Barbara Ehrenreich, one of America’s finest journalists, brought contemporary American poverty to this country’s consciousness in two works of non-fiction, first in Nickel and Dimed, published in 2001, and later in Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, published in 2006, right before the great market crash of 2008. In the first of the two, Ehrenreich sets out to prove that it is nigh on impossible for a single mother, holding two full time jobs at or under minimum wage, to ever get ahead. She presented herself as a working class woman, and she describes a series of low end jobs, from a cleaning lady in a hotel, as well as a cleaning person in a private house, and (to her, the worst) a sales clerk at WalMart. She lived in a series of motels with other single women/mothers, but admits to having certain advantages, including a working car. Among the many things we learn, one of the most demeaning is how such workers are treated by management. In Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich presents herself as an out of work white collar worker, where she attends “networking” conferences, often in cities which require travel, and meets all sorts of “coaches”, consultants of a sort, who get paid to help such people find jobs. (Most of these coaches turn out to be other out of work people). In its way more horrifying, looking for this kind of work involved expenditure of cash that most don’t have, and a kind of low level MBA cheerleading: she never does find a job, although she signs on to sell insurance where she incurs all her own expenses.
The only other book of this ilk of which I am aware is Executive Blues: Down and Out in America by G.J. Meyer, published in 2010, but, sections of this book were published in Harper’s Magazine. Meyer had been a corporate executive making a lot of money, and was downsized out , and although he spends enormous amounts of time and money seeking gainful employment, he ends up in a job similar to being a greeter at WalMart. Such people are then considered re-employed, although they lose their houses, sometimes their marriages, and certainly their dignity and self-esteem. During the same period, Americans were sold on treaties like NAFTA, which assured us that American workers would benefit as much as Mexican ones, which was patently untrue. Much of globalization, in its early days, involved multinational corporations playing parts of themselves off other parts. An example: U.S. Shoe, now a call center for Fifth Third Bank in Madisonville had shoes made both throughout this tri-state, and, others in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and Taiwan. Some shoes were, thus, outsourced, and others made regionally. No matter how these phenomena were rationalized, it was only and always about the chase for cheaper labor. In my own lifetime, I saw the American textile industry leave New England and upstate New York for the American south, which was union free, and then go overseas to the countries named above, before it went to Asia, where it remains to this day. If the consumer benefited, the worker did not, and somehow or other, the consumer and the worker were magically divided into different camps, and the workers lost, though I am not certain the consumer gained. The big gain was in the use of credit cards, and of credit in general.
Linda Tirado is the first person of whom I am aware to write about living in poverty from a first person point of view. She has been downwardly mobile for most of her adult life. She answered a query on poverty, called “Why I Make Terrible Decisions or, Poverty Thoughts”, which The Huffington Post and other publications picked up; Hand to Mouth is her first book, and I suspect that she may become an important spokesperson for those living in poverty in America. Each chapter of the book is a kind of answer to the conventional wisdom about poverty which comes from the upper middle classes and the chattering classes in general. Her book is an excellent counter argument to Michael Harrington’s original The Other America: Poverty in the United States, published in 1962, the one book that may have started LBJ’s War on Poverty. Although Harrington explained how living in poverty is a series of cycles which remain unbroken, Tirado shows how earning even the minimum wage is not enough for a family of four to live on. For example, she finds the idea of people having babies to get welfare money utterly preposterous, as no one could live on the limited funds offered. She also points out that the exhaustion from working two jobs, sometimes without a car (she walked seven miles a day between two jobs for several years) is an obvious antidote to the wild sexuality impugned to the poor by those above them economically: the poor have neither the time nor the energy for the sexual excesses often presumed by others. If you have to pay the first and last month’s rent, plus a down payment deposit on an apartment, where is this money supposed to come from? She also points out how infrequently land lords she has had take care of their properties. We could say , as she does in her last chapter that the book is “An Open Letter to Rich People”, in which the author rips apart just about every cliché in current usage about the poor. One of her most interesting observations is the description of the fierce loyalty amongst employees at her income level, how they will lend each other money, bring each other food, take care of each other’s children, and statistically give more to charity than any other social class in America does.
Her book is a paean to the rest of us about the wasted potential of so many people who are trapped in poverty. Reading this book alone will persuade any curmudgeon of the human waste in America which keeps poor people fenced in. Her suggestions for helping the poor almost never involve handouts, though she does suggest this, it is only meant to be temporary. I suggest that you read the book to find out her solutions, as well as how cleverly she manages her life with her husband and two daughters. Since one third of Americans live as she does, the book certainly gives pause to the clichés about the poor, and the book Hand to Mouth is a must read for anyone concerned about America’s future, and its greatest asset, its human resources.