Monday, June 05, 2006

My Summer Reading

A Study In Contrasts
My reading so far this summer juxtaposes the light, frothiness of “What Would Jackie Do?” against a gritty expose of lifestyles of the working poor “Nickel And Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America.”

“You Can’t Help But Want To Be Like Her…”
I picked up the Jackie book expecting a parody of the ubiquitous “What Would Jesus Do” franchise, but it soon became painfully obvious that authors Shelly Branch and Sue Callaway take their subject way too seriously. In the introduction they coo, “You can’t help but want to be like her,” promising to teach readers to be “steely yet soignée.”

Has Hillary Heard About This?
Branch and Callaway include an account by singer/songwriter Carly Simon of getting through a meal next to a woman “who’d been fooling with my man” by asking herself “what would Jackie do?” Simon recalls that immediately her spine lengthened and she assumed a position of great dignity. Has anyone told Hillary about this method?

Helpful Updates…
In answer to the query contained in the liner notes, “But how would Jackie have handled the 21st century?” we are informed that even though she preferred handwritten notes to typewritten or word-processed, she would surely be inclined to reach out by e-mail as well.

Hard To Find Good Help…
When hosting a party, they advise, put a platform atop your pool or erect a series of tents on the lawn. Don’t trust all the flourishes to the household help; figure out for yourself how long the Brie needs to stand at room temperature.

Cultivating The Right Friends…
Friends with access to property on South Beach or in the south of France are definitely worth cultivating. Always be sure to send a note to the actual owner of such a house, who grants you tacit hospitality by allowing their actual invitee to tow you along.

Sorting Out Your Men…
Recognize the difference between a suitable date and a suitable mate; sort men by type the same way you sort summer frocks. Ideally, a husband should open up a second world of opportunities for you (a “platform” from which you can acquire what you deserve).

Getting Your Money’s Worth…
Why not have your hired help multitask? Jackie’s maid not only cared for her extensive wardrobe, but also pinch-hit as hairstylist when the occasion demanded. Her nanny was also a fantastic cook. Surely today she would have a technology-savvy helper on staff for when her wireless connection gave out, no?

At the other end of the spectrum is “Nickel and Dimed,” which grew out of a 1998 conversation between author and freelance writer Barbara Ehrenreich and Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper’s magazine. How, they wondered, were the roughly 4 million women about to be booted off welfare by “welfare reform” going to survive on jobs paying $6 or $7 an hour? In “Nickel and Dimed” Ehrenreich attempts to earn enough to pay a month’s rent in three different cities in America on her earnings from similar jobs.

The Groundrules:
Presenting herself as a recently divorced displaced homemaker in Key West, Portland (Maine), and Minneapolis, she enters the ranks of the working poor, if only temporarily. Ehrenreich sets rules for herself: she can’t fall back on her higher education; she has to accept the highest paying job she is offered; she must take the cheapest accommodations she can find that afford reasonable safety and privacy. She also sets limits to what she is willing to do in the name of journalistic research: she will always have a car, paid for out of funds separate from her earnings; she will not be homeless, and she will not go hungry. The goal is simply to set herself up as described above, and attempt to earn enough to pay the second month’s rent in each of the three locales.

One Is Not Enough…
In each instance, Ehrenreich finds she cannot make it without a second job, even though she has only herself to feed and clothe, and does not have to contend with making childcare arrangements. She also has the considerable advantage of having reliable transportation.

Not Getting By…
Working as a waitress and hotel housekeeper in Key West, as a maid and part-time dietary aide at a nursing home in Portland, and as a clerk at Wal Mart in Minneapolis, she finds the jobs demeaning and physically demanding. She notes that her co-workers work when sick, grow faint from hunger because they don’t have money for decent lunches, and have no access to medical care. Most share living arrangements with others for purely economic reasons, some living in their cars. Pay-by-the-week motels cost far more than a modest apartment would, but low-wage workers often find it impossible to save the required first month’s rent and deposit. Still, they stay in their low paying jobs and it never occurs to them to organize for better wages and benefits.

If You’re Willing To Work 7 Days A Week To Afford A One-Room Place…
The only place Ehrenreich found herself able to balance income and expenses comfortably enough to assume she could have survived financially was in Portland, but she points out she had to work seven days a week at two different jobs to accomplish that and doubts that she could have maintained that pace indefinitely.

