The America of mimimum wage workers is not one that gets a lot of attention in the media. To quote Polly Toynbee’s introduction to this book, it is “a secret continent”. “The barely reported truth about the American dream is that it exists in a country of widespread, growing and inescapable poverty, where the essential work is done by people paid below subsistence wage.” How do they survive on what they earn? To find out for herself, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich took on minimum wage jobs for three months. She worked as a waitress, a house cleaner, a care home worker and a Walmart assistant. She set herself a few rules at the start of this experiment: she would take no jobs that required the education and training she’d had; she would get the highest paying low-skill job and do her best to keep it; and she would find the cheapest accomodation.
Ehrenreich’s experience provides a much-needed look at how people live on minimum wages in the US. The fact is that by holding a single job it is impossible to make ends meet—and minimum wage earners have to hold down at least two jobs and/or share accomodation to survive. The rents swallow up a lot of their earnings, even if it’s paying for a trailer. These workers do not have the money to buy decent food nor the time to cook fresh food even if they could afford it.
And then there are the employers. The less people are paid, the more the employers try to squeeze out of them. Waiters and waitresses are not allowed to stand around, even when there are no customers. One of the things I remember from this book is a woman who is pregnant and terrified of telling her employers in case they fire her for her “infirmity”.
The workers are often stuck in their jobs because they simply do not have the time to look around for new ones. And because of their low wages, they cannot afford to be unemployed, even for a short period as there are rents to pay, food to buy, families to support. And to make it harder, several American cities do not have decent public transport so the workers have either to own cars or hitch rides from friends. And naturally, there are no unions. It is nearly impossible to climb out of the bottom 20%. “No one ever said that you could work hard—harder than you ever thought possible—and still find yourself sinking even deeper into poverty and debt.”
What really stands out is how dehumanizing all this is—the work, the treatment by employers and the living conditions. As Ehrenreich says, “If you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you are actually worth.” Those who rebel or even attempt to start a union in Walmart, are fired. This creates a workforce that is unable to fight back.
The book reminds us of the fact that, all over the world, people often rely on basic services that are provided by those who are just about managing to survive.