In Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, the workers trapped in dead-end service sector jobs have virtually no chance at all of escaping poverty or obtaining any meaningful quality of life. That is one of the main themes of the book, a constant struggle for mere subsistence with a high cost of living and a very poor quality of life. These jobs are all the same in that the employees are expendable, the pay is too low for them to survive, and the benefits are often nonexistent. They are often filled by women, young people and immigrants, and they offer no real future of any kind, much less a path to middle-class status. When Ehrenreich wrote this book, the Great Recession had not yet begun, so this top of work was plentiful, and as she discovered employers ran want ads almost continuously due to the high turnover. Today, with real unemployment rates running at 10-15% or higher in many parts of the country, even these subsistence-level jobs are often hard to find. She has certainly identified one primary reason why the rates of poverty and income inequality have skyrocketed in the United States over the last thirty years, and are getting worse all the time in the current recession.
In Chapter Two, Ehrenreich described how she began her experiment of how well workers could survive at or near the minimum wage in her hometown of Key West, Florida. At first she was concerned that friends might discover her but "during a month of poverty and toils, no one recognizes my face or my name, which goes for the most part unnoticed and for the most part unuttered" (Ehrenreich 11). This theme of the sheer anonymity and facelessness of low-wage workers is a constant one throughout the chapter, since they are basically treated as disposable and expendable commodities that can easily be replaced. Her first problem was finding a place to live within her budget, since Key West was a very expensive town for those earning $6-7 per hour. So were most other cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco where "tourists and the wealthy compete for living space with those who clean their toilets and fry their hash browns" (Ehrenreich 12). She finally had to settle on renting a cabin thirty miles out of town for $500 a month, which meant a 30-45 minute commute every day. After saving enough money, she paid $1,100 to rent a trailer closer to Key West in a neighborhood that was a "nest of crime and crack," lacking basic services like a supermarket, bank or Laundromat (Ehrenreich 39).
Finding one of these low-level service jobs was simply a question of filling out applications at supermarkets, hotels and convenience stores at the right time and then waiting for someone to quit or be fired. By the 1990s, 81% of all large employers also required a drug screening as a precondition to being hired, which tended to detect marijuana users most of all (Ehrenreich 14). She finally got a waitressing job that paid about $2.00 an hour plus tips, although once these were added in the pay was usually around $7 an hour. Even managers were never very highly paid in these jobs, averaging only about $400 a week, although they were at least free to sit down while when the servers were not working they were "sweeping, scrubbing, refilling, and restocking" (Ehrenreich 18). No matter that managers were mainly promoted from the working class, once they had moved over to the corporate side there was always a gulf between them and the lower-level employees.
In this workplace of menial jobs where unions were almost never allowed, Ehrenreich did not notice a great deal of working class solidarity. She sympathized with George, a 19-year-old Czech immigrant who worked as a dishwasher, and noted that he had to share an apartment with other immigrant workers and only slept when one of the beds became available. Later, he was accused of stealing from the dry-storage room but had not yet been fired by the time she simply walked out on this job. Her response was not even to try to defend him and this attitude made her feel like "something new -- something loathsome and servile -- had infected me," and if she had continued that job for another month or two she might "have turned into a different person altogether -- say, the kind of person who might have turned George in" (Ehrenreich 41). Something about this work was even worse than the low pay, lack of benefits and difficult bosses, and that might best be described as the dehumanizing effect it had on the personality over the months and years.
This economic world was basically a pick-collar ghetto, and Ehrenreich pointed out that the women who did not have husbands or live-in boyfriends who were employed almost always had second jobs. In one of notes she mentions that 6.2% of the workforce in 1996 had two or more jobs, but only 4% or men and 2% of women actually had two full-time jobs (Ehrenreich 45). Ehrenreich worked at a part-time housekeeping at the motel next door for $6.10 an hour, and found once again that the jobs were mostly filled by immigrant and minority women. Although she only spent one day at this job, her image of Carlotta, the woman who was training her was the most haunting and disturbing in the chapter that simply stays with me for some reason. As Ehrenreich put it "I don't have to ask about health insurance once I meet Carlotta" because she was "missing all her top front teeth" (Ehrenreich 42). None of the women in this job had any pretense of a 'service ethic', either, since unlike the restaurant they received no tips and had minimal contact with the clientele. As Carlotta told her, the motel guests were hardly aware that they even existed unless one of the housekeepers was accused of stealing "then they're all over you" (Ehrenreich 44). When they were not mopping, vacuuming, making beds and cleaning toilets, they would sit a few minutes to watch soap operas and daytime talk shows on television.
Ehrenreich's month-long experiment in Key West ended when the restaurant had a very bad day, crowded with complaining tourists and a new cook who could not keep up with all the orders. When the manager threw a try at him, she simply walked out without saying a world or collecting any pay or tips owed to her. To her this was simply like walking out of jail into the sunlight, at least for a short time until the next experiment. As a reader, I certainly felt sorry for the workers who could never quit jobs like these, for even if they did they would only end up getting another one like it. They lived paycheck to paycheck, and any prolonged spell of unemployment meant a real risk of homelessness. Obviously those with families and young children were truly stuck in this type of work and would never be likely to escape from it. A number of adjectives come to mind when describing this world of dead-end jobs, such as demeaning, degrading, depersonalizing and so on, and indeed there seems to be almost nothing positive about the experience either in the material or psychological sense. This is simply what people must do to survive in this society, and they give in to wage-slavery because they have no other choice.
When Ehrenreich arrived in Portland, Maine, she had about $1,000 saved and stayed temporarily at a Motel 6 for $59 a night until she found a job and a permanent place to live. Most of the apartments advertised were for $1,000 a month, and even efficiencies cost about $500. During tourist season in Maine, the rents and hotel room prices doubled or tripled (Ehrenreich 54). She looked at a boarding house that advertised rooms for $65 a week, but passed on it when she learned that people were sleeping on the floor in the kitchen. By chance, she found an old motel that rented rooms for $120 a week with a $100 deposit and moved in immediately. Although the newspapers advertised over 3,000 jobs, most of them were the usual low-wage, service sector type and she reported that "Portland is just another $6-$7-an hour town. This should be as startling to economists as a burst of exotic radiation is to astronomers" (Ehrenreich 60). About the best job she could find was at The Maids cleaning service, which paid $6.65 an hour, although she also had to supplement this by working part-time as a food server ("dietary assistant") in a nursing home. All of these places are basically the same for low-wage workers, though, and their situation never changes.
In her Evaluation section, Ehrenreich gave herself a B. Or a B+ as a low-wage employee, since she was punctual, clean and did the tasks she was assigned. Despite the very…