Don’t blame Wall Street. Don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself. • Herman Cain, Republican presidential candidate, October 5, 2011
I cannot sleep, so I’ve been reading in the night and working on organizing materials for the end of the quarter. I’m re-reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s (2001) Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. In the book, Ehrenreich describes her experiences as she moves around the United States working as a housecleaner, Wal-Mart salesperson, nursing home aide, house cleaner, and waitress. On the final page, she writes:
“The ‘working poor,’ as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.” (p. 221)
I finish rereading Ehrenreich and really cannot sleep. Her book evokes too many memories. For many of my working years I was a low-wage worker. I cleaned houses. I painted houses, inside and out. I babysat. I did laundry and ironing. I worked as a seamstress at home and in a factory in Macon, Georgia, where I was a pieceworker—sewing back pockets on Levis®—a job that paid much better than the newspaper job I forsook* it for. I worked in a day care center. Each time I moved or changed jobs, even when the work was interesting and required a degree of creativity and writing skill—newspaper editor and columnist, radio production director, and graphic designer—I never made enough money to support a family, although my wages helped keep the family afloat. Until I became a teacher, I was paid less than the men who worked for me.
After many years of low-pay, no-benefits work, I went back to school, got a degree, and became a high school teacher. Then I went back for another degree. And another. Always working while I did so. I haven’t forgotten what it is like to work fifty-one weeks out of the year when I was fortunate enough to have a one-week vacation, to have two or three or no days of sick leave each year, to have no benefits, to feel despair every time one of my children ran a fever and I had to worry about how we would pay the bills if a doctor’s visit was necessary or if I had to take time off without pay, or even if I would lose my job because of an absence. One of my most vivid work memories is of throwing up in the wastebasket beside my desk because I was too broke to stay home and lose a day’s pay. I got fired from Southern Bell when I became pregnant with my first child.
I remember these experiences as I start to reread David K. Shipler’s (2004), The Working Poor: Invisible in America, pulled from the stack next to my bed. As a teacher educator, I am regularly reminded of the assumptions teachers make about the availability of things we often believe to be basic necessities of living and may expect students to use: smartphones, computers, internet access, cable television. In many households, these “basics” are unattainable luxuries. Awareness is the first step in developing compassion, yet the current politicizing of need and work can make this difficult. As Shipler notes:
In the Puritan legacy, hard work is not merely practical but also moral; its absence suggests an ethical lapse. A harsh logic dictates a hard judgment: If a person’s diligent work leads to prosperity, if work is a moral virtue, and if anyone in the society can attain prosperity through the work, then the failure to do so is a fall from righteousness, The marketplace is the fair and final judge; a low wage is somehow the worker’s fault, for it simply reflects the low value of his labor. In the American atmosphere, poverty has always carried a whiff of sinfulness. (pp. 5-6)
Time Magazine’s recent (November 28, 2011, Vol. 178, No. 21) “Invention” issue also features an article by Barbara Kiviat, “Below the Line,” (pp. 35-41) that attempts to debunk myths about poverty in America and expose its more nuanced components. I read it yesterday—it’s probably the reason I grabbed Ehrenreich for my mid-night reading—and I definitely recommend it as well.
If you’ve never been poor, if you’ve never wondered how you would pay your bills or which ones to skip for a month, if you’ve never had to file bankruptcy, if you’ve never walked because you couldn’t afford to put gas in your car (or didn’t have a car), if you’ve never skipped your own meals to feed your children, if you’ve never grappled with the disheartening and frightening consequences of too little money to meet your family’s basic obligations, or if you’ve never missed a job opportunity because you didn’t have a phone, you may find it difficult to understand the punishing despair that accompanies these challenges.
Late night/early morning reading is dangerous. It is easy to stir up anger and sadness and resentment and frustration. It is easy to wallow in feelings of impotence in the face of overwhelming challenges. It is easy to measure how far we have not come, and to despair as I see past victories being eroded. It is more difficult to find and celebrate small victories, yet it is the accretion of the incremental that provides reasons to celebrate. I celebrate the efforts of all those who seek to remind this country of the majority whose hard work and efforts and daily challenges must be recognized and supported.
What are you reading and what does it mean?
To sit in silence when we should protest/Makes cowards out of men. • Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1914), “I Protest”
A few years ago everybody was saying we must have much more leisure, everybody is working too much. Now that everybody has got so much leisure—it may be involuntary, but they have got it—they are now complaining they are unemployed. People do not seem to be able to make up their minds, do they? • HRH Prince Philip, 1981 interview on BBC Radio
* In all my years of writing, this is the first time I can ever remember using the word forsook.