My plunge into poverty happened in an instant. I never saw it coming.
Then again, there was no reason to feel particularly vulnerable. Two years ago, I was a political reporter at Politico, and I spent my days covering the back-and-forth of presidential politics. I had access to the White House because of my reporting beat, and I was a regular commentator on MSNBC. My career had been on an upward trajectory for 30 years, and at age 50 I still anticipated a long career.
On June 21, 2012, I was invited to discuss race, Republican candidate Mitt Romney, and the 2012 presidential election on MSNBC. I said this:
“Romney is very, very comfortable, it seems, with people who are like him. That’s one of the reasons why he seems so stiff and awkward in town hall settings … But when he comes on ‘Fox and Friends,’ they’re like him. They’re white folks who are very much relaxed in their own company.”
The political Internet exploded. Because I’m an African American, enraged conservative bloggers branded me an anti-white racist. Others on the right, like Andrew Breitbart’s Big Media, mined my personal Twitter account and unearthed a crude Romney joke I’d carelessly retweeted a month before. The Romney campaign cried foul. In less than two weeks I was out of a job.
Five months earlier my ex-wife and I had a fight. I pleaded guilty to charges of second-degree assault, and signed a court order to stay away from her and her residence. Upon completion of six months of probation, the incident would be wiped from my record. But in the wake of the Politico scandal, Fishbowl DC obtained the court documents and published a piece, “Ex-Politico WH Correspondent Joe Williams Pleaded Guilty to Assaulting Ex-Wife.” Finding a new job went from hard to impossible: Some news outlets that had initially wanted my resume told me they’d changed their plans. Others simply dropped me without saying anything.
That’s how I found myself working a retail job at a sporting goods store—the only steady job I could find after six months of unemployment in a down economy and a news industry in upheaval. In a matter of months, I was broke, depressed, and living on food stamps. I had lost my apartment, and ended up living out of a suitcase in a guest bedroom of an extraordinarily generous family I barely knew. My cash flow consisted of coins from my piggybank and modest sums earned from odd jobs: freelance copy-editing, public relations, coordinating funerals, mowing lawns. So when Stretch, the laconic, 34-year-old manager of a chain store I’ll call Sporting Goods Inc. called to tell me I was hired, it was the best news I’d had in a long time. (I have chosen not to name the store or its employees here, because the story is intended as an illustration of what it is like to work in a low-paid retail environment, and not as an expose of a particular store or team.)
Of course, I had no idea what a modern retail job demanded. I didn’t realize the stamina that would be necessary, the extra, unpaid duties that would be tacked on, or the required disregard for one’s own self-esteem. I had landed in an alien environment obsessed with theft, where sitting down is all but forbidden, and loyalty is a one-sided proposition. For a paycheck that barely covered my expenses, I’d relinquish my privacy, making myself subject to constant searches.
"If you go outside or leave the store on your break, me or another manager have to look in your backpack and see the bottom,” Stretch explained. “And winter's coming—if you're wearing a hoodie or a big jacket, we'll just have to pat you down. It's pretty simple."
When he outlined that particular requirement, my civil-rights brain—the one that was outraged at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy and wounded from being stopped by police because of my skin color—was furious.
Walk out immediately, it demanded. No job is worth it. Your forefathers died for these rights, and you’re selling them for $10 an hour.
But Abraham Lincoln, in the form of the lone $5 bill in my wallet, had the last word: You, sir, are unemployed and homeless. You cannot pay for food, goods, or services with your privacy.
I’m not sure why—perhaps out of middle-class disbelief or maybe a reporter’s curiosity—I pressed the issue. Seriously: I have to get searched? Even if I'm just going across the street for a soda, with no more than lint in my pockets? Even if you don't think I stole anything?
Stretch shrugged, unconcerned. Clearly he’d been living with this one for a while.
"Yeah, it's pretty simple. Just get me or one of the other managers to pat you down before you leave."
I hadn’t had a job in retail since the 1980s. Perhaps youthful nonchalance and the luxury of squandering my paycheck on clothes or beer had helped camouflage the indignities of minimum wage retail job, though I don’t ever recall being frisked at the door. Yet over the decades, employee bag checks have become standard operating procedure in the retail environment, although some workers have pushed back.
At that moment, however, I wasn’t one of them. I needed something—anything—that resembled a steady job. I had to get back on the ladder. That meant sucking it up and starting at the bottom rung. So I chose two new store logo T-shirts, size 2XL. “Better make ‘em roomy,” Stretch suggested. “They tend to shrink in the wash.”
* * *
Obtaining work in retail had changed a lot since the 1980s. What used to require a paper application and a schmooze with the manager has turned into an antiseptic online process where human interaction—and the potential for an employment-discrimination complaint—is kept to a minimum.
That put me at a distinct disadvantage.
In person, thanks to good genes, people often assume I’m younger than I am. On paper, however, I’m just another overeducated, middle-aged, middle-class refugee whose last retail experience dates to the Reagan administration.
Not to mention retail employers these days have their pick of applicants: the Great Recession added countless numbers of desperate workers like me to the annual labor-market influx of college students and high schoolers. According to an Economic Policy Institute report, “In 1968, 48 percent of low-wage workers had a high school degree, compared to 79 percent in 2012.” Likewise, the percentage of people in these jobs who have spent some time in college has skyrocketed, jumping from under 17 percent to more than 45 percent in the same time. All of us are in a race to the bottom of the wage pool.
Although older job candidates bring experience and skills to the table, their job applications typically blink like red warning lights to retail managers: overqualified, overpaid, and probably harder to manage than some high school or college kid. In a word: trouble.