New Part Three - May 11:
Part Two - May 4:
Part One - May 2:
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of Blood Rites; The Worst Years of Our Lives (a New York Times bestseller); Fear of Falling, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; and eight other books. A frequent contributor to Time, Harper's, The New Republic, The Nation, and The New York Times Magazine, she lives near Key West, Florida.
James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author, most recently, of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996). His new book, Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel will be published next month.
Previously in Fallows@large:
The Work of Words (February 21, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Christopher Hitchens, author of Unacknowledged Legislation and would-be prosecutor of Henry Kissinger.
Darwin Had It Backwards (January 17, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.
More by James Fallows
More on books
More on politics
More on poverty
Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.
Atlantic Unbound | May 4, 2001
Dialogues with James Fallows
From: Barbara Ehrenreich
To: James Fallows
Subject: Re: Daily life among the "invisible class" - Part Two
Ha, Czarina of the Americas: You have seen through to my secret goal!
You're right that my first measures in office are so obvious as to be almost tedious. I get a little irritated when people bring out the "what is to be done" question as if it were a real zinger. After two decades of largely upwardly redistributive social policy, the first question is: What is to be undone? I'd start by ending welfare reform as we know it, and if everyone is so determined that single moms be out working at Wendy's instead of staying home with the kids, then we've got to have serious and reliable transitional benefits—childcare, Medicaid, food stamps (which some states have been snatching away just as they kick a woman off welfare)—until that glorious day when Wendy's wages and benefits suffice to keep a family out of the dumpsters.
A few other things for the what is to be undone list: How about returning to a more progressive taxation system? I was dismayed, in my low-wage life, to find about 20 percent of my meager pay withheld for taxes, and these are the Medicare and Social Security taxes that won't be touched by the Bush tax cuts. And how about restoring the federal commitment to housing for the poor? As an affluent person, I get a subsidy of more than twenty grand a year in the form of a mortgage-interest deduction. As an artificially poor person, I got the opportunity to pay $250 a week to live in a truly creepy residential motel.
The other anti-poverty measures I would hastily enact in my new role as Queen of Everything would include much of the weary-old liberal wish list: universal health insurance and childcare, for example. And, for those of you worried by Dr. Jay Belsky's findings on the adverse effects of daycare, I mean high-quality childcare, provided by trained and well-paid workers, not women just yanked off of welfare themselves and paid six or eight bucks an hour.
It would be nice, too, if the government would enforce the right of workers to organize. The AFL-CIO estimates that about 10,000 Americans are fired each year for participating in union organizing drives, and, having experienced the weirdly arbitrary, dictatorial powers of management in low-wage workplaces, I can believe it. You wouldn't be fired for organizing, of course—that would be illegal. You'd be fired for breaking one of those rules I mentioned last time, like the one against talking. Or you'd be caught sneaking off to pee, as I often had to do.
Which reminds me, how about allowing people to pee for some reason other than drug testing? The right to bathroom breaks exists on paper, but I could find no evidence of its enforcement. And while we're at it, I would, in my Czarina role, apply the entire Bill of Rights to the workplace: Talking would be allowed (other than cussing out the customers); workers would be free to assemble during breaks or slow times; the boss wouldn't have the right to search purses.
Yes, of course I would raise the minimum wage from its current insultingly low $5.15 an hour. Not many people make that little these days, but the idea is that an improvement at the very bottom would spread upward and lift a lot of other boats. You ask how high the minimum wage would need to be in order to count as an actual living wage, and your guess of about $15 an hour is probably not far off. The Economic Policy Institute was estimating, about a year ago, that it would take $14 an hour to support a family of three at a bare-bones but adequate level. Last week I asked Chris Jacobs, of the Jobs Now Coalition in St. Paul, what her latest calculation of a living wage for the Twin Cities area is, given the wild rent inflation there, and she said—choking audibly as she spoke—$17 an hour. Obviously, employers are not going to go for this, which is why they should lead the fight for public benefits to supplement the shamefully low wages they pay.
But now I must put aside my crown and scepter and attend to your second question: Given that I'm not in charge and Tommy Thompson, the secretary of Health and Human Services, isn't on pins and needles waiting for my policy suggestions, what would I like people who read my book to do? (We need to acknowledge at the outset that most buyers of hardcover books are not low-wage workers themselves, but residents of the upper reaches of the income curve—the upper 20 percent or, roughly speaking, the professional/managerial class.) I'd like them to put down Nickel and Dimed and, for a start, think about how they vote and function as citizens generally, asking not just what this candidate will do for my taxes or pet issue, but what will he or she do for the larger human neighborhood, which includes an awful lot of people making $7 an hour.
There's no danger, by the way, that this question will lead anyone into the Republican camp. I interpret your suggestion that the Republicans might adopt my book the way the Reaganites seized on Charles Murray's Losing Ground as an exercise in whimsy. Republicans don't mind attracting low-wage votes on the basis of family values, but what working families might truly value—an adequate wage—will never appear on the Republican agenda. (And is far from high enough on the Democratic agenda.)
I would be pleased, too, if readers would show more support for low-income people (and wage-earners generally) who are organizing on their own behalf, and I fervently hope that more opportunities to show such support arise. For the time being, don't cross union picket lines and, if you're in a car, slow down and give a honk of support. If there's no union activity in sight, join your local living-wage campaign or consider giving money to a scrappy group like ACORN, which organizes welfare moms and low-wage workers alike (send checks to ACORN at 88 Third Avenue, Third Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11217).
As for those readers who do not yet bowl alone—pester your church, your temple, your NOW chapter, your professional association, or whatever, to take an interest in issues of economic misery and inequality. I'm totally opposed to Bush's faith-based initiative... but always tickled to see a church show some evidence of having absorbed biblical social policy, which is uncompromising on one's moral obligation to the poor.
The list could go on and on. If you're an employer, why not pay better and have a more reliable and energetic workforce, instead of a high turnover in resentful or beaten-down folks? If you're a consumer, try making life a little easier for those who make consumption possible. (Tell your wife, Jim, that I used to be a retail slob myself. No more.) On principle, I don't like tipping—it's undignified and sort of feudal. But since my principles do not prevail, I tip as generously as I can—the surly as well as the servile.
All of these measures, though, depend on the visibility of the low-wage workforce to the top 20 percent, which at present is murky at best. The professional/managerial class has always overestimated its own contribution to the collective endeavor, and I'm afraid the cyber-era has exacerbated this form of vanity. Read Wired, for example, and you'd think the only work that gets done anymore is done by entrepreneurs and software designers. In fact, it takes a whole lot of lifting, bending, scrubbing, carting, sorting, and caring to make the world as we know it happen every day. And are people forgetting that those computer chips are made by someone—a low-paid immigrant in Silicon Valley or a teenage girl in Malaysia? But the ability to actually see low-wage workers, even when they're standing right in our faces, seems to be as rare today as the ability to see ghosts in The Sixth Sense. An impeccably liberal couple of my acquaintance, for example, uses a house-cleaning service and could tell me precisely what they pay for it, but they had never thought to ask what it, in turn, pays the people who do the actual cleaning.
The idea, which has been vigorously revived by the anti-sweatshop movement, is to start seeing the people behind the product, and recognize them as fellow human beings or, as they still say in the union movement, sweetly enough—brothers and sisters.
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