Posted: September 19th, 2022

Response to Ehrenreich

  Response to Ehrenreich 

Select and answer TWO questions (see below). While composing your answers, refer to specific examples/pages from the reading but respond with your own words (do not copy and paste large excerpts from the article!). Articulate your answer(s) with at least one additional author that we have so far discussed in class. Each response should be approximately 250 words in length (2 short paragraphs).

Questions:

1. How does Nickle and Dimed challenge assumptions about American prosperity and poverty? 

2. Ehrenreich’s “experiment” took place in 1998-2000; do you think her experience would be different today? Why?

3. Ehrenreich is a white, middle class, and native English speaker woman. Do you think her experience would have been drastically different had she been a person of color, a single parent, or an undocumented immigrant. How?

4. After reading this article, do you agree that having a job is better than having no job at all? Why?

5. Ehrenreich complains about “management.” Summarize the many problems that she had with managers and how this relates to being among America’s lowest paid.

6. In addition to not being paid enough, what other challenges do low-paid workers face? How do they affect their living situations (e.g. health, nutrition, ability to keep other jobs, etc.)?

15

Nickel-and-Dimed
On (not) Getting by in America

B A R B A R A E H R E N R E I C H

At the beginning of June 1998 I leave behind
everything that normally soothes the ego and
sustains the body—home, career, compan-
ion, reputation, ATM card—for a plunge
into the low-wage workforce. There, I be-
come another, occupationally much dimin-
ished “Barbara Ehrenreich”—depicted on
job-application forms as a divorced home-
maker whose sole work experience consists of
housekeeping in a few private homes. I am
terrified, at the beginning, of being un-
masked for what I am: a middle-class jour-
nalist setting out to explore the world that
welfare mothers are entering, at the rate of
approximately 50,000 a month, as welfare re-
form kicks in. Happily, though, my fears
turn out to be entirely unwarranted: during a
month of poverty and toil, my name goes
unnoticed and for the most part unuttered.
In this parallel universe where my father
never got out of the mines and I never got
through college, I am “baby,” “honey,”
“blondie,” and, most commonly, “girl.”

My first task is to find a place to live. I fig-
ure that if I can earn $7 an hour—which,
from the want ads, seems doable—I can af-
ford to spend $500 on rent, or maybe, with
severe economies, $600. In the Key West

area, where I live, this pretty much confines
me to flophouses and trailer homes—like the
one, a pleasing fifteen-minute drive from
town, that has no air-conditioning, no
screens, no fans, no television, and, by way of
diversion, only the challenge of evading the
landlord’s Doberman pinscher. The big prob-
lem with this place, though, is the rent,
which at $675 a month is well beyond my
reach. . . .

So I decide to make the common trade-
off between affordability and convenience,
and go for a $500-a-month efficiency thirty
miles up a two-lane highway from the em-
ployment opportunities of Key West, mean-
ing forty-five minutes if there’s no road
construction and I don’t get caught behind
some sun-dazed Canadian tourists. . . .

I am not doing this for the anthropology.
My aim is nothing so mistily subjective as
to “experience poverty” or find out how it
“really feels” to be a long-term low-wage
worker. I’ve had enough unchosen encoun-
ters with poverty and the world of low-
wage work to know it’s not a place you
want to visit for touristic purposes; it just
smells too much like fear. And with all my
real-life assets—bank account, IRA, health

Barbara Ehrenreich, “Nickel-and-Dimed,” Harper’s Magazine, January 1999, pp. 37–52.

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Nickel-and-Dimed 137

insurance, multiroom home—waiting in-
dulgently in the background, I am, of
course, thoroughly insulated from the ter-
rors that afflict the genuinely poor.

No, this is a purely objective, scientific
sort of mission. The humanitarian ratio-
nale for welfare reform—as opposed to the
more punitive and stingy impulses that
may actually have motivated it—is that
work will lift poor women out of poverty
while simultaneously inflating their self-
esteem and hence their future value in the
labor market. Thus, whatever the hassles
involved in finding child care, transporta-
tion, etc., the transition from welfare to
work will end happily, in greater prosperity
for all. Now there are many problems with
this comforting prediction, such as the fact
that the economy will inevitably undergo a
downturn, eliminating many jobs. Even
without a downturn, the influx of a mil-
lion former welfare recipients into the low-
wage labor market could depress wages by
as much as 11.9 percent, according to the
Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Wash-
ington, D.C.

But is it really possible to make a living
on the kinds of jobs currently available to
unskilled people? Mathematically, the an-
swer is no, as can be shown by taking $6 to
$7 an hour, perhaps subtracting a dollar or
two an hour for child care, multiplying by
160 hours a month, and comparing the re-
sult to the prevailing rents. According to
the National Coalition for the Homeless,
for example, in 1998 it took, on average na-
tionwide, an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford
a one-bedroom apartment, and the Pream-
ble Center for Public Policy estimates that
the odds against a typical welfare recipient’s
landing a job at such a “living wage” are
about 97 to 1. If these numbers are right,

low-wage work is not a solution to poverty
and possibly not even to homelessness. . . .

On the morning of my first full day of job
searching, I take a red pen to the want ads,
which are auspiciously numerous. Everyone
in Key West’s booming “hospitality industry”
seems to be looking for someone like me—
trainable, flexible, and with suitably humble
expectations as to pay. I know I possess cer-
tain traits that might be advantageous—I’m
white and, I like to think, well-spoken and
poised—but I decide on two rules: One, I
cannot use any skills derived from my educa-
tion or usual work—not that there are a lot
of want ads for satirical essayists anyway.
Two, I have to take the best-paid job that is
offered me and of course do my best to hold
it; no Marxist rants or sneaking off to read
novels in the ladies’ room. . . .

