Socialist Worker

Poverty US style

by Helen Shooter
Issue No. 1803

'OURS IS a world of pain. I don't know how my co-workers survive on their wages or what they make of our hellish conditions. I do know about their back pains, cramps and arthritic attacks.'

That description is not of a sweatshop worker in the Third World, but of low paid workers in the US. It comes from Nickel and Dimed, a new book by US author Barbara Ehrenreich. She goes undercover in jobs in various parts of the US to find out how people live on the wages available to unskilled workers.

Through her own experiences and those of her fellow workers Ehrenreich gives a powerful sense of the daily struggle of millions of ordinary people in the US. The workers, many of them women, battle through long shifts without rest, with low pay, poor food, work-related injuries and bullying managers. One worker, Holly, manages to support herself, her husband and an elderly relative on $30 to $50 a week.

She is so desperate that she tries to carry on working even after she suffers a crippling fall. Ehrenreich's investigation runs from 1998 to 2000, the very years when politicians were hailing the US boom.

The low paid did not benefit from the boom they helped to fuel. And now the US economy is in crisis they are under more pressure. Just two months ago the US unemployment figures rose to a 19-year high. Ehrenreich sets herself the task of arriving in a new town and finding a job and somewhere to live.

By the end of the month she has to have earned enough money to pay a second month's rent.

But like many other US workers she simply cannot earn enough money from one job to support herself. In Florida she tries to work cleaning hotel rooms from 9am, then dashing to her waitressing job which is supposed to finish at 10pm. In Portland, Maine, she works with a team of women cleaning rich people's houses on weekdays. At the weekends she serves food and washes up for patients with Alzheimer's in a nursing home.

'Work fills the landscape,' Ehrenreich says. She wonders 'what the two-job way of life would do to a person after a few months of zero days off.' The high cost of housing helps to drive workers into poverty. Marianne, one of the waitresses in Florida, lives with her boyfriend in a one-person trailer paying $170 a week.

She is evicted for sharing the accommodation and moves in with fellow worker Tina and her husband who live in a single motel room for $60 a night. Tina also lets another worker, Joan, use the shower room as Joan's 'home' is a van that is parked behind a shopping centre. Most people associate such dire conditions with the unemployed surviving on benefits.

Yet all these people have jobs, which politicians in the US and Britain argue is the way out of poverty. Ehrenreich explains the poverty trap: 'If you can't put up the two months' rent you need to secure an apartment, you end up paying through the nose for a room by the week.

'If you have only a room, with a hot plate at best, you can't save by cooking up huge stews that can be frozen for the week ahead. You eat fast food or hot dogs.'

It's not just small businesses that pay rotten wages-it's also true of the multinational Wal- Mart, which owns the Asda supermarket chain here in Britain. Workers are forced to take 'pre-employment personality tests' and urinate in front of a manager to complete a drug test for the most basic jobs.

Managers constantly harass the staff. 'Managers are there for only one reason-to make sure money is made for the corporation,' says Ehrenreich. All this has an impact on the workers' confidence to resist. But as the TV news in the workers' rest room at Wal Mart shows a strike by 1,450 hotel workers, their fighting spirit breaks through.

A woman worker jumps in the air, waving her fist. When Ehrenreich suggests that the same could happen in Wal Mart, she says, 'Damn right!' Ehrenreich concludes by saying, 'Someday they are bound to demand to be paid what they're worth. There'll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption.'

Nickel and Dimed: Undercover in Low Wage USA by Barbara Ehrenreich, £8.99, will soon be available from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848.

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Sat 8 Jun 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1803
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