Barbara Ehrenreich has been a columnist for several years, used to have the back page of Newsweek magazine, may still have it for all I know. I haven't touched a Newsweek in so many years I don't remember last time. This is her 12th book. She writes so well with such clarity I read her with admiration. I started to say we think alike, but she has 3 degrees, and I have one. So we don't think alike. But when I'm reading her, she's telling my thoughts of many years. This little book is plain radical, radical meaning truth-seeking and truth-revealing. The dictionary has several meanings for it, but this definition fits. Extreme is the dictionary's meaning closest to addressing the truth of a matter. In the land of denial, facing an issue straight-on is indeed radical, or extreme.
The truth she uncovers is one the working class knows very well, but the working class has no voice, no influence, no power. I've known this almost since the day I was born, growing up the child of a factory laborer among working class relatives and neighbors. I see it from the time my Uncle Chuck worked the boiler room at a Palmolive factory in Kansas City. He was able to have half an acre of land, a good house, 2 good cars, a wife who didn't work, a kid, a woodworking shop separate from the house, a lawnmower, a dog. That was in the 1950s. Sounds Utopian now. But it's the past. In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich, New York intellectual, very well off, took a year off from her life and went looking for an unskilled labor job. She started in Florida, went from there to Portland, Maine, then to Minneapolis. She worked as a waitress, a nursing home aide, a cleaning woman, a Wal-Mart "associate," and lived in cheap motel rooms, the next thing to homelessness on the way down, and the first step on the way to semi-permanent shelter.
She learned in a very short time how you make a living in Alleghany County, NC. Do whatever you can find at whatever pay you can get, $6 or $7 an hour. To make $10 an hour is like you're in high cotton. She learned what we of Alleghany know, you can't live on $6 or $7 an hour, the only wages I've ever worked for, except for one $12 an hour job that lasted a summer. In the city of Minneapolis, Ehrenreich couldn't even find an apartment she could afford on Wal-Mart pay. She learned the people she worked with had two jobs or they lived with relatives or friends. We've been thinking this was an Alleghany issue, but it is the entire country.
From the last page of the book, Ehrenreich's paragraph of what she has found in her one year among the working poor, "When someone works for less pay than she can live on--when, for example, she goes hungry so you can eat more cheaply and conveniently--then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health and her life. The 'working poor,' as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else. As Gail, one of my restaurant coworkers put it, 'you give and you give.'"
Barb, as she was known at Wal-Mart, put herself in among the people that are all around us in the mountains, rural America, though the city versions appear to be even more difficult than in the country. They're still the same. The America Barbara wrote about is the dirt that's swept under the rug. Even though the term "working poor" is approved now, it still has an edge of political incorrectness, a little too close to the truth of the matter. Working people are extraneous in America, to be ignored like stray dogs. The American contempt for the poor is so anti-Christian as to be evidence this is not a Christian nation, something I've seen all my life, but had to keep to myself, because it pokes a hole in denial, and that will never do in the U S of A, esp in my parents' home where everything was subject to denial--except anything I did wrong. I've never wanted to aspire to a class with privilege as long as so many millions of the people around me are working all the time and still poor. I've wanted to live so I won't be able to look down on these people, or so they would not think they had to look up to me.
In Sparta, I found years ago that when I go into town dressed middle class, the people in Cadillacs see me and speak, and the working people in pickups and small cars don't see me. I go into town dressed working class and the people in Cadillacs don't see me, but the people in pickups do. Hey. How you doin? As a consequence I never dress "up" to go to town. I know this is not going to change any time soon in America, Europe, Asia or Africa, what have you. It's one of those human things we need to get used to in our youth if we want to live in the herd with any ease.