Most of the big hotels run ads almost
continually, just to build a supply of appli-
cants to replace the current workers as they
drift away or are fired, so finding a job is
just a matter of being at the right place at
the right time and flexible enough to take
whatever is being offered that day. This
finally happens to me at one of the big
discount hotel chains, where I go for house-
keeping and am sent, instead, to try out as
a waitress at the attached “family restau-
rant,” a dismal spot with a counter and
about thirty tables that looks out on a park-
ing garage and features such tempting fare
as “Pollish [sic] sausage and BBQ sauce” on
95-degree days. Phillip, the dapper young
West Indian who introduces himself as the
manager, interviews me with about as
much enthusiasm as if he were a clerk pro-
cessing me for Medicare, the principal
questions being what shifts can I work and
when can I start. I mutter something about
being woefully out of practice as a waitress,

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but he’s already on to the uniform: I’m to
show up tomorrow wearing black slacks and
black shoes; he’ll provide the rust-colored
polo shirt with Hearthside embroidered on
it, though I might want to wear my own
shirt to get to work, ha ha. At the word
“tomorrow,” something between fear and
indignation rises in my chest. I want to say,
“Thank you for your time, sir, but this is
just an experiment, you know, not my ac-
tual life.”

So begins my career at the Hearthside, I
shall call it, one small profit center within a
global discount hotel chain, where for two
weeks I work from 2:00 till 10:00 P.M. for
$2.43 an hour plus tips. In some futile bid
for gentility, the management has barred
employees from using the front door, so my
first day I enter through the kitchen, where
a red-faced man with shoulder-length blond
hair is throwing frozen steaks against the
wall and yelling, “Fuck this shit!” “That’s
just Jack,” explains Gail, the wiry middle-
aged waitress who is assigned to train me.
“He’s on the rag again”—a condition occa-
sioned, in this instance, by the fact that the
cook on the morning shift had forgotten to
thaw out the steaks. For the next eight
hours, I run after the agile Gail, absorbing
bits of instruction along with fragments of
personal tragedy. All food must be trayed,
and the reason she’s so tired today is that she
woke up in a cold sweat thinking of her
boyfriend, who killed himself recently in an
upstate prison. No refills on lemonade. And
the reason he was in prison is that a few
DUIs caught up with him, that’s all, could
have happened to anyone. Carry the cream-
ers to the table in a monkey bowl, never in
your hand. And after he was gone she spent
several months living in her truck, peeing in
a plastic pee bottle and reading by candle-
light at night, but you can’t live in a truck in

the summer, since you need to have the
windows down, which means anything can
get in, from mosquitoes on up.

At least Gail puts to rest any fears I had
of appearing overqualified. From the first
day on, I find that of all the things I have
left behind, such as home and identity,
what I miss the most is competence. Not
that I have ever felt utterly competent in
the writing business, in which one day’s
success augurs nothing at all for the next.
But in my writing life, I at least have some
notion of procedure: do the research, make
the outline, rough out a draft, etc. As a
server, though, I am beset by requests like
bees: more iced tea here, ketchup over
there, a to-go box for table fourteen, and
where are the high chairs, anyway? Of the
twenty-seven tables, up to six are usually
mine at any time, though on slow after-
noons or if Gail is off, I sometimes have the
whole place to myself. There is the touch-
screen computer-ordering system to master,
which is, I suppose, meant to minimize
server-cook contact, but in practice requires
constant verbal fine-tuning: “That’s gravy
on the mashed, okay? None on the meat-
loaf,” and so forth—while the cook scowls
as if I were inventing these refinements just
to torment him. Plus, something I had for-
gotten in the years since I was eighteen:
about a third of a server’s job is “side work”
that’s invisible to customers—sweeping,
scrubbing, slicing, refilling, and restocking.
If it isn’t all done, every little bit of it, you’re
going to face the 6:00 P.M. dinner rush de-
fenseless and probably go down in flames. I
screw up dozens of times at the beginning,
sustained in my shame entirely by Gail’s
support—“It’s okay, baby, everyone does
that sometime”—because, to my total sur-
prise and despite the scientific detachment
I am doing my best to maintain, I care. . . .

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Sometimes I play with the fantasy that I
am a princess who, in penance for some
tiny transgression, has undertaken to feed
each of her subjects by hand. But the non-
princesses working with me are just as in-
dulgent, even when this means flouting
management rules—concerning, for exam-
ple, the number of croutons that can go on
a salad (six). “Put on all you want,” Gail
whispers, “as long as Stu isn’t looking.” She
dips into her own tip money to buy biscuits
and gravy for an out-of-work mechanic
who’s used up all his money on dental
surgery, inspiring me to pick up the tab for
his milk and pie. . . .

Ten days into it, this is beginning to look
like a livable lifestyle. I like Gail, who is
“looking at fifty” but moves so fast she can
alight in one place and then another with-
out apparently being anywhere between
them. I clown around with Lionel, the
teenage Haitian busboy, and catch a few
fragments of conversation with Joan, the
svelte fortyish hostess and militant feminist
who is the only one of us who dares to tell
Jack to shut the fuck up. I even warm up to
Jack when, on a slow night and to make up
for a particularly unwarranted attack on my
abilities, or so I imagine, he tells me about
his glory days as a young man at “coronary
school”—or do you say “culinary”?—in
Brooklyn, where he dated a knock-out
Puerto Rican chick and learned everything
there is to know about food. I finish up at
10:00 or 10:30, depending on how much
side work I’ve been able to get done during
the shift, and cruise home to the tapes I
snatched up at random when I left my real
home—Marianne Faithfull, Tracy Chap-
man, Enigma, King Sunny Ade, the Vio-
lent Femmes—just drained enough for the
music to set my cranium resonating but
hardly dead. Midnight snack is Wheat

Thins and Monterey Jack, accompanied by
cheap white wine on ice and whatever
AMC has to offer. To bed by 1:30 or 2:00,
up at 9:00 or 10:00, read for an hour while
my uniform whirls around in the landlord’s
washing machine, and then it’s another
eight hours spent following Mao’s central
instruction, as laid out in the Little Red
Book, which was: Serve the people.

I could drift along like this, in some
dreamy proletarian idyll, except for two
things. One is management. If I have kept
this subject on the margins thus far it is be-
cause I still flinch to think that I spent all
those weeks under the surveillance of men
(and later women) whose job it was to
monitor my behavior for signs of sloth,
theft, drug abuse, or worse. Not that man-
agers and especially “assistant managers” in
low-wage settings like this are exactly the
class enemy. In the restaurant business, they
are mostly former cooks or servers, still ca-
pable of pinch-hitting in the kitchen or on
the floor, just as in hotels they are likely to
be former clerks, and paid a salary of only
about $400 a week. But everyone knows
they have crossed over to the other side,
which is, crudely put, corporate as opposed
to human. Cooks want to prepare tasty
meals; servers want to serve them gra-
ciously; but managers are there for only one
reason—to make sure that money is made
for some theoretical entity that exists far
away in Chicago or New York, if a corpora-
tion can be said to have a physical existence
at all. . . .

