This is the second half of my breakdown of the Introductory chapter of Nickel and Dimed: on Not Getting by in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich. The first part is here.
The next paragraph is her “cred,” the litany of others lives near to her, who were poor, to demonstrate that “the low-wage way of life had never been many degrees of separation away.” You know—the class version of “I have a black friend.” Twitch. Also, way of life? What? She makes it sound like a lifestyle choice.
For all her cred, Ehrenreich admits she has little knowledge of the ways that the poor survive. As she prepares to begin her experiment, she writes,
“Maybe when I got into this project, I would discover some hidden economies in the world of the low-wage worker. After all, if almost thirty percent of the workforce toils for eight dollars an hour or less, as the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute reported in 1998, they may have found some tricks as yet unknown to me. Maybe I would even be able to detect in myself the bracing psychological effects of getting out of the house, as promised by the wonks who brought us welfare reform. On the other hand, maybe there would be unexpected costs—physical, financial, emotional—to throw off all my calculations. The only way to find out was to get out there and get my hands dirty.”
Here, she treats it as a world completely separate from the world she knows. Her turn of phrase, “hidden economies,” indicates her impression of some kind of black market or underworld economy that the poor use—because it seems impossible to survive in the world she sees on such low pay. But that’s the kick—there’s no secret. We all inhabit the same world, we all use the same economy. Though she names them “wonks” she gives legitimacy to their bigoted claims about the poor—wondering if perhaps she will feel the motivation-turned-profit that those bootstraps are supposed to provide.
She goes on to say “I am, of course, very different from the people who normally fill America’s least attractive jobs, and in way that both helped and limited me.” Different, of course. Inherently. Because she is unique and “the poor” are a completely homogenous group? Let’s go on: “Most obviously, I was only visiting a world that others inhabit full-time, often for most of their lives.” There goes that “world” thing again. “With all the real-life assets I’ve built up in middle age…[list of all her awesome assets here]…waiting indulgently in the background, there was no way I was going to “experience poverty” or find out how it “really feels…” No, she wouldn’t, would she? She’s set herself up believing that living in poverty is a different world from the one she inhabits, not a different position, experience, not a lower rung in the same ladder as the one she stands on. She’s set herself up as the awkwardly-dressed tourist gawking at the strange foreigners, trying to mimic the “customs” but doomed to only make of herself a fool.
She acknowledges to some degree her privileges of being a native English speaker and white. She tells us of how those privileges affected her in Key West, where she “originally sought what [she] assumed would be a relatively easy job in hotel housekeeping and found [her]self steered instead into waitressing, no doubt because of [her] ethnicity and [her] English skills.”
Next comes a weak half-acknowledgement of her abled-body privilege:
“In addition to being mobile and unencumbered, I am probably in a lot better health than most members of the long term low-wage workforce.”
Indeed—her class privilege gives her access to healthy food and health care, and her being able-bodied doesn’t restrict her ability to choose her place of employment, nor does it mean she’s more likely to be a part of the “low-wage workforce” because of an ailment or being differently abled.
Next, the awkward, gawky tourist tries to figure out how to blend in with these strange, foreign exotics:
“There was also the problem of how to present myself to potential employers…When, on one occasion, an exceptionally chatty interviewer asked about hobbies, I said “writing” and she seemed to find nothing strange about this, although the job she was offering could have been performed perfectly well by an illiterate.”
Hmm. Why did she say this? Does she assume that the “low-wage worker” has no interest in books, reading, or writing? That she thinks they’re all there because they’re uneducated, ignorant, and illiterate? Has she elevated writing back to the status of the past, where only the upper classes of society wrote “good” things? She muses more about why her coworkers weren’t stunned that she was a writer:
“In each setting, toward the end of my stay and after much anxious forethought, I “came out” to a few chosen coworkers. The result was always stunningly anticlimactic, my favorite response being, “Does this mean you’re not going to be back on the evening shift next week?” I’ve wondered a lot about why there wasn’t more astonishment or even indignation, and part of the answer probably lies in people’s notion of “writing.” Years ago, when I married my second husband, he proudly told his uncle, who was a valet parker at the time, that I was a writer. The uncle’s response: “Who isn’t?” Everyone literate “writes” and some low-wage workers I have known or met through this project write journals and poems—even, in one case, a lengthy science fiction novel.”
She seems surprised that writing isn’t put on this elevated level of the aristocracy, that the poor write—they just don’t get published. Initially, I assumed she wondered at the lack of indignation for her impersonating and appropriating the experience of the economically disadvantage for her own advantage. But since it’s sandwiched between these musings that the supposed lack of appropriate reverence for writers that exists in the working class, I have to wonder. As a “writer” myself, I can only roll my eyes at her arrogance, privilege, and self-importance. She’s really not setting herself up to be a sympathetic character here.
Next she tells us of her aristocratic, ahem, I mean, professional friends’ assumptions about their supposed superiority being obvious enough to “out” her:
“Several times since completing this project I have been asked by acquaintances whether the people I worked with couldn’t, uh, tell—the supposition being that an educated people is ineradicably different, and in a superior direction, from your workday drones. I wish I could say that some supervisor or coworker told me once that I was special in some enviable way—more intelligent, for example, or clearly better educated than most. But this never happened, I suspect because the only thing that really made me “special” was my inexperience. To state the proposition in reverse, low-wage workers are no more homogenous in personality or ability than people who write for a living, and no less likely to be funny or bright. Anyone in the educated classes who thinks otherwise ought to broaden their circle of friends.”
How nice of her to recognize the individuality of the poor sods, even as she admits she hoped that her education did make her obviously superior. Honestly, I can’t tell if she’s seriously trying to be aware of her privilege and failing painfully at it while being insufferable about the Writer Pedestal she’s set herself and other aristocratic professional writers on, or if she’s just a plain old privileged journalist, playing with an “experiment” for kudos that exploits and silences the poor.
Meanwhile, she closes the Introduction chapter with this:
“Just bear in mind, when I stumble, that this is in fact the best-case scenario: a person with every advantage that ethnicity and education, health and motivation can confer attempting, in a time of exuberant prosperity, to survive in the economy’s lowest depths.”