Though one might think someone who has a Ph.D. could easily hold down a low-wage job, the first thing Barbara learned is that no job is “unskilled,” and each required concentration and new terms, tools, and skills. In this world, she was only average.
We’ve seen this notion repeated again and again, as Barbara seeks to show a middle- or upper-class reader the complexities of low-wage labor.
In addition, Barbara notes, each job has its own hierarchy, customs, and standards, that required her to figure out who was in charge and who was good to work with. She also had to make sure she was fast and thorough, but not so fast and thorough that she made life difficult for the other workers. They knew that there are very few rewards for heroic performance.
Social relationships have been a key element of Barbara’s work, even when camaraderie between coworkers is discouraged. Along with that comes a need for social adeptness, another skill a reader might not think would always apply to such labor.
All Barbara’s jobs were physically demanding, even physically damaging, in the long-term, and she feels proud of having been able to manage her fatigue without collapsing or taking time off. She also knows she usually displayed punctuality, cheerfulness, and obedience, all traits that job-training programs encourage in post-welfare job candidates. She gives herself a B or B+ for her performance as a worker.
Throughout the book, Barbara has chronicled in detail just how much brutal physical labor is required in jobs like the ones she took: “work” in this world takes on its most basic definition of physical exertion, in addition to the various other qualities required.
In our society, it’s assumed that a job is the way out of poverty and welfare recipients just need to get one in order to stay on their feet. To Barbara, her experience proves this is not the case. She spent no money on flashy clothes or going out and ate chopped meat, beans, and noodles, or fast food at $9 a day.
Barbara seeks to challenge the stereotype of the poor as lazy or spoiled, wasting their money on alcohol or other non-staples. The poor are poor, she argues, because once you are poor there is essentially no escape from it. The system is stacked against the poor.
However, in Key West, Barbara earned $1,039 in one month and spent $517 on food, gas, toiletries, laundry, phone, and utilities. She could have been able to pay the rent if she had stayed in her $500 efficiency with $22 left over (though sooner or later, she would have had to spend something on medical and dental care). But by moving to the trailer park in order to take a second job, she had to pay $625. She could have bought a used bike instead of using the car, but she still would have needed two jobs—and she learned she could not sustain two physically demanding jobs.
Here Barbara delves into line-by-line calculations of the economic realities of her experiment. At the start she’d noted that she could simply add up income and expenses from a desk, but now the reader can recall specific moments and choices that led to Barbara’s struggles to pay the bills. In Key West, there was no ideal situation: even having a bike wouldn’t have solved her financial troubles.
Barbara was most successful in Portland, though only from working seven days a week. She earned $300 a week after taxes and paid just $480 a month in rent. But if she had stayed until summer, the Blue Haven’s summer rent would have kicked in. And she’s not sure she could have kept up the 7-day-a-week regimen.
Barbara’s success in Portland, she shows, stems less from her ability to find a stable living situation than from the vagaries of living in a tourist destination—both an advantage and disadvantage for her income bracket.
In Minneapolis, the only way Barbara can imagine having succeeded is if she had found a $400 a month apartment or made $440 a week after taxes at Menards (though she’s not sure she could have stayed on her feet eleven hours a day). She knows she made mistakes—she should have stayed in the dormitory bed, worked somewhere better-paying than Wal-Mart, and not lived in motels for $200-300 a week. But she realizes it’s wrong when a single person can barely support herself while working and owning a car.
Barbara has to introduce a lot of speculation in order to imagine how things could have worked out in Minneapolis. Her point is that low-income workers, like anyone else, are held to higher standards: they cannot make a single mistake, as she did, merely in order to survive off their income, and even while enjoying advantages like those she had.
Rents are too high and wages too low, Barbara concludes. With the rising numbers of the wealthy, the poor have been forced into more expensive and distant housing—even as the poor often have to work near the rich in service and retail jobs.
We’ve seen through the book how the poor are simultaneously vital and invisible, necessary for the well-being of the wealthy and nevertheless treated far worse.
The official poverty rate has remained low for the past several years, but only, Barbara argues, because the poverty level is calculated based on the cost of food. But food has remained relatively inflation-proof, while rent has skyrocketed (meaning that if the poverty rate were linked to the cost of housing, it would be much higher). The public sector, meanwhile, has retreated, as public housing spending has fallen since the 1980s.
