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
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Atlantic Unbound | May 4, 2001
Dialogues with James Fallows
From: James Fallows
To: Barbara Ehrenreich
Subject: Daily life among the "invisible class" - Part Two
Thanks for your extensive reply. Among its virtues is that it touches on many of the vignettes and discoveries of the book, so that I don't have to run through a summary of them myself. I will, though, say once again that I hope anyone following this exchange will go on to read Nickel and Dimed. Let me be specific about the reason why, since I say it for more than the standard "a ripping good read!" purposes—and since the reason also sets up the questions I'd like to ask you in this round.
In making the Black Like Me/Other America comparisons in our previous round, I was not suggesting that your book resembles them in its tone or approach. Rather, the similarity is that both of the earlier books broke an intellectual and imaginative barrier. They managed to make the American reading public, including its influential upper layers, care about issues that had slipped from respectable notice. Ongoing racial problems in the case of Black Like Me; the persistence of poverty for The Other America. Neither book solved either problem, but the attention they mobilized was undeniably useful.
Your book is not guaranteed to have that effect, but unlike most accounts of "a newly divided America" and newspaper series on "the plight of the working poor" it has the potential to do so. This is because it is readable, funny, and vivid rather than scolding or hand-wringing from a distance.
So let's assume, for the moment, that your book becomes The Other America of its day. Imagine that the "compassionate" wing of the "compassionate conservative" movement concludes that the way to build an eternal Republican majority is to bring minimum-wage earners into its camp—and adopts your book the way the Reagan movement adopted Charles Murray's. Or imagine that the Democrats decide that their main hope is to become tribunes of class equality, under the slogan "We won't be nickel and dimed!" Or imagine that my one-time employer, and your year-2000 presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, mobilizes a Tom Watson-style populist movement. Let's not stop to wonder whether any of these things might actually happen. Let's just assume for a moment that stories and arguments like the ones in your book set the national agenda for a while, the way that Silent Spring did—to use another analogy from the 1960s.
So what then? When you're on Oprah, discussing your book's selection to Oprah's Book Club, and when you're on a Frontline special or a Nightline town meeting, when you're addressing the special all-day retreat at Camp David with congressional leaders and representatives from the Cabinet, when the Joint Economic Committee cancels the scheduled séance with Alan Greenspan so you can come and tell them about the state of working America, what exactly do you ask them to do?
Does it boil down, mainly, to "raise the minimum wage"? On the evidence of your book, that is necessary but very far from sufficient. Most of the jobs you describe were in the $7-per-hour range, even the $8-per-hour stratosphere. That's already nearly 50 percent higher than the existing minimum wage. Can you imagine a legislated rise in the minimum wage that would come close to dealing with the hand-to-mouth living problems, especially of paying for housing, that you describe? From what you write, it sounds as if you would have needed at least $15 an hour to have any breathing room. Is there a way this can happen through legislation?
Or are you mainly recommending a change in labor law, to make it easier for your colleagues at Wal-Mart to bargain for higher pay? It goes without saying that part of your argument is for better health-care coverage for people with the least money for prudent preventive care. The few passages in the book that weren't funny in the least involved the medical problems that your co-workers simply couldn't afford to have treated. How about welfare? Your book argues that the "victory" of moving up to a low-wage job is not that great. Would you like it to be more comfortable for people to move back "down" to the welfare rolls? And what about housing? The evidence is not too encouraging when it comes to government's ability to increase the supply of low-income housing—as opposed to indirectly increasing the supply of upper- and some middle-income housing through the mortgage-interest deduction.
To make this clearer: If you were named Czarina of the Americas, I assume that your decrees would include a higher minimum wage, stronger union-bargaining rights, higher welfare payments, universal health insurance (on the Canadian, French, German, what have you model), and some measures to be named later that would increase the low-income housing supply. And if asked which of them was most important, you'd answer the way a parent would if asked which was his favorite child: they're all crucial, they're all the best.
But as a guide to readers, what exactly are you asking them to do? Suppose a lawyer or a college professor or a car-dealership owner finishes this book and says, "People shouldn't live this way!" What is the first thing you'd want that person to do?
Let me close with a question of a different sort. You say that holding some of these jobs—especially at Wal-Mart and on the house-cleaning crew—made you more sensitive to some of the routine indignities that commerce allows customers to inflict on employees. You went into people's houses and had to scrape caked deposits off their toilet bowls. You sound as if you were about to go berserk at Wal-Mart, refolding and rehanging the stacks of clothing that customers had tried on and then thrown aside in a heap. My wife went shopping for some clothes soon after reading your book. She said that it made her acutely conscious of this "folding" problem. She felt compelled to rehang as many things herself as she could.
When there is face-to-face contact between the customer and the low-wage worker—notably in a restaurant, to a lesser degree with baggage-handlers or taxi drivers—some basic instincts of civility usually force the customer to recognize the worker's humanity. But not when the exchange happens at a distance—when the workers have to deal with the mess you made in the Wal-Mart fitting room or at the hotel.
After your experience, what would you like readers to do differently in their daily lives? I'm not talking about tax policy or welfare reform, but the details of low-wage indignity people would notice after reading your book.
Over to you.
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