Recent welfare reforms in the United States have been hailed as a resounding success. Large numbers of Americans single mothers in particular are said to have become productive members of the work force, no longer dependent on government subsidies to survive. But are the wages of America's lowest-paid workers - those earning between $5 and $7 an hour - enough to keep them above the poverty level? This is the question writer Barbara Ehrenreich set out to answer four years ago. The result is a best-selling book called "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America."
Barbara Ehrenreich grew up the daughter of a copper miner, and she'd worked as a waitress when she was young. But that was all well behind her in 1998. By then she was an acclaimed writer in her 50s, who also held a doctorate in biology. It was at the urging of a magazine editor that she decided to shed that identity for a while and go undercover, working temporarily at the kinds of jobs most likely available to unskilled workers.
She vowed not to rely on her education or writing skills to find work. Instead, she presented herself as a recently divorced homemaker. And she set other ground rules as well. "My rules were that I had to live as cheaply as possible, and that I had to take the best paying jobs I could find," she said. "In other words I didn't want to bias this in the direction of failure. I wanted to give it a real good try. And then my other rule was I had to do my best. I had to be a cheerful, obedient, good, hard worker. I have to admit, almost everyone of these rules was broken at one point or another. But that was the framework."
Barbara Ehrenreich began her experiment in Key West, Florida, where she lives. She rented a small, inexpensive apartment and went to work as a waitress at a family restaurant. "Sometimes business was very slow, and then I was making almost nothing, because the pay for a waitress is about $2 an hour," she said. "The rest is supposed to be in tips. And so if you have an hour with no customers, you're getting $2 for that hour. Not that you can just sit down or stand around. You've got to be cleaning things. You've got to preparing for the next meal. And then when there was a rush of customers, it's exhausting."
But no matter how hard she worked, Barbara Ehrenreich couldn't pay all her bills, so she moved on to another restaurant with more business. She also took a second job cleaning hotel rooms. But her double life as a maid and waitress came to an abrupt end one night at the restaurant.
"It was a night everything had gone wrong and we had a new cook," said Barbara Ehrenreich. "He didn't know how to do things exactly right. We got overwhelmed by customers. And then I got a table of about 12 people, and they ordered just about everything on the menu. And it turned out they wanted half the things to be their appetizers, the other things to be their main courses. I did it wrong. I had to take everything back. The supervisor started yelling at me. She was yelling at the cook. She was throwing trays in the kitchen. It was awful. And I fled, in humiliation."
Barbara Ehrenreich was already nearing the time she'd planned to leave Key West, so she moved on north to Portland, Maine. There she again found she needed two jobs to survive - as a nursing-home aide and a maid for a housecleaning service.
"The housecleaning job was the physically hardest job," she said. "I had no idea what I was getting into. I thought, housecleaning, how hard can that be? I do that. But this is cleaning for a service. You work in teams. You have rules for exactly how you're going to move your hand as you clean a wall or a window, or how you're going to move through the rooms of a house. And at first I was proud of myself that I was keeping up with women half my age. Then I realized one reason I was doing well was simply that I hadn't been doing this kind of work very long. And even the very young women who'd been working there for three or four months already had knee injuries and lower back injuries and repetitive stress injuries."
Barbara Ehrenreich ended her experiment in the midwestern city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she worked as a sales clerk at a Wal-Mart department store. "I had a hard time," she reminisced. "I had to memorize the locations of every item in the ladies wear department of that Wal-Mart, and then every three days or so they'd be moved around and I'd have to start all over again. So my job was actually quite dreary. I had shopping carts, and I had to pick up the clothes customers had dropped on the floor, put them in their exactly right places, and then start over with another shopping cart."
Barbara Ehrenreich says her experience convinced her there are no truly unskilled jobs in the United States. Every job she took was tough and demanding. Equally challenging were the hardships she faced when she wasn't working. Except for her waitressing jobs, she usually earned around $7 an hour. That wasn't enough to cover the deposit required for most apartment rentals, so in Maine and Minnesota she lived in low-cost motels. She survived mostly on fast food and snacks. There was nothing left over for emergency expenses, left alone small luxuries.
The experience left her skeptical about how a single woman like herself, especially a single mother, could survive without some kind of public assistance. "The assumption behind welfare reform is that a woman with children, a single mom, can support herself on the wages available out there," said Barbara Ehrenreich. "I think that's asking too much. If you're making $7 an hour, that's about a $1,000 a month just rounding off, and your rent could easily be $500 a month. If you have childcare that's going to be several hundred dollars a month even for low quality child care, so your pay check is gone."
Barbara Ehrenreich says her experiment left her with positive memories as well. She made good friends among her fellow workers. And she was impressed by how much pride most took in their work, no matter how low the pay or poor the working conditions.
She's also become an activist, who speaks frequently in support of efforts to establish living wage guidelines in cities around the United States. And when she can't be there in person, her book speaks for her. Nickel and Dimed been hailed as powerful ammunition in the fight to improve conditions for America's lowest paid workers.