Though Barbara did attempt to find food aid, her main problem with food was trying to eat cheaply and healthfully. The major issue in terms of expenses, she notes, is the rent — in each city she lived, it was searching for affordable housing that caused the most anxiety and, in several cases, forced her to call it quits.
While rents are sensitive to market forces, wages aren’t. Every city Barbara worked in was experiencing a “labor shortage,” yet wages at the low end of the labor market remained flat. Wages did rise, Barbara learned from various economists, between 1996 to 1999—however, they have not been able to bring low-wage workers up to the relative amounts they were earning in 1973. Barbara argues that employers resist wage increases however they possibly can. She recalls how Ted once griped to her about not being able to find enough workers. When she asked why he didn’t just raise wages, he seemed surprised, saying he offered “mothers’ hours,” as if to say that no one could complain about wages with such a benefit. Many employers, Barbara has learned, will offer anything from free meals to subsidized transportation rather than raise wages, since these can be taken away more easily when the market changes.
Here, Barbara dives into the research in order to find an explanation for a phenomenon she’s experienced first hand —the fact that a “labor shortage” can coexist with stagnant wages, at least for those making the least. The fact that wages did rise – just not enough as inflation – shows how society can become complacent and unwilling to closely examine “facts” such as rising wages. One of Barbara’s hypotheses as to employers’ ability to resist wage increases is simply their all-encompassing obsession about it – one that she’s seen in action, from Ted’s free breakfasts to Howard’s obsession with “time theft.”
Barbara asks why workers don’t demand higher wages themselves. She was initially surprised that people didn’t just leave underpaid, demanding jobs. But low-wage workers are not just “economic man.” They’re often dependent on relatives or friends with a car, or else use a bike, which limits range. Just filling out applications, being interviewed, and taking drug tests is a hassle and leads to more time without work.
Again, Barbara is able to question existing research and economics by drawing on her own experience, showing how low-wage workers are not merely free, rational agents, and instead are caught in a cycle that prevents them from saving up and establishing themselves in a position of stability.
In addition, for the laws of economics (including supply and demand) to work, people involved need to be well-informed. But most low-wage workers have no financial advisors, only help-wanted signs and ads, relying mainly on unreliable word of mouth. There’s also what one analyst calls the “money taboo” preventing people talking about their earnings. Employers do their best to prevent any discussion or disclosure of wages as well.
Barbara pokes more holes in the classical free-market conception of labor by showing how low-wage workers are subject to misinformation or lack of information. The “money taboo” is encouraged by corporations’ obsession with profits and the bottom line, but it also has broader cultural and social causes.
The question of why people don’t demand better wages and conditions where they are is a huge one, but Barbara weighs in with her experience of the power of management in getting workers to feel like “associates” through profit-sharing plans, company patriotism, and meetings that function like pep rallies.
Barbara has seen how successfully corporations can construct an imaginary fantasy about symbiotic relationships between manager and worker, a fantasy which they then can exploit to get the most out of their employees.
Barbara was also shocked at how low-wage workers are made to surrender their basic civil rights: her purse could be searched at any time at the restaurant, and drug testing is a routine degrading act that has the function of keeping employees “in their place.” Rules against “gossip” make it difficult for employees to band together, and low-wage workers without union contracts can be fired “at will,” or without a reason. So she understands why low-wage workers don’t behave in an economically rational way: they are not free agents and their sphere is neither free nor democratic. For Barbara, many of the indignities imposed on workers make them feel unworthy enough to accept how little they’re being paid.
Drug testing has been a ubiquitous requirement (or threat) throughout the book, symbolizing the culture of suspicion and shame to which low-wage workers are often subject. Barbara goes further, arguing that their very civil rights are not respected in a variety of ways. She also ties this flouting of civil rights and imposition of shame to a concrete phenomenon, hoping to explain why workers don’t rebel against their low wages and demand better treatment.
Barbara came across very few slackers, and in fact recognized that workers often consider management as an obstacle to getting the job done, whether it was waitresses challenging managers’ stinginess toward the customers, or housecleaners resenting the time constraints that forced them to cut corners.
