The Forgotten People

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Review of 'Nickel and Dimed', Barbara Ehrenreich, Granta £8.99

Anti-war activists are frequently accused of anti-American bias, of blaming all Americans for their government's actions. This is very far from the truth. Anti-capitalists have long been aware of the extent to which the US, like the rest of the world, is divided between a tiny minority who benefit from global capitalism and the overwhelming mass of people who produce the wealth but, in the race for the bottom, are denied even a living wage.

Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, 'Nickel and Dimed', explores what it's like to live on low wages in the US. It should be required reading for anyone given to spouting on about the US being the land of freedom and democracy. Ehrenreich took almost a year out of her 'real' life as a writer to see whether the 4 million or so women who were thrown onto the labour market by Clinton's welfare 'reforms' could actually live on $6 or $7 an hour which most unskilled jobs in the US offer. The result is a wonderful book that exposes the realities of life for low-income workers in the US, but does it in the can't put down, page-turning way normally associated with thrillers or detective novels. You'll find yourself wanting to get back to the book to see whether she'll be able to make this month's rent! And most of the time it is the rent that causes most trouble.

'Nickel and Dimed' is full of facts and figures (mostly in footnotes). We discover, for example, that 7.8 million people in the US had two or more jobs in 1996, that cleaning services now control 20 to 25 percent of the housecleaning business and claim to be growing by about 20 percent a year. Ehrenreich worked as a cleaner and a nursing home aide (at the same time) and was able to feed and house herself while doing both jobs. As a waitress and an 'associate' with giant department store Wal-Mart, she would have ended up homeless since neither paid well enough to cover the rent on even the nastiest bedsit.

Ehrenreich's description of the housing crisis in the US will seem familiar to anyone trying to find a place to live in London or Dublin. A footnote tells us that the last few years have seen a steady decline in the number of affordable apartments nationwide. In 1991 there were 47 affordable rental units available to every 100 low-income families--by 1997 there were only 36 such units for every 100 families.

While working for $7 an hour in Minneapolis, she learned that in 1997 the Jobs Now Coalition there estimated that a 'living wage' for a single parent supporting a single child in the area was $11.77 an hour, but no one had updated this 'living wage' to take account of accelerating rent inflation in the years 1999 and 2000. To be considered 'affordable', rents are supposed to take less than 30 percent of one's income. But housing analysts report that almost two thirds of poor tenants, amounting to a total of 4.4 million households, spend more than half their income on shelter. She was unable to discover how many people in the US live in cars and vans, but many of her workmates lived in their cars. Quite a few lived in trailer parks where a tiny trailer [caravan] cost from $400 to $700 a month depending on location. Others had moved back to their parents' home with their children. Others shared motel rooms with two or three others, often with people who were neither relatives nor friends. They were living in motel rooms because they could not get the deposit together for a trailer or the cheapest bedsit. Sounds familiar?

Just as house prices are excluded here from the figures that determine inflation levels, so in the US the official poverty rate, which has remained at about 13 percent for years, excludes the cost of housing. The official poverty level is calculated using the cost of food. But food is relatively inflation-proof. In the early 1960s, for example, food accounted for 24 percent of the average family budget and housing 29 percent. In 1999 food took up only 16 percent of the family budget, while housing had soared to 37 percent. As Ehrenreich points out, economists explain this by pointing to the law of supply and demand. When she was working for $6 or $7 an hour, there was supposed to be a labour shortage. Yet this did not lead to an increase in wages. Indeed, Alan Greenspan of the Federal Reserve has gone so far as to suggest that the economic laws linking low unemployment to wage increases may no longer operate.

While much of this sounds harrowing--and it is, Ehrenreich manages to make you laugh out loud quite a lot. The 'personality tests' that have become a routine part of hiring in the US are hilarious--the 'right' answers to the questions are obvious to anyone: 'Do I work well with others? You bet, but never to the point where I would hesitate to inform on them for the slightest infraction. Am I capable of independent decision making? Oh yes, but I know better than to let this capacity interfere with a slavish obedience to orders.'

Every socialist who has ever gone for a job interview will recognise this: 'The effort to look both perky and compliant at the same time, for half an hour or more at a stretch [is draining], because while you need to evince "initiative", you don't want to come across as someone who might initiate something like a union organising drive.'

The 'unskilled' workers who are paid least under global capitalism, Ehrenreich reminds us, are 'the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high.' Like all anti-capitalists, she looks forward to the day when they tire of getting so little in return and demand to be paid what they're worth. This book is a great contribution to the anti-capitalist movement.