Market Forces…
In Minneapolis, even though the job market was booming, and $7 and $8 an hour jobs were plentiful, she found herself in such a tight housing market that there was no way to make ends meet; there simply was no affordable housing available. An added problem for low-income workers is that any remaining affordable housing in such cities is likely to be in the inner city, while low wage job growth is in the outer suburbs. Most cities have inadequate public transportation, and reliable transportation is a constant struggle.

Elaborating The Obvious…
Both Republicans and Democrats tout work as the ticket out of poverty. Ehrenreich notes that you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing as far as making it on low wages; simply put, wages are too low and rents are too high.

How Much Is Enough?
Every year the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) publishes Out Of Reach, a detailed report on wages and rents in every state, using the Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom apartment as the yardstick. The housing wage is the wage a worker needs to afford a modest two-bedroom rental unit working a full-time (40 hour) job. Traditionally, housing is considered affordable if it accounts for no more than one third of a family’s budget, with utilities included. In 2005, the National Housing Wage for a two-bedroom apartment was $15.78.

What Does Minimum Wage Buy?
The federal minimum wage remains at $5.15, where it has stood since 1998. In 2004, more than two million U.S. employees were paid at or below minimum wage. There is nowhere in the U.S. that this would pay for a one-bedroom apartment; very few places where it would pay for an efficiency.

The Poverty Line…
According to US Census Bureau figures, the poverty threshold for a family of four (two adults, two children) is $19,484, considerably lower that the figure poverty advocates estimate is needed just to get by. The poverty threshold is based on a method developed in the early 1960s which established a family budget based on food costs times three. The food cost used was based on the “Economy Food Plan,” a minimal diet developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, designed to provide adequate nutrition for temporary, emergency situations.

Faulty Assumptions…
The only subsequent change to this admittedly low measure of poverty has been annual adjustments for inflation. This does not take into account huge changes in American family life over the last four decades, such as the cost of childcare due to the numbers of working mothers, and the sharp increases in the costs of health care, health insurance, housing and transportation compared to food. Food can no longer be assumed to account for one third of a family’s budget, and hasn’t for a long time; 15 % to 20% is a more accurate estimate.

Not Very Likely…
So, in order to earn the needed amount to nominally pull a family of 4 out of poverty ($19,484), a full-time worker would need to earn $9.37 an hour. How likely is this for a former welfare recipient? The National Coalition For The Homeless estimates the likelihood to be 97 to 1. A 2003 study of Michigan women who left welfare found that in 2001 only one quarter had found “good jobs,” defined as either paying $7.00 with health benefits or $8.50 an hour without health benefits. Those who lost assistance due to the 60-month time limit imposed by welfare reform were even more likely to remain poor than those who left for other reasons. A Minnesota study indicates that once off welfare, women were three times as likely to face hardships such as homelessness, eviction and hunger than those remaining on welfare.

In the final chapter of “Nickel and Dimed” Ehrenreich pokes gaping holes in our traditional view of lazy welfare mothers who refuse to “work their way out of poverty,” pointing out that when we depend on the underpaid labor of others to support our affluent lifestyles we force them to work for less pay than they can reasonably live on, and to go hungry so that we can eat more cheaply than we should. The working poor are forced to neglect their own children so that they can work for low wages caring for others’ children, making them unwitting donors and benefactors to society.

Proposed solutions such as establishing a living wage similar to the National Housing Wage raises protests from employers who say there’s no way they can afford to pay such wages; even proposals for modest increases to the $5.15 federal minimum wage are met with predictions of dire results for the business climate. Other solutions, based on subsidizing goods and services to the poor, are viewed as socialistic even though we are one of the few developed nations that forces it poor to compete with the wealthy for basic necessities like food, housing, and healthcare. In upcoming posts, we’ll examine the validity of these arguments, and look at other possible causes and solutions.


Blogger Ray Walden said...

My VISTA training in 1978 included a film making the same point, although I recall it saying that a single person might be able to make it on minimum wage (then about $3.65 and hour, but gasoline was about 40 cents), but add even one child and the math goes all screwy.

As for what Jackie would do with email, I am quite sure all of her emails would be grammatically correct and typo free. And texting on cell phones? No way!

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