Managers can sit—for hours at a time if
they want—but it’s their job to see that no
one else ever does, even when there’s noth-
ing to do, and this is why, for servers, slow
times can be as exhausting as rushes. You
start dragging out each little chore, because
if the manager on duty catches you in an

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idle moment, he will give you something
far nastier to do. So I wipe, I clean, I con-
solidate ketchup bottles and recheck the
cheesecake supply, even tour the tables to
make sure the customer evaluation forms
are all standing perkily in their places—
wondering all the time how many calories I
burn in these strictly theatrical exercises.
When, on a particularly dead afternoon,
Stu finds me glancing at a USA Today a cus-
tomer has left behind, he assigns me to vac-
uum the entire floor with the broken
vacuum cleaner that has a handle only two
feet long, and the only way to do that with-
out incurring orthopedic damage is to pro-
ceed from spot to spot on your knees. . . .

The other problem, in addition to the
less-than-nurturing management style, is
that this job shows no sign of being finan-
cially viable. You might imagine, from a
comfortable distance, that people who live,
year in and year out, on $6 to $10 an hour
have discovered some survival stratagems
unknown to the middle class. But no. It’s
not hard to get my co-workers to talk about
their living situations, because housing, in
almost every case, is the principal source of
disruption in their lives, the first thing they
fill you in on when they arrive for their
shifts. After a week, I have compiled the
following survey:

• Gail is sharing a room in a well-known
downtown flophouse for which she
and a roommate pay about $250 a
week. Her roommate, a male friend,
has begun hitting on her, driving her
nuts, but the rent would be impossible
alone.

• Claude, the Haitian cook, is desperate
to get out of the two-room apartment
he shares with his girlfriend and two
other, unrelated, people. As far as I can

determine, the other Haitian men
(most of whom only speak Creole) live
in similarly crowded situations.

• Annette, a twenty-year-old server who
is six months pregnant and has been
abandoned by her boyfriend, lives
with her mother, a postal clerk.

• Marianne and her boyfriend are pay-
ing $170 a week for a one-person
trailer.

• Jack, who is, at $10 an hour, the
wealthiest of us, lives in the trailer he
owns, paying only the $400-a-month
lot fee.

• The other white cook, Andy, lives on
his dry-docked boat, which, as far as I
can tell from his loving descriptions,
can’t be more than twenty feet long.
He offers to take me out on it, once it’s
repaired, but the offer comes with in-
quiries as to my marital status, so I do
not follow up on it.

• Tina and her husband are paying $60
a night for a double room in a Days
Inn. This is because they have no car
and the Days Inn is within walking
distance of the Hearthside. When
Marianne, one of the breakfast servers,
is tossed out of her trailer for sublet-
ting (which is against the trailer-park
rules), she leaves her boyfriend and
moves in with Tina and her husband.

• Joan, who had fooled me with her
numerous and tasteful outfits (host-
esses wear their own clothes), lives in
a van she parks behind a shopping
center at night and showers in Tina’s
motel room. The clothes are from
thrift shops.

It strikes me, in my middle-class solip-
sism, that there is gross improvidence in
some of these arrangements. When Gail

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and I are wrapping silverware in napkins—
the only task for which we are permitted to
sit—she tells me she is thinking of escaping
from her roommate by moving into the
Days Inn herself. I am astounded: How can
she even think of paying between $40 and
$60 a day? But if I was afraid of sounding
like a social worker, I come out just sound-
ing like a fool. She squints at me in disbe-
lief, “And where am I supposed to get a
month’s rent and a month’s deposit for an
apartment?” I’d been feeling pretty smug
about my $500 efficiency, but of course it
was made possible only by the $1,300 I had
allotted myself for start-up costs when I
began my low-wage life: $1,000 for the first
month’s rent and deposit, $100 for initial
groceries and cash in my pocket, $200
stuffed away for emergencies. In poverty, as
in certain propositions in physics, starting
conditions are everything.

There are no secret economies that
nourish the poor; on the contrary, there
are a host of special costs. If you can’t put
up the two months’ rent you need to se-
cure an apartment, you end up paying
through the nose for a room by the week.
If you have only a room, with a hot plate
at best, you can’t save by cooking up huge
lentil stews that can be frozen for the week
ahead. You eat fast food, or the hot dogs
and Styrofoam cups of soup that can be
microwaved in a convenience store. If you
have no money for health insurance—and
the Hearthside’s niggardly plan kicks in
only after three months—you go without
routine care or prescription drugs and end
up paying the price. Gail, for example, was
fine until she ran out of money for estro-
gen pills. She is supposed to be on the
company plan by now, but they claim to
have lost her application form and need to
begin the paperwork all over again. So she

spends $9 per migraine pill to control the
headaches she wouldn’t have, she insists, if
her estrogen supplements were covered.
Similarly, Marianne’s boyfriend lost his
job as a roofer because he missed so much
time after getting a cut on his foot for
which he couldn’t afford the prescribed
antibiotic.

My own situation, when I sit down to as-
sess it after two weeks of work, would not
be much better if this were my actual life.
The seductive thing about waitressing is
that you don’t have to wait for payday to
feel a few bills in your pocket, and my tips
usually cover meals and gas, plus something
left over to stuff into the kitchen drawer I
use as a bank. But as the tourist business
slows in the summer heat, I sometimes
leave work with only $20 in tips (the gross
is higher, but servers share about 15 percent
of their tips with the busboys and bar-
tenders). With wages included, this
amounts to about the minimum wage of
$5.15 an hour. Although the sum in the
drawer is piling up, at the present rate of
accumulation it will be more than a hun-
dred dollars short of my rent when the end
of the month comes around. Nor can I see
any expenses to cut. True, I haven’t gone
the lentil-stew route yet, but that’s because
I don’t have a large cooking pot, pot hold-
ers, or a ladle to stir with (which cost about
$30 at Kmart, less at thrift stores), not to
mention onions, carrots, and the indispens-
able bay leaf. I do make my lunch almost
every day—usually some slow-burning,
high-protein combo like frozen chicken pat-
ties with melted cheese on top and canned
pinto beans on the side. Dinner is at the
Hearthside, which offers its employees a
choice of BLT, fish sandwich, or hamburger
for only $2. The burger lasts longest, espe-
cially if it’s heaped with gut-puckering

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jalapeños, but by midnight my stomach is
growling again.

