WASHINGTON -- The view from the White House, not to mention much of Capitol
Hill, is idyllic. True, there are a few blotches on the landscape--a queasy
stock market and what conservatives see as a long-running deterioration of
America's core moral values. But other than that, what's to complain?
Americans are gratefully cashing in their tax rebates to redo the kitchen
counters or pay off some credit card bills. Welfare reform has been
declared a universal success, with over 60% of former recipients making
their own way in the job market. Unemployment is yesterday's problem, and
the official poverty rate has reached a comfortingly low 12%.
But look more
closely and the scenery appears a whole lot less pleasant. On July 24, the
Washington D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute (EPI) released a report
showing that 29% of American families with young children--precisely the
sort of families that policymakers say they are most concerned about--do
not earn enough to live at any acceptable level of comfort and security.
The EPI researchers got to this appallingly high number by calculating the
basic--make that very basic--budget a family needs to live on. They figured
in essentials like housing, food, clothing, health insurance,
transportation, childcare and utilities, but no meals out, vacations,
movies, cigarettes, beer or other routine middle-class indulgences. And
even then, they found that nearly a third of American families can't make
ends meet. Things the more affluent take for granted--like Internet access,
video rentals and saving for retirement--are almost impossible luxuries.
But they get by, don't they? Not exactly. EPI researchers looked carefully
at data on families who earn less than the "basic" budget, which amounts to
$33,511 for a family of four. More than 70% of these families worry about
food, sometimes miss rent payments or have to rely on an emergency room for
their medical care. Nearly 30% report facing far more dire hardships:
having to miss meals, foregoing needed medical care, being evicted from
In a purely selfish way, I'm relieved by all this statistical bad news: At
least it wasn't just me. While researching my recent book, "Nickel and
Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," I spent a total of three months, in
three different cities, attempting to support myself on the wages I could
earn as an entry-level worker--as a waitress, a hotel housekeeper, a maid
with a housecleaning service, a nursing home aide and a Wal-Mart floor
clerk. I found that I could not make ends meet, not with one job anyway. I
averaged $7 an hour, an amount which fell tragically short of my bare-bone
expenses--gas, food and, above all, rent.
My coworkers had various strategies for coping. Many of them, of course,
shared expenses with another breadwinner--a husband, boyfriend or grown
child. A surprisingly high number worked more than one job--typically an
8-hour shift followed by a 6-hour one--an arrangement that is utterly
destructive to family life as well as health and stamina. Most passed on
company health insurance, simply because they couldn't afford to pay the
employee contribution, which was often well over $100 a month. Possibly
some of them received help from the government in the form of food stamps
or the earned income tax credit, although I never once heard these programs
Some of my co-workers were clearly not coping. I worked alongside people
who turned out to be homeless, although in the peculiar hierarchy of
poverty, they didn't consider themselves homeless as long as they had a van
or a car to sleep in. Others were not getting enough to eat, and not, as I
first imagined, because they were dieting. Lunch, in low-wage America, can
mean a small-size bag of Doritos or a few hot dog rolls.
What my experience shows anecdotally, and the EPI's "Hardships in America"
report shows far more systematically, is that we've been fooling ourselves
with the official poverty level, now pegged at $17,463 for a family of
four. That number is still calculated by the archaic method of taking the
bare-bones cost of food for a family of a given size and multiplying this
number by three. Yet food is relatively inflation-proof, at least compared
to medical care and housing costs. Rents especially have gone through the
roof: I found a half-size trailer renting in Florida for $625 a month, a
room in a genuinely creepy Minneapolis residential motel for $250 a week.
There's another reason for our leaders' inability to see the true extent of
economic misery in America. They're used to thinking of poverty as a
consequence of unemployment. Hence, for example, the optimistic assumption
that welfare recipients would be lifted out of poverty once they were
hustled into the workforce. But the relatively high-paying, traditionally
unionized blue collar jobs that brought an earlier generation into the
middle class have been de-industrialized and downsized out of existence.
What's left are the service and retail jobs I found in my foray into the
workforce--and a new world of relentless toil for poverty-level wages.
If the consequences of this massive economic shift are almost invisible
from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., they are painfully evident to America's
hard-pressed charities. According to the hunger-relief organization
America's Second Harvest, food banks all over the country are experiencing
"a torrent of need which [they] cannot meet," and the U.S. Conference of
Mayors reports that nearly a third of the adults requesting emergency food
aid are now working people with jobs.
Almost everyone--94% of Americans, according to a 2000 poll conducted by
Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based employment research firm--agrees that
'people who work full-time should be able to earn enough to keep their
families out of poverty.' When that straightforward proposition no longer
holds, then the social contract, at least as I always understood it, is no
longer in force. And it is hard to imagine a more serious abrogation of
"America's core moral values" than that.
We have a choice: either raise all wages to a "living wage" level or
greatly expand the government programs that make life a little easier for
low-wage families--food stamps, health insurance, childcare subsidies, the
earned income tax credit, and--yes--welfare for families whose breadwinners
must stay home as care-givers for the very young, the elderly or the
chronically ill. Ideally, we should do both. With 4.5% unemployment in the
U.S., most people who can work have jobs. Now it's the system that isn't
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of "Nickel and Dimed: On
(Not) Getting By In America."
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