By Chet Yarbrough
Nickel and Dimed-On (Not) Getting By in America (Published in 2001)
By Barbara Ehrenreich–Narrated by Cristine McMurdo-Wallis
One tends to feel manipulated by Barbara Ehrenreich’s characterization of minimum wage America in her “Black like Me” foray (John Howard Griffen’s 1961 book about a white man wearing black face) into the land of poverty. The feeling of manipulation is from these two writers’ brief experience in a life from which they know they can escape.
Putting that feeling aside, just as Griffen exposed the ugliness of racism in America, Ehrenreich exposes the guilt and shame Americans should feel when they buy a hamburger at McDonald’s or a shirt at Wal-Mart. America is one of the richest nations on earth but refuses to offer a living-wage to twenty percent of its population. America is supposed to be a land of equal opportunity and freedom of choice but denies both by a misguided belief that human beings would rather be on the dole than gainfully employed.
“Occupy Wall Street” is a disorganized movement that fails to attack the essence of capitalism’s dark side; i.e. an unfettered march toward extreme wealth for the few and a growing underclass, trapped by low wages that destroy human health, American education, and opportunity.
Ehrenreich’s brief sojourn into minimum wage jobs illustrates the debilitating nature of low-income and welfare on American families. Increasing or improving welfare programs is not American capitalism’s solution for poverty. Jobs and income that offer freedom of choice to all Americans is the answer. Welfare programs do not enhance the quality of life; at best, they sustain life and relegate a portion of society to a permanent underclass with few prospects for personal advancement. The single stroke of increasing minimum wage to a level that offers American families’ choice for food, housing, and health care to live a healthful life will reduce the cost of government’ welfare and health care costs. Increasing minimum wage will create more jobs by increasing consumer demand through freedom of choice. This is not to say that all government welfare programs can be immediately abandoned. However, welfare costs can be reduced over time with increases in minimum wage.
Current minimum wage ranges from $6.25 to $8.25 per hour in those States that have a minimum wage law. The criteria for setting that wage are arbitrary and fail to reasonably consider the actual cost of living. Decent housing, health-care, and food are the primary needs Ehrenreich found in her minimum-wage employment in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota. Ehrenreich shows how those basic needs are not met in those states. She explains how Americans live in their cars, are forced to live near where they work because they cannot afford transportation, and how Americans become trapped by fear–fear of losing respect, fear of not having a job to buy food, fear of not being treated as a fellow human being by a reasonable employer.
A safety net is a preeminent need in any government system. The wonderful principles of the American Constitution offer the basis for perfecting capitalism; that basis is a combination of minimum wage increases and a safety net that emphasizes freedom of choice. If America is to continue to be a beacon for capitalism, it must stop widening the gap between the haves and have-nots by truly offering equal opportunity to all Americans.