So unless I want to start using my car as
a residence, I have to find a second, or al-
ternative, job. I call all the hotels where I
filled out housekeeping applications weeks
ago—the Hyatt, Holiday Inn, Econo
Lodge, HoJo’s, Best Western, plus a half
dozen or so locally run guesthouses. Noth-
ing. Then I start making the rounds again,
wasting whole mornings waiting for some
assistant manager to show up, even dipping
into places so creepy that the front-desk
clerk greets you from behind bulletproof
glass and sells pints of liquor over the
counter. But either someone has exposed
my real-life housekeeping habits—which
are, shall we say, mellow—or I am at the
wrong end of some infallible ethnic equa-
tion: most, but by no means all, of the
working housekeepers I see on my job
searches are African Americans, Spanish-
speaking, or immigrants from the Central
European post-Communist world, whereas
servers are almost invariably white and
monolingually English-speaking. When I
finally get a positive response, I have been
identified once again as server material.
Jerry’s, which is part of a well-known na-
tional family restaurant chain and physi-
cally attached here to another budget hotel
chain, is ready to use me at once. The
prospect is both exciting and terrifying, be-
cause, with about the same number of ta-
bles and counter seats, Jerry’s attracts three
or four times the volume of customers as
the gloomy old Hearthside. . . .

I start out with the beautiful, heroic idea
of handling the two jobs at once, and for
two days I almost do it: the breakfast/lunch
shift at Jerry’s, which goes till 2:00, arriving
at the Hearthside at 2:10, and attempting
to hold out until 10:00. In the ten minutes

between jobs, I pick up a spicy chicken
sandwich at the Wendy’s drive-through
window, gobble it down in the car, and
change from khaki slacks to black, from
Hawaiian to rust polo. There is a problem,
though. When during the 3:00 to 4:00 P.M.
dead time I finally sit down to wrap silver,
my flesh seems to bond to the seat. I try to
refuel with a purloined cup of soup, as I’ve
seen Gail and Joan do dozens of times, but
a manager catches me and hisses “No eat-
ing!” though there’s not a customer around
to be offended by the sight of food making
contact with a server’s lips. So I tell Gail I’m
going to quit, and she hugs me and says she
might just follow me to Jerry’s herself.

But the chances of this are minuscule.
She has left the flophouse and her annoying
roommate and is back to living in her beat-
up old truck. But guess what? she reports to
me excitedly later that evening: Phillip has
given her permission to park overnight in
the hotel parking lot, as long as she keeps
out of sight, and the parking lot should be
totally safe, since it’s patrolled by a hotel se-
curity guard! With the Hearthside offering
benefits like that, how could anyone think
of leaving? . . .

Management at Jerry’s is generally calmer
and more “professional” than at the
Hearthside, with two exceptions. One is
Joy, a plump, blowsy woman in her early
thirties, who once kindly devoted several
minutes to instructing me in the correct
one-handed method of carrying trays but
whose moods change disconcertingly from
shift to shift and even within one. Then
there’s B. J., a.k.a. B. J.-the-bitch, whose
contribution is to stand by the kitchen
counter and yell, “Nita, your order’s up,
move it!” or, “Barbara, didn’t you see you’ve
got another table out there? Come on, girl!”
Among other things, she is hated for having

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replaced the whipped-cream squirt cans
with big plastic whipped-cream-filled bag-
gies that have to be squeezed with both
hands—because, reportedly, she saw or
thought she saw employees trying to inhale
the propellant gas from the squirt cans, in
the hope that it might be nitrous oxide. On
my third night, she pulls me aside abruptly
and brings her face so close that it looks as
if she’s planning to butt me with her fore-
head. But instead of saying, “You’re fired,”
she says, “You’re doing fine.” The only
trouble is I’m spending time chatting with
customers: “That’s how they’re getting
you.” Furthermore I am letting them “run
me,” which means harassment by sequen-
tial demands: you bring the ketchup and
they decide they want extra Thousand Is-
land; you bring that and they announce
they now need a side of fries; and so on into
distraction. Finally she tells me not to take
her wrong. She tries to say things in a nice
way, but you get into a mode, you know,
because everything has to move so fast. . . .

I make friends, over time, with the other
“girls” who work my shift: Nita, the tat-
tooed twenty-something who taunts us by
going around saying brightly, “Have we
started making money yet?” Ellen, whose
teenage son cooks on the graveyard shift
and who once managed a restaurant in
Massachusetts but won’t try out for man-
agement here because she prefers being a
“common worker” and not “ordering peo-
ple around.” Easy-going fiftyish Lucy, with
the raucous laugh, who limps toward the
end of the shift because of something that
has gone wrong with her leg, the exact na-
ture of which cannot be determined with-
out health insurance. We talk about the
usual girl things—men, children, and the
sinister allure of Jerry’s chocolate peanut-
butter cream pie—though no one, I notice,

ever brings up anything potentially expen-
sive, like shopping or movies. As at the
Hearthside, the only recreation ever re-
ferred to is partying, which requires little
more than some beer, a joint, and a few
close friends. Still, no one here is homeless,
or cops to it anyway, thanks usually to a
working husband or boyfriend. All in all,
we form a reliable mutual-support group: If
one of us is feeling sick or overwhelmed,
another one will “bev” a table or even carry
trays for her. If one of us is off sneaking a
cigarette or a pee, the others will do their
best to conceal her absence from the en-
forcers of corporate rationality. . . .

I make the decision to move closer to
Key West. First, because of the drive. Sec-
ond and third, also because of the drive: gas
is eating up $4 to $5 a day, and although
Jerry’s is as high-volume as you can get, the
tips average only 10 percent, and not just
for a newbie like me. Between the base pay
of $2.15 an hour and the obligation to
share tips with the busboys and dishwash-
ers, we’re averaging only about $7.50 an
hour. Then there is the $30 I had to spend
on the regulation tan slacks worn by Jerry’s
servers—a setback it could take weeks to
absorb. (I had combed the town’s two
downscale department stores hoping for
something cheaper but decided in the end
that these marked-down Dockers, origi-
nally $49, were more likely to survive a
daily washing.) Of my fellow servers, every-
one who lacks a working husband or
boyfriend seems to have a second job: Nita
does something at a computer eight hours a
day; another welds. Without the forty-five-
minute commute, I can picture myself
working two jobs and having the time to
shower between them.

