Sunday, January 31, 2016

Nickle and Dimed: The Invisible Effects of Poverty

Being a member of the lower class of society has many visible effects, such as a lower income, poorer housing and food quality, and even poorer health. However, when Barbara Ehrenriech takes a number of minimal wage jobs across the nation, she experiences many invisible effects from poverty as well.

Ehrenriech comes to realize that one unforeseen effect of poverty, especially when working with a maid service, is not being seen. After working with a maid company for a little while, she finds that what she really wants to be is, "...above all, noticeable" (99). I think in our society we tend to pass lower income workers by with out noticing them. Imagine you have just arrived late at night at your hotel, and you are waiting for the elevator to arrive when a maid scurries by. Would you stop and say hello, or even make eye contact? Or would you just stare off into space and continue to wait for your elevator? I believe most Americans would choose the later option.  Being unseen is undoubtedly a problem most low income workers have to deal with, and one that we as upper class Americans don't notice, even when we are the ones ignoring them.

Another hidden and negative effect Ehrenriech experiences is revealed by during her long long shifts at Wal-Mart. She has an argument with a short co-worker. Later that night, as she watches the shorter worker climb a ladder, Ehrenriech  feels: "A surge of evil mirth...hoping to see her go splat" (168). This mirth, at the prospect of another person's misfortune is obviously a bitter, and even cruel response. However, Ehrenriech is not as mean as her thought suggests. She believes when you work at a job considered demeaning by society, it makes you bitter. There are a wide variety of demeaning and subservient jobs lower income people are forced to fill. The mental toll this can have on a worker is impossible to see physically, and most likely stored away inside for only the worker to brood over. That is a hidden burden none of us would want to carry.  

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Nickel and Dimed: The Meaning of Poverty

The United States Government says that to be poor is to live at, "The point below which a household of a given size has pre-tax cash income insufficient to meet minimal food and other basic needs" (The Federal Poverty Guidelines). So you are poor if your income before taxes are taken away does not provide you with enough money to but a minimal amount of food and other basic needs. We all need food, but also a place to live, or shelter, and if it is a place that gets cold, we have to pay for heat, and of course at least basic clothing and shoes. people with children have more needs and costs, and sometimes the most important cost is healthcare. Perhaps others assumed or usually thought of the poor as unemployed people, many work, and many work very hard. These people are often referred to as the the "working poor." These people with jobs also usually need additional money for transportation to work. Figuring out how much income real people need to not be poor, or to survive is complicated. In Barbra Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed, she examines the real lives of people struggling at the poverty level about fifteen years ago. She does this by taking low-paying jobs, and finds that even having a job does not guarantee that someone is not poor, and that being poor is more complex than just reading the Federal Poverty's guidelines. 

Ehrenreich's perception of poverty is similar to the United States Government's perception in that both would agree poverty means a person is unable to meet basic needs, such as shelter. When Ehrenreich first meets some of her fellow low-paid employees, she finds out right away, "Housing, in almost every case, is the principle source of disruption in their lives" (25). Being able to afford a house or decent apartment or not makes the a huge difference for the people she meets. For many of them, shelter is the difference between making it and not making it. 

Ehrenreich's views changed during her experience. She started her project thinking the working poor were less intelligent than she was, or maybe less intelligent than more successful people in general and that to the she was special. But when reflecting back on the whole excursion, she thinks, "The only thing that really made me 'special' was my inexperience" (8). From being around poor working class members of society, she changes her opinion that there is something special in her, and comes to realize that the only significant difference between them is that she has not been exposed to minimum wage jobs as much. Some people can be smart and work hard, and still be poor and struggling.

I struggled with the idea of the "working poor"and the fact that someone can both work hard and still be destitute. If you come to school from a nice warm house, and have plenty of food and clothing, and if you are reasonably intelligent, it is easy to assume that poor people are different from you, so you don't need to worry about ever being poor. The whole idea about poor people is not threatening if they are different from us. However, in Ehrenreich's experience the people she works with are not dull or dim-witted and still struggle with finding a place to sleep at night. This challenges the whole notion of what I thought it meant to be poor, and also does away with the old notion that hard work pays off. Some times it doesn't.