Barbara Ehrenreich tells the reader how the idea for this book came about: at a lunch with her editor from Harper’s magazine discussing future articles she might write, including more articles about a topic she’d covered previous: poverty. With welfare reform about to take place, Barbara wondered how women could survive on $6 or $7 an hour. She mentioned that someone should do old-fashioned journalism and try it herself, meaning someone younger—but her editor half-smiled and said, “You.”
Barbara situates the reader within a particular historical moment, at which national economic policy regarding welfare reform is about to transform the lives of many of the country’s poorest citizens. The exchange with her editor also hints at her credentials, provides a bit of humor, and establishes the task that she’ll seek to accomplish over the course of the book.
Barbara comes from a family familiar with low-wage work: her father and other relatives were miners, while her husband was a warehouse worker when they met, and her sister has shuttled through various low-wage jobs. For her, a writer, sitting at a desk is a privilege and an opportunity to be grateful that she has moved up in the world—now she hesitates to go back.
With this additional background info, Barbara makes clear that low-wage work is far from alien to her and her family. She knows going into the project how “work” can mean wildly different things depending on the kind of labor.
In addition, Barbara knows she could already figure out the numbers herself, paying herself an entry-level wage and totaling up her profits and expenses at the end of the month. She already knew, also, that a single mother leaving welfare would struggle to survive without government assistance: in 1998, when she started the project, it would take a $8.89 hourly wage to afford a one-bedroom apartment, and the typical welfare recipient had a 97 to 1 chance of landing such a job.
As the project begins, quantitative research has already been done—and it’s shown that Barbara will be facing an uphill battle in her attempt to match income to expenses. If she decided simply to complete the project by adding up wages and expenses on a piece of paper, she already knows that she would fail.
Barbara ultimately decided to think of the task as a scientist—in fact, she has a Ph.D. in biology, and was trained to do experiments. She thought she might discover some hidden tricks that would allow her to get past the basic math—after all, about 30 percent of the workforce got paid $8 an hour or less. She set certain rules: she could not fall back on her professional skills; she had to take the highest-paying job offered and do her best; and she had to take the cheapest accommodations (while still safe) that she could find. She bent these rules several times, by convincing an interviewer that she could say Bonjour or Guten Tag to restaurant guests as a waitress, for instance.
Given the apparent impossibility of living on minimum-wage profits, Barbara concludes that her first-hand experience might reveal some secrets about the economics of poverty that even the economists have missed. The rules that she sets for herself underline her insistence on being as authentic as possible in the experiment; however, that she sometimes fails to keep these rules only underlines how difficult it is to make a living without educational or other advantages.
Barbara would describe herself as a divorced homemaker reentering the workforce after a long break. She listed three years of college and listed her real-life alma mater, though no one seemed to care much. She would also set limits on any hardship: she would always have a car, and she would rule out homelessness. She would spend a month in each place and try to see whether she could find a job and earn the money to pay a second month’s rent—if not, she would quit. She makes the point that this wasn’t an adventure story: millions of people do this every day.
Here, Barbara sets out in detail the terms of her project. We learn that even college—such a cause of anxiety for middle- and upper-class Americans—matters little in the low-wage workforce. Barbara writes in a straightforward way about her experiment, which makes sense given her decision to treat it like scientific research rather than as a shocking, dramatic “adventure story.”
Barbara is quick to say that she is in a comfortable financial position and could certainly not “experience poverty” in a real way: instead, she just wanted to see if she could match income to expenses. She had the added privilege of being white and a native English speaker, meaning that she was offered certain kinds of jobs over others—waitressing rather than hotel housekeeping, for instance. She also didn’t have young children, unlike many women leaving welfare, and was in much better health than many low-wage workers.
Barbara reiterates the idea that she is simply doing an experiment and not truly living this lifestyle—making the point that for many people low-wage work is life and not simply a temporary project. She also clearly lists her advantages of language, ethnicity, and family situation, all of which can have further negative effects on people’s ability to gain and hold down a job. In other words, Barbara is engaging in this experiment with many built-in advantages.
During her jobs, Barbara talked about her real-life husband and relationships. People later asked her whether her co-workers couldn’t “tell,” as if educated people are different and somehow superior than the lesser-educated. Instead, she was only different in that she was inexperienced: low-wage workers are just as heterogeneous, and just as likely to be funny or smart, as anyone in the educated classes. What did make her different was that she returned each night to a laptop on which she took notes, often changing the details to protect the privacy of people she worked with.
Throughout the book, Barbara will use her “real-life” past and experience to make comparisons with low-wage work in order to puncture stereotypes and increase awareness among her readership, which she assumes to be middle- or upper-class. Here, she shows how many people from these groups implicitly look down on low-wage workers.
While Barbara notes that her story is far from a typical case, she claims that it is in fact a best-case scenario, in which someone with every advantage attempts to survive in the low-wage economy.
While low-wage work always comes with economic difficulties, these can often be compounded by additional factors.