So I take the $500 deposit I have coming
from my landlord, the $400 I have earned

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toward the next month’s rent, plus the $200
reserved for emergencies, and use the
$1,100 to pay the rent and deposit on
trailer number 46 in the Overseas Trailer
Park, a mile from the cluster of budget ho-
tels that constitute Key West’s version of an
industrial park. Number 46 is about eight
feet in width and shaped like a barbell in-
side, with a narrow region—because of the
sink and the stove—separating the bed-
room from what might optimistically be
called the “living” area, with its two-person
table and half-sized couch. The bathroom is
so small my knees rub against the shower
stall when I sit on the toilet, and you can’t
just leap out of the bed, you have to climb
down to the foot of it in order to find a
patch of floor space to stand on. Outside, I
am within a few yards of a liquor store, a
bar that advertises “free beer tomorrow,” a
convenience store, and a Burger King—but
no supermarket or, alas, laundromat. By
reputation, the Overseas park is a nest of
crime and crack, and I am hoping at least
for some vibrant, multicultural street life.
But desolation rules night and day, except
for a thin stream of pedestrian traffic head-
ing for their jobs at the Sheraton or 7-
Eleven. There are not exactly people here
but what amounts to canned labor, being
preserved from the heat between shifts. . . .

When my month-long plunge into
poverty is almost over, I finally land my
dream job—housekeeping. I do this by
walking into the personnel office of the
only place I figure I might have some cred-
ibility, the hotel attached to Jerry’s, and
confiding urgently that I have to have a sec-
ond job if I am to pay my rent and, no, it
couldn’t be front-desk clerk. “All right,” the
personnel lady fairly spits, “So it’s house-
keeping,” and she marches me back to meet
Maria, the housekeeping manager, a tiny,

frenetic Hispanic woman who greets me as
“babe” and hands me a pamphlet empha-
sizing the need for a positive attitude. The
hours are nine in the morning till when-
ever, the pay is $6.10 an hour, and there’s
one week of vacation a year. I don’t have to
ask about health insurance once I meet
Carlotta, the middle-aged African-American
woman who will be training me. Carla, as
she tells me to call her, is missing all of her
top front teeth.

On that first day of housekeeping and last
day of my entire project—although I don’t
yet know it’s the last—Carla is in a foul
mood. We have been given nineteen rooms
to clean, most of them “checkouts,” as op-
posed to “stay-overs,” that require the whole
enchilada of bed-stripping, vacuuming, and
bathroom-scrubbing. When one of the
rooms that had been listed as a stay-over
turns out to be a checkout, Carla calls Maria
to complain, but of course to no avail. “So
make up the motherfucker,” Carla orders
me, and I do the beds while she sloshes
around the bathroom. For four hours with-
out a break I strip and remake beds, taking
about four and a half minutes per queen-
sized bed, which I could get down to three
if there were any reason to. We try to avoid
vacuuming by picking up the larger specks
by hand, but often there is nothing to do
but drag the monstrous vacuum cleaner—it
weighs about thirty pounds—off our cart
and try to wrestle it around the floor. Some-
times Carla hands me the squirt bottle of
“BAM” (an acronym for something that be-
gins, ominously, with “butyric”; the rest has
been worn off the label) and lets me do the
bathrooms. No service ethic challenges me
here to new heights of performance. I just
concentrate on removing the pubic hairs
from the bathtubs, or at least the dark ones
that I can see. . . .

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When I request permission to leave at
about 3:30, another housekeeper warns me
that no one has so far succeeded in combin-
ing housekeeping at the hotel with serving at
Jerry’s: “Some kid did it once for five days,
and you’re no kid.” With that helpful infor-
mation in mind, I rush back to number 46,
down four Advils, shower, stooping to fit
into the stall, and attempt to compose myself
for the oncoming shift. So much for what
Marx termed the “reproduction of labor
power,” meaning the things a worker has to
do just so she’ll be ready to work again. . . .

Then it comes, the perfect storm. Four
of my tables fill up at once. Four tables is
nothing for me now, but only so long as
they are obligingly staggered. As I bev table
27, tables 25, 28, and 24 are watching en-
viously. As I bev 25, 24 glowers because
their bevs haven’t even been ordered.
Twenty-eight is four yuppyish types, mean-
ing everything on the side and agonizing
instructions as to the chicken Caesars.
Twenty-five is a middle-aged black couple,
who complain, with some justice, that the
iced tea isn’t fresh and the tabletop is sticky.
But table 24 is the meteorological event of
the century: ten British tourists who seem
to have made the decision to absorb the
American experience entirely by mouth.
Here everyone has at least two drinks—iced
tea and milk shake, Michelob and water
(with lemon slice, please)—and a huge
promiscuous orgy of breakfast specials,
mozz sticks, chicken strips, quesadillas,
burgers with cheese and without, sides of
hash browns with cheddar, with onions,
with gravy, seasoned fries, plain fries, ba-
nana splits. Poor Jesus (the cook)! Poor me!
Because when I arrive with their first tray of
food—after three prior trips just to refill
bevs—Princess Di refuses to eat her
chicken strips with her pancake-and-

sausage special, since, as she now reveals,
the strips were meant to be an appetizer.
Maybe the others would have accepted
their meals, but Di, who is deep into her
third Michelob, insists that everything else
go back while they work on their “starters.”
Meanwhile, the yuppies are waving me
down for more decaf and the black couple
looks ready to summon the NAACP.

