Paper on "Nickel and Dime" by Barbara Ehrenreich:
When she writes about the hardships that the working poor (her fellow workers) face, Barbara Ehrenreich generally does not blame the workers themselves for their major problems, Instead, she finds so many obstacles, indignities, and hardships built into the way that our society treats such workers that it appears that it is almost impossible in many cases for them to get out of poverty. Others, who don’t see any big problems with the way our system treats different classes of people might view the same situation differently. They might argue that it is entirely (or primarily) the responsibility of poor workers themselves to individually better their own conditions.
Argue one side or the other of this dispute. (I know most will say it is BOTH, but I want you to take one side or the other as PRIMARILY more right than the other.) Who bears responsibility for guaranteeing a minimally decent life for the "working poor" in our society? The larger society or the workers themselves? Whichever side you take, be sure to provide evidence and strong arguments for your position, using examples from Ehrenreich’s book and/or your own experiences to bolster your case.
Keep in mind:
The question of "testing" low-wage job applicants (including urine tests) comes up. At this point in the reading, Ehrenreich states what she thinks is the real purpose of these tests. Since we discussed this last week, has your perspective changed any after reading her analysis of such testing? Any way you look at it, such testing tells us something important about our society: either it is composed of many low-wage workerss who are untrustworthy, prone to theft, and likely drug abusers, or employers use these devices to maintain control and to intimidate those at the bottom rungs of our economic order.
In addition to the usual impossibility of finding affordable housing, Ehrenreich brings in racial (and also to some degree, gender) issues in this particular reading. She chose to go to Maine because of how "white" it is. Having a smaller population of African Americans and Hispanics than her home state of Florida,she finds that racial and ethnic distinctions are less used in Maine to demarcate the lowest jobs and occupations. She also notes at one point, when she is being ignored as if "invisible" at the counter of a diner while ordering iced tea, that she might just be getting some sense of what it is like to be black in America. Thus, she raises in several ways the intersection between racial/ethnic divisions and class distinctions in our society. On the discussion board I’ll be asking you to meditate on these issues she encounters.
This particular reading also addresses issues about how low-wage workers are seen or perceived by others. As a cleaning maid, she finds that some homeowners seem to enjoy seeing a cleaning lady on her knees, set up hidden cameras to "catch" any misdeeds such as stealing, and seem totally oblivious to the humanity of those who clean up after them. She also finds that, unlike waitressing, being a cleaning lady relegates one to the lowest of the low in the eyes of others, even in the eyes of other low-wage workers themselves. "They think we’re stupid" is a comment that pretty well sums it up. Are such attitudes justified or not? What does this tell us about our society.
Ehrenreich also wants to debunk the notion that there is plenty of assistance available (at convenient times and ways) for those in need. She finds it practically impossible to obtain food assistance during any reasonable hours, and what she does get is unhealthy and somewhat impossible to consume in her circumstances. This again addresses a controversial question: does the U.S. give ample (many would say way too much) assistance to those at the bottom of the economic ladder? It is widely believed that our society is too generous — the opposite of Ehrenreich’s experience or belief.
And finally, this reading addresses the toll that is taken on one’s self-image when you are treated as "nothing" or "invisible" or at minimum untrustworthy and unworthy. She finds her fellow cleaning maids to be dependent on and seeking approval from a "boss" that Ehrenreich finds loathsome, and mostly devoid of any sense that they deserved better. To Ehrenreich, who would love to see some "fight back" from her fellow workers, this is dispiriting.
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