18 April 2013

Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America” had a profound effect on the way I look at class, welfare, and social equality when I read it a few years ago. 

The author goes undercover to work a variety of jobs that pay minimum wage. She must stay at the job for a month and she must live solely off the money she earns from that job. Just as she switched jobs every month, she also switched cities to give a portrait of working conditions across America. Among the jobs she holds are a waitress in a diner in Key West, a maid in Portland, Maine; and a sales clerk at a Wal-Mart in Minneapolis. 

She finds it is barely possible to eke out a living working 40 hours a week at minimum wage. She often has to stay in hotels that rent by the week because although finding a crummy apartment would be cheaper, that’s not an option since she can’t save any money for rent and a security deposit. 

In certain towns, she ends up living on fast food, which is more costly than groceries, because she doesn’t have any money to buy kitchen supplies. Forget about anything like medical care. 

It’s a vicious circle and the book shows how extremely hard-working people—people who are working two full-time jobs— get trapped in a cycle of poverty and homelessness. Minimum wage in most states in no way equals a sustainable living wage. 

The book changed the way I think and certainly how I tip everyone from waitstaff to the folks at the valet and what I pay an hourly-wage worker when I have the ability to set the price. While I’d never particularly had any issue with people who receive public assistance, such as food stamps, it also clarified my thinking on that issue.

I thought of the book today because while I was stopped at a light, a panhandler came up to me holding a sign that said she needed money for a motel room for the night. 

I gave her today’s $10 and asked her her name. She said it was Cheryl. And then she did something that no other homeless person I’ve ever given money to has done before: She asked me my name. I told her and we smiled at each other.  We didn’t have a lot of time before the light changed, but she then said, “A lot of people take the money for drugs and alcohol. I use it to get a hotel room. Seven nights a week.” 

It used to bother me that a homeless person I was giving money to may be using it to buy alcohol or drugs or may not even really be homeless at all, but somewhere along the line, I decided that once I gave them the money, it wasn’t any of my business how they spent it. And if they are faking being homeless (as I suspected was the case when a young couple with a baby came up to me one time in a parking lot and I felt like an idiot after I gave them $20), that’s also none of my concern. In any case, they clearly need it more than I.

Cheryl seemingly considers panhandling her job and if she’s able to afford a room every night, she’s doing a lot better than some of the folks we meet in “Nickel and Dimed.” I wish we’d had more time to talk so I could have found out if she has a regular place she stays and how she gets to and from her panhandling spot and what circumstances had led her to this. Maybe this was just the first of many conversations we’ll have. 

April 18: Cheryl

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