Much of what happened next is lost in the
fog of war. Jesus starts going under. The lit-
tle printer on the counter in front of him is
spewing out orders faster than he can rip
them off, much less produce the meals. Even
the invincible Ellen is ashen from stress. I
bring table 24 their reheated main courses,
which they immediately reject as either too
cold or fossilized by the microwave. When I
return to the kitchen with their trays (three
trays in three trips), Joy confronts me with
arms akimbo: “What is this?” She means the
food—the plates of rejected pancakes, hash
browns in assorted flavors, toasts, burgers,
sausages, eggs. “Uh, scrambled with ched-
dar,” I try, “and that’s. . . ” “NO,” she
screams in my face. “Is it a traditional, a
super-scramble, an eye-opener?” I pretend to
study my check for a clue, but entropy has
been up to its tricks, not only on the plates
but in my head, and I have to admit that the
original order is beyond reconstruction.
“You don’t know an eye-opener from a tradi-
tional?” she demands in outrage. All I know,
in fact, is that my legs have lost interest in
the current venture and have announced
their intention to fold. I am saved by a yup-
pie (mercifully not one of mine) who
chooses this moment to charge into the
kitchen to bellow that his food is twenty-five
minutes late. Joy screams at him to get the
hell out of her kitchen, please, and then
turns on Jesus in a fury, hurling an empty
tray across the room for emphasis.

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I leave. I don’t walk out, I just leave. I
don’t finish my side work or pick up my
credit-card tips, if any, at the cash register
or, of course, ask Joy’s permission to go.
And the surprising thing is that you can
walk out without permission, that the door
opens, that the thick tropical night air parts
to let me pass, that my car is still parked
where I left it. There is no vindication in
this exit, no fuck-you surge of relief, just an
overwhelming, dank sense of failure press-
ing down on me and the entire parking lot.
I had gone into this venture in the spirit of
science, to test a mathematical proposition,
but somewhere along the line, in the tunnel
vision imposed by long shifts and relentless
concentration, it became a test of myself,
and clearly I have failed. . . .

When I moved out of the trailer park, I
gave the key to number 46 to Gail and
arranged for my deposit to be transferred to
her. She told me that Joan is still living in
her van and that Stu had been fired from
the Hearthside. . . .

In one month, I had earned approxi-
mately $1,040 and spent $517 on food,
gas, toiletries, laundry, phone, and utilities.
If I had remained in my $500 efficiency, I
would have been able to pay the rent and
have $22 left over (which is $78 less than
the cash I had in my pocket at the start of
the month). During this time I bought no
clothing except for the required slacks and
no prescription drugs or medical care (I did

finally buy some vitamin B to compensate
for the lack of vegetables in my diet). Per-
haps I could have saved a little on food if I
had gotten to a supermarket more often,
instead of convenience stores, but it should
be noted that I lost almost four pounds in
four weeks, on a diet weighted heavily to-
ward burgers and fries.

How former welfare recipients and single
mothers will (and do) survive in the low-
wage workforce, I cannot imagine. Maybe
they will figure out how to condense their
lives—including child-raising, laundry, ro-
mance, and meals—into the couple of
hours between full-time jobs. Maybe they
will take up residence in their vehicles, if
they have one. All I know is that I couldn’t
hold two jobs and I couldn’t make enough
money to live on with one. And I had ad-
vantages unthinkable to many of the long-
term poor—health, stamina, a working car,
and no children to care for and support. . . .

The thinking behind welfare reform was
that even the humblest jobs are morally up-
lifting and psychologically buoying. In real-
ity they are likely to be fraught with insult
and stress. But I did discover one redeeming
feature of the most abject low-wage work—
the camaraderie of people who are, in almost
all cases, far too smart and funny and caring
for the work they do and the wages they’re
paid. The hope, of course, is that someday
these people will come to know what they’re
worth, and take appropriate action.

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3

Inequality by Design

C L AU D E S . F I S C H E R , M I C H A E L H O U T,

M A RT Í N S Á N C H E Z J A N KOW S K I , S A M U E L R . LU C A S ,

A N N S W I D L E R , A N D K I M VO S S

Why do some Americans have a lot more
than others? Perhaps, inequality follows in-
evitably from human nature. Some people
are born with more talent than others; the
first succeed while the others fail in life’s com-
petition. Many people accept this explana-
tion, but it will not suffice. Inequality is not
fated by nature, nor even by the “invisible
hand” of the market; it is a social construc-
tion, a result of our historical acts. Americans
have created the extent and type of inequality
we have, and Americans maintain it.

To answer the question of what explains
inequality in America, we must divide it in
two. First, who gets ahead and who falls be-
hind in the competition for success? Sec-
ond, what determines how much people get
for being ahead or behind? To see more
clearly that the two questions are different,
think of a ladder that represents the ranking
of affluence in a society. Question one asks
why this person rather than that person
ended up on a higher or lower rung. Ques-
tion two asks why some societies have tall
and narrowing ladders—ladders that have
huge distances between top and bottom

rungs and that taper off at the top so that
there is room for only a few people—while
other societies have short and broad lad-
ders—ladders with little distance between
top and bottom and with lots of room for
many people all the way to the top.

The answer to the question of who ends
up where is that people’s social environ-
ments largely influence what rung of the
ladder they end up on.1 The advantages and
disadvantages that people inherit from their
parents, the resources that their friends can
share with them, the quantity and quality
of their schooling, and even the historical
era into which they are born boost some up
and hold others down. The children of pro-
fessors, our own children, have substantial
head starts over children of, say, factory
workers. Young men who graduated from
high school in the booming 1950s had
greater opportunities than the ones who
graduated during the Depression. Context
matters tremendously.

The answer to the question of why soci-
eties vary in their structure of rewards is
more political. In significant measure, soci-

Claude S. Fischer, Michael Hout, Martín Sánchez Jankowski, Samuel R. Lucas, Ann Swidler, and Kim Voss,
Inequality by Design, pp. 7–10, 126–128, 241, 260–261, 279–280, 284, 286, 290, 292, 295, 299, 301. Copy-
right © 1996 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.

20

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Account: s4879604.main.ehost

Inequality by Design 21

eties choose the height and breadth of their
“ladders.” By loosening markets or regulat-
ing them, by providing services to all citi-
zens or rationing them according to
income, by subsidizing some groups more
than others, societies, through their poli-
tics, build their ladders. To be sure, histori-
cal and external constraints deny full
freedom of action, but a substantial free-
dom of action remains. In a democracy, this
means that the inequality Americans have
is, in significant measure, the historical re-
sult of policy choices Americans—or, at
least, Americans’ representatives—have
made. In the United States, the result is a
society that is distinctively unequal. Our
ladder is, by the standards of affluent de-
mocracies and even by the standards of re-
cent American history, unusually extended
and narrow—and becoming more so.