Barbara reiterates her challenge to existing stereotypes about low-wage workers, a stereotype that holds that worker’s laziness forces management to treat them strictly. That’s simply not the case according to her own experience.
Barbara claims that this cycle supports a culture of extreme inequality, in which corporate actors are far removed from their underpaid laborers, and because of class and sometimes racial prejudice, they tend to distrust these people and spend great amounts of money on things like drug and personality testing. Barbara identifies a broader parallel between this sort of corporate behavior and government (local, state, and federal) cutting services for the poor while investing heavily in prisons and the police.
Here, Barbara reveals a link between the low wages paid to workers and an entire atmosphere of suspicion – not just between workers and management, but between low-wage laborers and the rest of society. Low-wage workers are made to feel like lower-class citizens through various initiatives, from testing to mass incarceration.
A “living wage,” according the Economic Policy Institute that Barbara cites, is on average $30,000 a year for a family of one adult and two children—about $14 an hour. That amount includes health insurance, a telephone, and childcare – but not restaurant meals, internet access, or alcohol. About 60 percent of American workers actually earn less than this. While some rely on a working spouse or relatives or government assistance, many rely on wages alone.
Barbara cites existing research showing that in order to have a “living wage,” she’d need to be making about twice what she’d made at Wal-Mart, for example – and this excludes many things other Americans view as essential. A substantial chunk of the 60 percent figure, then, has probably faced struggles similar to what Barbara did in her experiment.
The non-poor often think of poverty as difficult but sustainable, but Barbara shows it is a situation of acute distress—a lunch of potato chips leading to dizziness, a “home” in a van, an illness that can’t be treated. She suggests that we should understand poverty as a state of emergency.
Barbara has already shown that there are no “secret economies” for the poor, and here she underlines that fact, showing that the only way people survive is by treating each day as another emergency.
In the summer of 2000, Barbara returns to her “real life,” eating at restaurants, sleeping in hotel rooms cleaned by someone else and shopping in stores tidied up by someone else. In the world of the top 20 percent, problems are solved without anyone seeming to do them. When people from this class speak, they are listened to, and when they complain, people below them will probably be punished. They have inordinate power over the lives of the poor, often determining the minimum wage and labor laws.
When she returns to her real life, Barbara can now view the comforts and amenities of her economic class from a new perspective, understanding how visible she is – and, by extension, how invisible the working poor are – as well as how seamlessly things are accomplished and problems solved.
Barbara is alarmed by how invisible the lives of the poor are to the affluent—which is certainly not the case the other way around. The wealthy are less and less likely to share schools, private clubs, taxis, and gated neighborhoods with the poor, and even the affluent young now prefer summer school and internships to working as a lifeguard or waitress.
Barbara further develops the theme of shame to which the poor are subjected by showing how invisible they are on a broader social level – increasingly, in addition to being looked down upon, they’re entirely ignored.
Both political parties are eager to support welfare reform, even though the 1996 legislation didn’t include any provision for monitoring people’s post-welfare economic conditions. Only by very carefully combing newspapers can you find that food pantry demand is increasing or shelters are operating above capacity. Americans are used to thinking of poverty as tied to unemployment, which means there needs to be an increase in jobs, but Barbara shows that the problem goes deeper when there is nearly full employment. The welfare poor, she argues, were often condemned for their laziness and dependency, but now that the majority of the poor are working, the correct reaction is shame at our dependency on the underpaid labor of others. The working poor, in fact, she argues, make sacrifices so others can benefit. She predicts that one day they will tire of getting so little in return and demand to be paid what they’re worth, but we will all be better off for this in the end.
Barbara wrote this book at a particular moment in history, one at which economic prosperity – according to national averages and economic research – made many politicians eager to pass welfare reform, essentially getting people off of welfare. Barbara once again attempts to puncture the stereotypes associated with welfare by arguing that simply having a job is no guarantee of economic stability. She turns around the theme of shame by suggesting that we (the reader, presumably those like her, but also Americans citizens in general) are the ones that should be ashamed of our simultaneous dependency on and mistreatment of the working poor.