Those Who Don't Get By
by Barbara Ehrenreich
The view from the White House, not to mention much of Capitol Hill, is idyllic. True, there are a few blotches on the landscape--a queasy stock market and what conservatives see as a long-running deterioration of America's core moral values. But other than that, what's to complain? Americans are gratefully cashing in their tax rebates to redo the kitchen counters or pay off some credit card bills. Welfare reform has been declared a universal success, with more than 60 percent of former recipients making their own way in the job market. Unemployment is yesterday's problem, and the official poverty rate has reached a comfortingly low 12 percent.
But look more closely and the scenery becomes a whole lot grimmer. On July 24, the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute released a report showing that 29 percent of American families with young children--precisely the sort of families that policymakers should be most concerned about--do not earn enough to live at any acceptable level of comfort and security.
The EPI researchers got to this appallingly high number by calculating the basic--make that very basic--budget a family needs to live on. This is a budget that includes health insurance, child care costs, and telephone, but no meals out, vacations, movies, cigarettes, beer, or other routine middle class indulgences. So, for nearly a third of American families, things that the more affluent take for granted--like Internet access, video rentals, and occasional cab rides--are almost impossible luxuries.
But they get by, don't they? Not exactly.
Of the families who earned less than the "basic" budget, which amounts to $33,511 for a family of four, more than 70 percent worried about food, sometimes missed rent payments, and/or had to rely on an emergency room for their medical care. Nearly 30 percent reported facing far more dire hardships--having to miss meals, forgoing needed medical care, being evicted from their housing.
In a purely selfish way, I'm relieved by all this statistical bad news: At least it shows that the conditions I faced while researching my recent book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, were not due entirely to my own bad luck or incompetence.
I spent a total of three months, in three different cities, attempting to support myself on the wages I could earn as an entry-level worker--as a waitress, a hotel housekeeper, a maid with a housecleaning service, a nursing home aide, and a Wal-Mart floor clerk. At the risk of spoiling the story for you, the result was that I could not make ends meet, not with one job, anyway. I averaged $7/hour, an amount that fell tragically short of my barebones expenses--gas, food, and, above all, rent.
My co-workers had various strategies for coping.
Many of them shared expenses with another breadwinner--a husband, boyfriend, or grown child.
A surprisingly high number worked more than one job--typically an eight-hour shift followed by a six-hour one--an arrangement that is utterly destructive to family life as well as health and stamina.
Most passed on the company's health insurance, simply because they couldn't afford to pay the employee contribution, which was often well over $100 a month.
Possibly some of them received help from the government in the form of food stamps or the Earned Income Tax Credit, although I never once heard these programs mentioned.
But some of my co-workers were clearly not coping.
I worked alongside people who turned out to be homeless, although in the peculiar hierarchy of poverty, they didn't consider themselves homeless as long as they had a van or a car to sleep in.
Others were not getting enough to eat, and not, as I first imagined, because they were dieting.
Lunch, in low-wage America, can mean a small-size bag of Doritos or a few hot dog rolls.
What my experience shows anecdotally, and the EPI's "Hardships in America" report shows far more systematically, is that we've been fooling ourselves with the official poverty level, now pegged at $17,463 for a family of four. That number is still calculated by the archaic method of taking the bare bones cost of food for a family of a given size and multiplying this number by three. Yet food is relatively inflation-proof, at least compared to medical care and housing costs. Rents especially have gone through the roof: I found a half-size trailer renting for $625 a month, a room in a genuinely creepy residential motel for $250 a week. But the government persists in believing that "low-rent" is an appropriate synonym for "poor."
There's another reason for our leaders' inability to see the true extent of economic misery in America: They're used to thinking of poverty as a consequence of unemployment. Hence, for example, the optimistic assumption that welfare recipients would be lifted out of poverty once they were hustled into the workforce. But the relatively high-paying, traditionally unionized blue collar jobs that brought an earlier generation into the middle class have been deindustrialized out of existence. What's left are the service and retail jobs--and a new world of relentless toil, rewarded by poverty-level wages.
If the consequences of this massive economic shift are almost invisible from Pennsylvania Avenue, they are painfully evident to America's hard-pressed charities.
According to the hunger-relief organization America's Second Harvest, food banks all over the country are experiencing "a torrent of need which [they] cannot meet," and the U.S. Conference of Mayors reports that 67 percent of the adults requesting emergency food aid are now working people with jobs.
Almost everyone--94 percent of Americans, according to a 2000 poll conducted by Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based employment research firm--agrees that "people who work full time should be able to earn enough to keep their families out of poverty." When that straightforward proposition no longer holds, then the social contract, at least as I always understood it, is no longer in force. And it is hard to imagine a more serious abrogation of "America's core moral values" than that.
We have a choice: either raise all wages to a "living wage" level or greatly expand the government programs that make life a little easier for low-wage families--food stamps, health insurance, child care subsidies, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and--yes--welfare for families whose breadwinners must stay home as caregivers for the very young, the elderly, or the chronically ill. Ideally, we should do both.
At 4.5 percent unemployment, most Americans who can work have jobs. Now it's the system that isn't working.
Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive and the author of "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" (Metropolitan Books, 2001).