To see how policies shape the structure of
rewards (i.e., the equality of outcomes),
consider these examples: Laws provide the
ground rules for the marketplace—rules
covering incorporation, patents, wages,
working conditions, unionization, security
transactions, taxes, and so on. Some laws
widen differences in income and earnings
among people in the market; others narrow
differences. Also, many government pro-
grams affect inequality more directly
through, for example, tax deductions, food
stamps, social security, Medicare, and cor-
porate subsidies.

To see how policies also affect which par-
ticular individuals get to the top and which
fall to the bottom of our ladder (i.e., the
equality of opportunity), consider these ex-
amples: The amount of schooling young
Americans receive heavily determines the
jobs they get and the income they make. In
turn, educational policies—what sorts of

schools are provided, the way school re-
sources are distributed (usually according to
the community in which children live),
teaching methods such as tracking, and so
on—strongly affect how much schooling
children receive. Similarly, local employ-
ment opportunities constrain how well
people can do economically. Whether and
where governments promote jobs or fail to
do so will, in turn, influence who is poised
for well-paid employment and who is not.

Claiming that intentional policies have
significantly constructed the inequalities we
have and that other policies could change
those inequalities may seem a novel idea in
the current ideological climate. So many
voices tell us that inequality is the result of
individuals’ “natural” talents in a “natural”
market. Nature defeats any sentimental ef-
forts by society to reduce inequality, they
say; such efforts should therefore be
dropped as futile and wasteful. Appeals to
nature are common and comforting. As
Kenneth Bock wrote in his study of social
philosophy, “We have been quick to seek
explanations of our problems and failures
in what we are instead of what we do. We
seem wedded to the belief that our situa-
tion is a consequence of our nature rather
than of our historical acts.”2 In this case, ap-
peals to nature are shortsighted.

Arguments from nature are useless for
answering the question of what determines
the structure of rewards because that ques-
tion concerns differences in equality among
societies. Theories of natural inequality can-
not tell us why countries with such similar
genetic stocks (and economic markets) as
the United States, Canada, England, and
Sweden can vary so much in the degree of
economic inequality their citizens experi-
ence. The answer lies in deliberate policies.

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Appeals to nature also cannot satisfacto-
rily answer even the first question: Why do
some individuals get ahead and some fall
behind? Certainly, genetic endowment
helps. Being tall, slender, good-looking,
healthy, male, and white helps in the race
for success, and these traits are totally or
partly determined genetically. But these
traits matter to the degree that society
makes them matter—determining how
much, for example, good looks or white
skin are rewarded. More important yet than
these traits are the social milieux in which
people grow up and live.

Realizing that intentional policies ac-
count for much of our expanding inequal-
ity is not only more accurate than theories
of natural inequality; it is also more opti-
mistic. We are today more unequal than we
have been in seventy years. We are more
unequal than any other affluent Western
nation. Intentional policies could change
those conditions, could reduce and reverse
our rush to a polarized society, could bring
us closer to the average inequality in the
West, could expand both equality of oppor-
tunity and equality of result.

Still, the “natural inequality” viewpoint is
a popular one. Unequal outcomes, the best-
selling Bell Curve argues, are the returns
from a fair process that sorts people out ac-
cording to how intelligent they are.3 But
The Bell Curve’s explanation of inequality is
inadequate. The authors err in assuming
that human talents can be reduced to a sin-
gle, fixed, and essentially innate skill they
label intelligence. They err in asserting that
this trait largely determines how people end
up in life. And they err in imagining that
individual competition explains the struc-
ture of inequality in society. . . .

Disparities in income and wealth, [other]
analysts argue, encourage hard work and

saving. The rich, in particular, can invest
their capital in production and thus create
jobs for all.4 This was the argument of
“supply-side” economics in the 1980s, that
rewarding the wealthy—for example, by re-
ducing income taxes on returns from their
investments—would stimulate growth to
the benefit of all. The 1980s did not work
out that way, but the theory is still influen-
tial. We could force more equal outcomes,
these analysts say, but doing so would re-
duce living standards for all Americans.

Must we have so much inequality for
overall growth? The latest economic re-
search concludes not; it even suggests that
inequality may retard economic growth. In
a detailed statistical analysis, economists
Torsten Persson and Guido Tabellini re-
ported finding that, historically, societies
that had more inequality of earnings
tended to have lower, not higher, subse-
quent economic growth. Replications by
other scholars substantiated the finding:
More unequal nations grew less quickly
than did more equal societies.5. . .

This recent research has not demon-
strated precisely how greater equality helps
economic growth,6 but we can consider a
few possibilities. Increasing resources for
those of lower income might, by raising
health, educational attainment, and hope,
increase people’s abilities to be productive
and entrepreneurial. Reducing the income
of those at the top might reduce unproduc-
tive and speculative spending. Take, as a
concrete example, the way American corpo-
rations are run compared with German and
Japanese ones. The American companies
are run by largely autonomous managers
whose main responsibility is to return
short-term profits and high stock prices to
shareholders and—because they are often
paid in stock options—to themselves as

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Inequality by Design 23

well. Japanese and German managers are
more like top employees whose goals
largely focus on keeping the company a
thriving enterprise. The latter is more con-
ducive to reinvesting profits and thus to
long-term growth.7 Whatever the mecha-
nisms may be, inequality appears to under-
mine growth. Americans certainly need not
feel that they must accept the high levels of
inequality we currently endure in order to
have a robust economy.

A related concern for Americans is
whether “leveling” stifles the drive to get
ahead. Americans prefer to encourage Hor-
atio Alger striving and to provide opportu-
nities for everyone. Lincoln once said “that
some would be rich shows that others may
become rich.”8 Many, if not most, Ameri-
cans believe that inequality is needed to en-
courage people to work hard.9 But, if so,
how much inequality is needed?

For decades, sociologists have been com-
paring the patterns of social mobility across
societies, asking: In which countries are
people most likely to overcome the disad-
vantages of birth and move up the ladder?
In particular, does more or less equality en-
courage such an “open” society? The answer
is that Western societies vary little in the de-
gree to which children’s economic successes
are constrained by their parents’ class posi-
tions. America, the most unequal Western
society, has somewhat more fluid intergen-
erational mobility than do other nations,
but so does Sweden, the most equal Western
society.10 There is no case for encouraging
inequality in this evidence, either.

