In the late 1990s, best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich was prompted by a magazine editor to explore the plight of the working poor during a period of prosperity and low unemployment. Her two-year adventure as an entry level worker in cleaning, waitressing, and retail sales became a bestseller, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. The author describes the difficulties she experienced in getting job interviews, pay scales, management attitudes, and the resulting housing and transportation challenges. Through it all, she conveys a true appreciation for her fellow workers, and how they coped.
What she found was illuminating and distressing at the same time. Jobs usually were not available close to affordable housing, and transportation to get to a job was practically impossible unless you had a car, a luxury that was not covered by pay of $6 or $7 or even $8 an hour. The author disclosed at the beginning of the book that she did have a car, a laptop for her reporter’s notes at the end of each day, and an ATM card for emergencies, but she had just one pair of sensible shoes, and a few pieces of work clothes in her suitcase. Nonetheless, the people she worked with (usually not management, by the way) had a strong work ethic, pride in the job they were doing, and a social structure that almost defied description. Most of the women she worked with in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota were Caucasian. Managers were almost always male, often young and somewhat arrogant, beginning their way up the corporate ladder.
As I read the book, I wondered what a similar exploration would reveal today, with a higher national unemployment rate and a more difficult economy. Pay scales have increased: the federal hourly minimum wage in 1998 was $5.15; minimum wage today is $7.25. However, a living wage (the amount needed to provide basic shelter/food/clothing) for one adult today is $12.34 in Fairfax County; for a single parent with one child, the living wage needed jumps to $21.12. The average one bedroom apartment in Fairfax County rents for around $1500. So, a person working 40 hours a week at minimum wage falls far short of being able to afford housing, much less the other necessities of life. For many, more than one job is needed to make ends barely meet. Is it any wonder that the working poor are doubling and tripling up to share housing, or driving long distances to their jobs from other jurisdictions where housing is less expensive?
There is a lot of discussion today about the “haves” and “have nots,” and the supposed decline of the middle class, but the plight of the working poor has changed very little. Finding a job, any job, is very hard today, and entry level wages provide barely a subsistence level, in Northern Virginia or anyplace else in the country. The American dream is an elusive concept for many today, but we know the dream does not, will not, should not, die. Take another look at Nickel and Dimed. Be saddened, get angry, but most of all, be roused to action to make a difference and reduce the divisions and disparities in our society.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at [email protected]