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Sunday, January 12, 2003

The Gilded Age?

OK, I’ve managed to avoid ranting about anything political for nearly a month now.
Blame my long train ride on inspiring another one. (If my archive actually worked, I could point you to an essay I blogged in October vaguely along the lines that inspired this one.)

Among the books I read while riding the rails southbound from New England to the nation’s capital was Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America by Barbara Ehrenreich.

In this book, the author tries to find out what it would be like to try to get by as a member of the working poor, working a variety of low-wage, low-prestige, “unskilled” jobs and trying to feed, clothe, and shelter herself on what she earned at these jobs in three different areas - Key West, Florida; Portland, Maine; and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

I recommend the book despite the shortcomings of the experiment. The author was clearly pretending to be poor and there was something condescending about her attitude. Every time she revealed herself to be an upper-middle class educated writer, it’s as if she expected them to genuflect to her or be utterly fascinated by this woman who dared spend any of her precious time associating with the likes of them. The bias of someone slumming pervades the book, particularly as she spends more time on her own mental state and less time with the situations of her fellow working stiffs as the book progresses. I think her denunciations of low-wage workers being subjected to indignities were blunted a bit by the fact that she often seemed to see the work itself as an indignity. And of course, she wasn’t really poor at all, she had an easy escape valve – if she wasn’t cutting the mustard in one month, she moved on.

Of course some of these criticisms miss the main thrust of the book. You can’t get scientific method precision in social studies anyway. I give her props for even trying something like this, no matter how contrived it might have been. I can assume most people in her position, no matter how left-wing their sympathies might lie, wouldn’t want to attempt something like this. And with regards to the indignity problem, well, I’m sure she wouldn’t be alone among her middle-class peers in seeing much indignity in this work and in getting it – lectures about “time theft,” silly personality tests, invasive drug testing that does little good, etc.

She went into the experiment, as I would have had I ventured to try something similar, whether there’s some coping mechanism the poor have that people who’ve never had to worry where their next meal was coming from have never needed to develop, some secret economy that makes things somehow better than they might seem on the surface.

But she uncovers no such thing. Indeed she is confronted frequently with the fact that, as James Baldwin once said, of how expensive it is to be poor. You’re less credit-worthy so banks either refuse to deal with you or gouge you to the point that those check-cashing places I take pride in refusing to support aren’t demonstrably worse. (Though Ehrenreich never brings it up, anyone ever do the math on rent-to-own arrangements? It boggles the mind.) It’s hard to find work without an address, and even more difficult to secure housing without a job. In some places, the housing market is so bid up that even with a job it’s difficult to find regular housing, the result being that rat-trap motels are filled with the working poor.

Every medical problem, no matter how minor, becomes a big deal. People work until they drop, since their health care situation is such that they can’t afford not to. So of course when one person at a low-wage workplace catches something, all of them do.
And nagging health problems are of course not tended to until they prevent work entirely and are much more expensive to fix.

Interestingly enough, the act of finding a job in and of itself, at least when the economy was as generally as strong as it was during the time Ehrenreich was conducting her experiment, was not the problem. (Whether that would be as true for non-whites in her situation, or during tougher times, is an open question.)

I sort of had an idea of what people at the bottom end of the work force go through before I read it, but now I’m more convinced than ever that most Americans living comfortably haven’t got a clue. As if on cue, this article shows up.

So much contemporary thinking about the plight of the poor is grounded in a whole set of ill-informed beliefs and opinions. Namely, that people can support themselves with low-wage jobs, and to the extent they don’t, it can be traced to laziness, drug or alcohol addiction, or some other failing of personal character. So our policies in this regard are increasingly designed to kick those who are already down, either because they deserve to be punished, or because maybe some “tough love” will transform them into productive citizens.

When I walk by a homeless person (not uncommon in this city) it’s in my nature to think “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

We’re seeing less and less of that thinking, in no small part because the poor are increasingly invisible and faceless to the affluent and the media outlets geared towards them. Because to those us making out in the new order, our neighbors and everyone we come in contact with, are mostly like us. Everything (and everyone) around us, the thinking goes, seems to be doing well. Out of sight, out of mind.

Children born to affluence get no window into the existence of their less fortunate peers, since they live in different communities and are kept in different schools. If they take jobs, they’re generally of the office internship variety, not the menial labor variety. (Of course there were always spoiled rich kids, but it seems far more common now, especially in Washington.)

I suppose I can only blame them so much for not being sufficiently inquisitive.

I don’t like where I think this is heading, for two Americas, on opposite sides of gates, with ever bigger police forces, ever higher prison walls, and ever more expensive security. On one said there is ever more misery and anger, on the other, ever more anxiety and suspicion. I don’t even ask for the proverbial Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” here – would you really want to be on either side of this?

But if there’s a better future for us than the above, than inquisitiveness would actually be the first think I’d ask for, even before I’d ask for compassion. Since if we don’t care enough, than we deserve our fate.

After all, if you don’t care where you’re going, you can’t really be lost.


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