Compare and Contrast.
A while back, City Journal ran a piece entitled The Myth of the Working Poor (which I highly recommend, BTW). Here’s an excerpt:
Books like Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and David Shipler’s The Working Poor tell us that the poor are doing exactly what America expects of them—finding jobs, rising early to get to work every day, chasing the American dream—but that our system of “carnivorous capitalism” is so heavily arrayed against them that they can’t rise out of poverty or live a decent life. These new anthems of despair paint their subjects as forced off welfare by uncompassionate conservatives and trapped in low-wage jobs that lead nowhere. They claim, too, that the good life that the country’s expanding middle class enjoys rests on the backs of these working poor and their inexpensive labor, so that prosperous Americans owe them more tax-funded help.
Though these books resolutely ignore four decades’ worth of lessons about poverty, they have found a big audience. The commentariat loves them. Leftish professors have made them required course reading. And Democratic candidates have made their themes central to the 2004 elections.
And they’re still using it today.
Like communists who claim that communism didn’t fail but instead was never really tried, Barbara Ehrenreich made her public debut with an attempt to brush aside the War on Poverty’s obviously catastrophic results. The 46-year-old daughter of a Montana copper miner-turned-business executive, she joined Cloward and Piven to co-author a 1987 polemic, The Mean Season: The Attack on the Welfare State. The War on Poverty had failed so far, the book claimed, not because of its flawed premises but because the government hadn’t done enough to redistribute the nation’s wealth. America needed an even bigger War on Poverty that would turn the country into a European-style social welfare state. Pooh-poohing the work ethic and the dignity of labor, the authors derided calls for welfare reform that would require recipients to work, because that would be mortifying to the poor. “There is nothing ennobling about being forced to please an employer to feed one’s children,” the authors wrote, forgetting that virtually every worker and business owner must please someone, whether boss or customer, to earn a living. Welfare’s true purpose, the book declared, should be to “permit certain groups to opt out of work.” (The authors never explained why all of us shouldn’t demand the right to “opt out.”)
What a surprise.
Her 1989 book, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, blamed poverty’s continued existence in America partly on the Me Generation, which Tom Wolfe had so brilliantly made interesting to the nation. America’s emerging professional middle class had started out hopefully in the 1960s, Ehrenreich claims, the inheritor of a liberating cultural revolution. But because that class depended on intellectual capital to make its living, rather than on income from property or investments, it felt a sharp economic insecurity, which by the late 1980s had made it “meaner, more selfish,” and (worse still) “more hostile to the aspirations of the less fortunate,” especially in its impatience with welfare.
The book vibrates with Ehrenreich’s rage toward middle-class Americans. The middle class, she sneers, obsessively pursues wealth and is abjectly “sycophantic toward those who have it, impatient with those who do not.” To Ehrenreich, “The nervous, uphill climb of the professional class accelerates the downward spiral of society as a whole: toward cruelly widening inequalities, toward heightened estrangement along class lines, and toward the moral anesthesia that estrangement requires.” Ironically, Ehrenreich’s economic prescription for a better America was for government to create one gigantic bourgeoisie: “Tax the rich and enrich the poor until both groups are absorbed into some broad and truly universal middle class. The details are subject to debate.”
Aren’t they always? Ehrenreich and her ilk would, of course, be the ones doing the taxing and redistributing, since they are The Anointed and know what’s best for the rest of us.
Ehrenreich’s anger propelled her to write Nickel and Dimed. Beginning life as a piece of “undercover journalism” for Harper’s, the 2001 book purports to reveal the truth about poverty in post-welfare reform America. “In particular,” Ehrenreich asks in the introduction, how were “the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform . . . going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour?”
Nickel and Dimed doesn’t fuss much with public-policy agendas, messy economic theories, or basic job numbers. Instead, it gives us Ehrenreich’s first-person account of three brief sojourns into the world of the lowest of low-wage work: as a waitress for a low-priced family restaurant in Florida; as a maid for a housecleaning service in Maine; and as a women’s-apparel clerk at a Minneapolis Wal-Mart. In her journeys, she meets a lively and sympathetic assortment of co-workers: Haitian busboys, a Czech dishwasher, a cook with a gambling problem, and assorted single working mothers. But the focus is mostly on Ehrenreich, not her colleagues.
The point that Nickel and Dimed wants to prove is that in today’s economy, a woman coming off welfare into a low-wage job can’t earn enough to pay for basic living expenses. Rent is a burden, Ehrenreich discovers. In Florida, she lands a $500-a-month efficiency apartment; in Maine, she spends $120 a week for a shared apartment in an old motel (she turns down a less expensive room elsewhere because it’s on a noisy commercial street); in Minneapolis, she pays $255 a week for a moldy hotel room. These seem like reasonable enough rents, except perhaps for Minneapolis, judging from her description of the place. But with her entry-level wages—roughly the minimum wage (when tips are included) as a waitress, about $6 an hour as a maid, and $7 an hour to start at Wal-Mart—Ehrenreich quickly finds that she’ll need a second job to support herself. This seems to startle her, as if holding down two jobs is something new to America. “In the new version of supply and demand,” she writes, “jobs are so cheap—as measured by the pay—that a worker is encouraged to take on as many as she possibly can.”
What’s utterly misleading about Ehrenreich’s exposé, though, is how she fixes the parameters of her experiment so that she inevitably gets the outcome that she wants—”proof” that the working poor can’t make it.
Here’s the point of this post – refutation of Ehrenreich’s argument in the form of a similar experiment carried out by someone who intends to see it through honestly: Homeless: Can you build a life from $25? – an article in the Christian Science Monitor. Excerpt:
Alone on a dark gritty street, Adam Shepard searched for a homeless shelter. He had a gym bag, $25, and little else. A former college athlete with a bachelor’s degree, Mr. Shepard had left a comfortable life with supportive parents in Raleigh, N.C. Now he was an outsider on the wrong side of the tracks in Charleston, S.C.
But Shepard’s descent into poverty in the summer of 2006 was no accident. Shortly after graduating from Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., he intentionally left his parents’ home to test the vivacity of the American Dream. His goal: to have a furnished apartment, a car, and $2,500 in savings within a year.
To make his quest even more challenging, he decided not to use any of his previous contacts or mention his education.
During his first 70 days in Charleston, Shepard lived in a shelter and received food stamps. He also made new friends, finding work as a day laborer, which led to a steady job with a moving company.
Ten months into the experiment, he decided to quit after learning of an illness in his family. But by then he had moved into an apartment, bought a pickup truck, and had saved close to $5,000.
Rather different from Ms. Ehrenreich’s experience.
The effort, he says, was inspired after reading “Nickel and Dimed,” in which author Barbara Ehrenreich takes on a series of low-paying jobs. Unlike Ms. Ehrenreich, who chronicled the difficulty of advancing beyond the ranks of the working poor, Shepard found he was able to successfully climb out of his self-imposed poverty.
He tells his story in “Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream.” The book, he says, is a testament to what ordinary Americans can achieve.
Now there’s a book that might be worth picking up. Of course, I’m sure Ms. Ehrenreich would claim his experiment didn’t prove a thing.
After all, Shepard is a man.
Read the CSM interview. It’s worth your time.