physical efforts. And one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors.

Think about it: if you earn $7/hour, 40/hrs a week, that equals $280/wk; or $14,560/yr.
You rent a two-bedroom, one bath, home for $500/month: $6000/yr.
That leaves you $8,560.
You pay utilities - water average $20/mnth; sewer avg $30 mnth; gas avg $100/mnth; electric avg $80 mnth: $230mnth or $2760/yr.
That leaves you with $5800.
You pay taxes - about 20% which equals $2912. That leaves $2888/yr, or about $241/mnth or about $56/wk to cover car payments, car fuel, car insurance, renters insurance, health insurance, medical bills, clothing expenses, and food.

Even if you earned $11/hr, which is $22,880, a person is still barely above poverty-level. Now you can afford a $3000 car, the $1000 car insurance, the $1500 car fuel, the $1000 car repair bills, and just enough money for a $50/wk grocery bill. But still no health insurance, no clothing expenses, let alone the miscellaneous needs that come up like cleaning supplies, personal hygeine items, birthday and Christmas gifts,

And all this assumes you live by yourself.

Consider how important it is to you to pay as little as possible for products or services: the less you pay, the less the employees get paid. America has a interesting track record of trying to squeeze as much output from workers as possible for as little wage as they can get away with. Especially for low-skill jobs. So the next time you eat at a restaurant, or shop at Wal-Mart, or visit your great-aunt in a nursing home, go out of your way to smile at the employees, compliment them, treat them with dignity and respect, and encourage the employers to pay their employees a more decent wage. Or something like that.

I'm still trying to figure out what to do with this book. I just know I ought to do something constructive. The Prophets often make a direct connection between God's Righteousness and Man's Justice: judgment comes when we persist in unjust economic systems that debase the poorer amongst us so that a few of us can have the conveniences and pleasures we don't want to give up. See Amos. Or Isaiah. Or Nathan. Or Jesus.


Tom said...

Tim, one of the things about this is the assumption that a person should be able to make a living on every job in America. If that were the case a ton of jobs would simply disappear. I think there is room for jobs that only supplement an income. The book points to big box stores like Walmart but there are a ton of smaller businesses that would not survive if they had to pay higher wages. My son has worked the last two years at a donut shop that would not exist if they had to pay wages that were high enough to make a living on.

Yes, I'm sure that a lot of businesses could raise wages more but the real answer is to provide a way for those who need to make a living at a single job to get such a job. Not simply make everyone raise their pay scales.

One thing about the author's work that I found helpful though, was that poor people actually have to pay more for the same things that wealthier people have. Mortgage rates are higher, car insurance is more expensive, health care can be more expensive because they wait so long to get help that they can end up in the emergency room, etc. Poor people also tend to live farther away from services that they need so it costs more. If you can't afford to travel very far you may end up buying your groceries at a convenience store at very high prices. I think these are some of the things the Church needs to be involved with.

Tim Hallman said...

You are right about wage-expectations; not every job ought to provide a livable wage. However, if a business is going to require someone to work a forty-hour week, at $7/hr, that's not really going to work as a supplemental income. Even if someone works a forty-hour week at $11/hr, what's the value of getting a part-time job on top of that for $7/hr? So now it's like working 60 hours for $9, which is even worse.

On the other hand, I suppose this is where the church can get involved: helping adults with family responsibilities find the kinds of jobs that will fit their fiscal needs as well as logistic realities. Workers need an Advocate...although you have to wonder why people don't do this for themselves.

A book I read by Beth Shulman: The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans and Their Families. In it she chronicled the lives of families trying to make it on low-wage jobs because of whatever legitimate reasons. Unfortunately it seems like too many corporations purposely keep wages down because they can get away with it, and thus increase their profit sharing.

Obviously, no easy answers. But I like what you are suggesting.