How the other half lives...
In any case, I recently finished reading Nickel and Dimed and have to concede that it's a very nice little book. First off, it IS a little book. Coming in at a paltry 221 pages, most of which is in large font and composed of narration, it is quite an easy read. This book could very obviously serve as a supplement for an undergraduate course in inequality, which makes it all the more useful. It's a simple, engaging read that the students would find easy to swallow, and does provide a wealth of examples to discuss about the nature of success in the "Land of Opportunity."
I guess one of the things that struck me, however, was the fact that this book had to be written at all. If Ehrenreich is to be believed (and I see no reason to doubt her at the moment, particularly given my own past experiences with low-wage jobs and the people who do them) then there should be a vast reservoir of people with tales to tell about life in the working classes of America. So, why was it necessary for an outsider to move in and tell their tales for them? Was it simply because the poor and uneducated need someone else to do their writing? Somehow I doubt it. Being working class does not mean you're stupid, or uneducated, although if you are from any class you can be either or both.
Certainly there is precedent for this type of book, the most obvious example being Black Like Me by the late John Howard Griffin. In this work, Griffin ventured into the deep south disguised, through the use of medication and dye, as a black man. He returned with a story of racism, segregation, and discrimination so horrible that to read it is to become enraged. In this case, it is perhaps easier to see why white America needed such a study: having long been taught to regard themselves as somehow better than African-Americans, it was necessary for one of their own to validate the tales they were hearing. Yet, if Ehrenreich has done much the same thing by venturing into the lower economic strata and returning with similarly horrifying tales of what life is like there, what are we to make of our own society?
The most immediately upsetting point is that much like African-Americans under the boot of Jim Crow, the poor have come to be regarded as members of some other species. They aren't like "us." They're lazy, shiftless, and above all, dishonest. Therefore, when a worker comes into a public forum and asks why her wages are so low that she must live in her car, we find ourselves quietly discounting her concerns. Clearly she isn't working hard enough, isn't spending her money wisely, isn't organized, isn't all those things that make us the priviledged people that we are. This is, of course, why we cannot listen to her complaints: she is a prisoner of her own narrow self-interest and is suspected of having poor moral character besides. The irony here is rich: on the one hand, a person who is intimitely familiar with a situation is often presumed to be the most qualified to speak on it, yet at the same time, those most enmeshed are assumed to have the most to gain from some change in policy. Which of these two perceptions wins out seems to have more to do with the sort of class position the speaker occupies than anything else.
It seems to me that such a perception of the poor is built into American society in a way not experienced by Europe. In Europe there was a legacy of wealthy noble domination that colored the experiences of industrialist and worker alike. The rich had, for a long time, simply been that way because of their birth and, likewise, the poor. There was no expectation of mobility in the middle ages, simply the expectation that you would live and die as part of your class, whatever you did. For obvious reasons, this provides a rich basis for labor movement organization. At the same time, its consequences for migration to the U.S. where mobility might be difficult, but was not totally impossible, are obvious. Perhaps your chances of moving into the American upper-crust after immigration were poor, but any chance is better than no chance. This possibility of advancement was due in large part to the sense that we live in a meritocracy, that those with determination and skill can rise, and those who do not are simply lazy. Certainly such a view has its advantages, in that it allows for and encourages mobility, and the U.S. has had an impressive record in terms of upward, and downward, class mobility. Yet, this ideal also creates a very negative undercurrent. It is probably accurate to say that you will not rise to the top unless you are hard-working, but it does not then follow that if you don't rise to the top you aren't hard-working. Hard work and honesty are necessary conditions for advancement, but they are certainly not sufficient.
In Europe, perhaps the working classes are not expected to be able to change their positions, but they also are not thought of as inferior (Well, mostly) because of that position. Being a peasant in the middle ages didn't mean that you'd failed, or that you were lazy, it meant that your parents were peasants. Each class had its place in society and each was accepted. Similarly in modern Europe, where class mobility is now both possible and more common, workers are still not regarded as being inferior (mostly) because they are workers. In the U.S., unfortunately, our emphasis on upward mobility has granted the middle and upper classes a sort of spiritual permission to loathe the working poor. It seems obvious that if they would only work they could have more things, and better things, so their very failure to achieve makes them legitimate targets for scorn and abuse. Their apparent failure to succeed which requires "only" hard work and sacrifice reveals them as being somehow lesser beings than those who occupy more elevated positions in the socioeconomic structure. Therefore, we cannot believe anything they say about their lot, but must instead send someone who is solidly middle class, and has therefore proven her worth, to discern the truth of the matter. It seems a shame to me that a society that values, or claims to value, equality so highly should allow itself to fall victim so completely to such notions.
Yet, the worst of the matter is not yet at hand. Ehrenreich concludes by saying that:
Someday, of course-and I will make no predictions as to exactly when-they [the working poor] are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they're worth. There'll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption. But the sky will not fall, and we will all be better off for it in the end. [Pg. 221, 2002 edition]
An optimisic message, to be sure, but unfortunately thoroughly unbelievable. Ehrenreich recounts several occasions in her travels when she asked her fellow workers about their lot in life, and they replied with comments affirming the social order. When she worked as a maid, her fellow maids said they didn't mind that their customers had so much because they hoped to have as much as well someday. For every worker in the U.S. who is aware of their status as a worker and is willing to fight for the right of workers to exist as a class, with dignity and respect, there appears to be ten more who see no problem with the system, who believe that it will only take hard work and determination and someday they too will succeed. And then, finally, there are the unfortunate people who believe they are getting a raw deal, and doubt they will ever see the pearly gates of middle class status, but are simply too beaten down and exhaused by the battle for survival to care. Much like the masculists the problem is that they have come to believe the very tales and stereotypes that wound them. The working poor will not rise up and they will not demand anything better because they do not believe themselves to be a class, or even worse, believe they have a right to more than they already get. It has become unnecessary for the U.S. government to repress labor, we have simply taught labor to repress itself. The cage is all the more perfect because the bars are invisible.
Perhaps we in the U.S. like to look down upon the "backward" parts of the world that still have hereditary aristocracy, but our aristocracy is no less hereditary for its basis in bucks rather than blood. Perhaps we like to take pride in crafting a nation where "anyone can make it," but we have at the same time created a world in which poverty is equivalent to moral laxity. In our search for opportunity, we have instead created a world of more perfect discrimination and prejudice, and for that we should feel nothing but sorrow, and the determination to change things. None of this, however, should come as a surprise to anyone, but all the same it bears repeating.
That Ehrenreich wrote an excellent book is obvious, but that this book had to be written, and moreover had to be written by someone like her, is a national disgrace. The voicelessness of the poor is tragic in a nation that once defined itself by saying, "All men are created equal."
It just appears that some of us are more equal than others.