for release Friday August 29, 2003
by Melodie Davis
Working Poor: Just Getting By
As Labor Day approaches, as is often the case with holidays, too often we forget the true meaning of the occasion. Did you know that Canada, the U.S., Puerto Rico, the Canal Zone and the Virgin Islands all celebrate Labor Day the first Monday in September? Of course it was originally set aside (1882 U.S., 1894 Canada) to honor ordinary working people, but today it is often just thought of as a day off from work, a day for sales, for one last summer picnic or one last effort to get those summer projects completed.
It is right that we honor working people on Labor Day but we need to also bring more honor, respect and dignity to those who alternately sweat/freeze it out in unconditioned or unheated factories or shops all year long. We need to be grateful for those who stand on their feet for eight or more hours at a time, doing the same thing all day long, so that we can have cars, refrigerators and clothing. We need to be courteous to the maids who clean up messes from hangovers in motels, the waiters and waitresses who don't get minimum wage unless we tip, the clerks who must pick up, hang up and fold the clothing or towels or dishcloths that we fish through in the discount store. Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich undertook an experiment to find out what it feels like to labor in these kinds of jobs and to see if one can actually get by and find affordable housing on the wages that are paid for entry-level jobs. Out of her experiences, she wrote a book that became a New York Times bestseller, Nickel and Dimed, (Henry Holt & Co.,
2001) and she chronicles in dollar detail her undercover journey through the blue/pink collar world working as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing home aide and a salesperson at a large discount chain.
Now, it is one thing to try this lifestyle as an experiment or undercover assignment and quite another when this is your life-a huge difference Ehrenreich readily admits. Most college students or even high school students used to routinely get an invaluable taste of blue-collar work in their summer jobs. But today many use their summers for non-stop sports or music camps, résumé-building internships and even frequent travel/studying abroad. There are too many kids who are graduating into the so-called real world without the valuable life experience of knowing the real real world of keeping up with an assembly line or cleaning toilets at a fast food restaurant.
While the book is useful as insight into this working world (she calls the category the "working poor"), it does not substitute for being there or experiencing it yourself. While I was in the middle of this book, I encountered a 40-something woman who was living the book at our church's free clothing closet. She had just left her husband and was temporarily living at the shelter for abused spouses.
She had lined up two jobs (impossible to save up enough money for a rent deposit on just one low paying job) but was unable to go to work the first day because all she had for clothing were the worn sweat pants and shirt she had on when she left home. "I hope I don't lose my job but I told him I had to get some clothes first, and I know he likes me so I think I'll be all right" she said as she hunted for appropriate dress slacks and jeans she could wear on the job. "I want to save up enough for rent." Indeed, finding housing that was affordable and not 45 minutes away from a job was the other major theme in Ehrenreich's book. She took rooms in motels, rent-by-the-week places, and stayed in a trailer park that was also a nest for crack and crime. Sometimes she couldn't sleep because she feared someone breaking through a barely-locked door or curtainless window. Most of the places available to her for work in entry level jobs (the motels, restaurants, and chainstores) were in nice suburbs that were too far from the cheapest housing usually available in a city's downtown area. (It was always a trade off of "Do I drive further and burn more gas to get cheaper housing, or live closer at a higher rent?" Sometimes the trade off equation also had to factor in exhaustion: can I work two jobs and still stay awake to do a 45-minute commute in between or at the end of the day?) Suffice it to say, and if you are living it you probably didn't need a book to tell you this. You can't afford the book and probably can't even afford a newspaper. Getting by on working poor wages is not easy no matter where you live. An interesting study on this is found at <http://www.members.cox.net/t.s/data.html> If you work in a job that is long on hours, long on your feet, or long on service but short on pay, respect or decent bosses, I hope you will know that some people do appreciate what you do. Our society and economic structure would fall apart if you didn't do what you do. Thank you, and have a good Labor day, even if (as I know many will) you have to work.
Write to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.
NOTES TO EDITORS: text = 897 words; end material = 105 words
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