Ok, so there isn't just one book that we all should read, but this one is pretty high up on the list! Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich (ISBN 0805063897, $13.00) is scary, sobering, and hopefully motivating. Ehrenreich, an acclaimed journalist, went 'undercover' for three months, in three different states, to try to live on a low-paying job. Note that she was not trying to live on minimum wage ($5.65 per hour during her 1999 experiment, $7.15 per hour currently) but on low wage jobs that paid slightly more than the federally mandated amount. So did it work? Nope. She worked her fingers to the bones, having discovered that she could not possibly live on just one job; she never could get a decent apartment since she couldn't save up enough for a deposit; she often had long commutes because the only semi-affordable housing was located far away from her workplace; and she was told, without words, that her inability to get by was her own fault.
Let's consider the facts: One full-time minimum wage job in 1999 would gross $11,752 per year. Take out taxes - let's say 15% - and you have $9,989.20. Per month, you would need to live on $832.43. The positions that Ehrenreich took generally paid about $7.00 per hour, upping her monthly after tax wage to $1031.33. With that, she had to pay her rent, usually in excess of $600 per month, her gas (remember those long commutes?) her food, and any potential medical costs (fortunately for her she didn't have any injuries or illnesses during that time). I have a hard time paying for those things myself on my significantly higher salary!
The hardest thing to face, though, wasn't the stories of hardship (families of six living in one motel room; a Wal-Mart employee who couldn't afford to buy a Wal-Mart shirt on clearance) but the fact that so many of her co-workers believed that they were alone in their inability to make ends meet. They bought the myth that their low wage was a living wage, and that it was their own fault for being unable to live on it. Sadder still were the tactics of the employers, designed to keep the masses down: withholding the first week's paycheck as blackmail against leaving immediately, punishing workers for minor infractions by changing shifts without notice, and worst of all, appealing to the sympathy of the workers by claiming to be hard pressed themselves. Corporations making millions, even billions, of dollars annually claim that they are unable to pay their workers higher wages for fear of bankruptcy. How much do they pay them now? Certainly less that 5% of their overall profits!
I grew up with the knowledge of poverty always on the periphery. I gave to the collection plate at church, walked in the CROP Walk, and knew in my head that there were people who couldn't afford to buy dinner, much less a home. But the underlying assumption was that those people didn't have jobs. Not necessarily that they were lazy, but that they were unemployed for one reason or another. Ehrenreich's study uncovers a frighteningly different reality: these people work hard, far harder than I do in fact, at two or more jobs. They cut every corner they can, not splurging on luxuries. They aren't drunks who drink their money, or gamblers who throw it away. They do everything right that they can. And they can't afford to buy dinner, much less a home. Anyone who still believes that welfare moms and high school drop outs can make it if they just work hard needs to read this book.
Next on my reading list? Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (ISBN 0805081240, $13), also by Ehrenreich. The question here: are the middle classes doing that much better than the poor? We'll find out!