In sum, the assumption that considerable
inequality is needed for, or even encourages,
economic growth appears to be false. We do
not need to make a morally wrenching
choice between more affluence and more
equality; we can have both. But even if such

a choice were necessary, both sides of the de-
bate, the “altruists” who favor intervention
for equalizing and the supposed “realists”
who resist it, agree that inequality can be
shaped by policy decisions: Wittingly or un-
wittingly, we choose our level of inequality.

N OT E S

1. We know that in statistical models of individ-
ual status attainment much, if not most, of the vari-
ance is unaccounted for. Of the explained variance,
however, the bulk is due to social environment
broadly construed. Also, we believe that much of
the residual, unexplained variance is attributable to
unmeasured social rather than personal factors.

2. Kenneth Bock, Human Nature Mythology
(Urbana 1994), p. 9.

3. Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray,
The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in
American Life (New York 1994).

4. See, for example, Rich Thomas, “Rising
Tide Lifts the Yachts: The Gap Between Rich and
Poor Has Widened, but There Are Some Com-
forting Twists,” Newsweek, May 1, 1995. See also
George Will, “What’s Behind Income Disparity,”
San Francisco Chronicle, April 24, 1995.

5. Torsten Persson and Guido Tabellini, “Is In-
equality Harmful for Growth?,” American Eco-
nomic Review 84, 1994; Roberto Chang, “Income
Inequality and Economic Growth: Evidence and
Recent Theories,” Economic Review 79, 1994;
George R. G. Clarke, “More Evidence on Income
Distribution and Growth,” Journal of Develop-
ment Economics 47, 1995. See also Peter H. Lin-
dert, “The Rise of Social Spending,” Explorations
in Economic History 31, 1994.

6. Persson and Tabellini’s explanation (“Is In-
equality Harmful?”) for their results is that in so-
cieties with greater earnings inequality, there is
less political pressure for government redistribu-
tion; such redistribution impairs growth. How-
ever, their evidence for the explanation is thin,
and Clarke’s results (“More Evidence”) are incon-
sistent with that argument. Chang (“Income In-
equality”) suggests that with more equality,
lower-income families could make longer-term
investment decisions. In any event, the statistical

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24 C L AU D E S . F I S C H E R , E T A L .

results suggest that government intervention on
behalf of equality in the market, rather than after
the market, would be beneficial.

7. See, for example, Michael Porter, Capital
Choices: Changing the Way America Invests in In-
dustry (Washington 1992).

8. Quoted by Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorpo-
ration of America: Culture and Society in the
Gilded Age (New York 1982), p. 75.

9. See, for example, Lee Rainwater, What
Money Buys: Inequality and the Social Meanings of
Income (New York 1974); James R. Kluegel and
E. R. Smith, “Beliefs About Stratification,” An-
nual Review of Sociology 7, 1981.

10. Harry B. G. Ganzeboom, Donald J.
Treiman, and Wout C. Ultee, “Comparative In-
tergenerational Stratification Research,” Annual
Review of Sociology 17, 1991.

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Americans Want to Believe Jobs Are the Solution to Poverty. They’re Not.

U.S. unemployment is down and jobs are going unfilled. But for people without much education, the real question is: Do those jobs pay enough to live on?

By Matthew Desmond

Sept.

1

1, 2018

Available online:

Vanessa Solivan and her three children fled their last place in June 2015, after a young man was shot and killed around the corner. They found a floor to sleep on in Vanessa’s parents’ home on North Clinton Avenue in East Trenton. It wasn’t a safer neighborhood, but it was a known one. Vanessa took only what she could cram into her station wagon, a 2004 Chrysler Pacifica, letting the bed bugs have the rest.

At her childhood home, Vanessa began caring for her ailing father. He had been a functional crack addict for most of her life, working as a landscaper in the warmer months and collecting unemployment when business slowed down. “It was something you got used to seeing,” Vanessa said about her father’s drug habit. “My dad was a junkie, but he never left us.” Vanessa, 33, has black hair that is usually pulled into a bun and wire-framed glasses that slide down her nose; a shy smile peeks out when she feels proud of herself.

Vanessa’s father died a year after Vanessa moved in. The family erected a shrine to him in the living room, a faded, large photo of a younger man surrounded by silk flowers and slowly sinking balloons. Vanessa’s mother, Zaida, is 62 and from Puerto Rico, as was her husband. She uses a walker to get around. Her husband’s death left her with little income, and Vanessa was often broke herself. Her health failing, Zaida could take only so much of Vanessa’s children, Taliya, 17, Shamal, 14, and Tatiyana, 12. When things got too loud or one of her grandchildren gave her lip, she would ask Vanessa to take her children somewhere else.

If Vanessa had the money, or if a local nonprofit did, she would book a motel room. She liked the Red Roof Inn, which she saw as “more civilized” than many of the other motels she had stayed in. It looked like a highway motel: two stories with doors that opened to the outside. The last time the family checked in, the kids carried their homework up to the room as Vanessa followed with small grocery bags from the food pantry, passing two men sipping Modelos and apologizing for their loud music. Inside their room, Vanessa placed her insulin in the minifridge as her children chose beds, where they would sleep two to a mattress. Then she slid into a small chair, saying, “Y’all don’t know how tired Mommy is.” After a quiet moment, Vanessa reached over and rubbed Shamal’s back, telling him, “I wish we had a nice place like this.” Then her eye spotted a roach feeling its way over the stucco wall.

“Op! Not too nice,” Vanessa said, grinning. With a flick, she sent the bug flying toward Taliya, who squealed and jerked back. Laughter burst from the room.

When Vanessa couldn’t get a motel, the family spent the night in the Chrysler. The back of the station wagon held the essentials: pillows and blankets, combs and toothbrushes, extra clothes, jackets and nonperishable food. But there were also wrinkled photos of her kids. One showed Taliya at her eighth-grade graduation in a cream dress holding flowers. Another showed all three children at a quinceañera — Shamal kneeling in front, with a powder blue clip-on bow tie framing his baby face, and Tatiyana tucked in back with a deep-dimpled smile.

Image

Vanessa Solivan at her mother’s house with Tatiyana and Shamal.Credit…Devin Yalkin for The New York Times

So that the kids wouldn’t run away out of anger or shame, Vanessa learned to park off Route 1, in crevices of the city that were so still and abandoned that no one dared crack a door until daybreak. Come morning, Vanessa would drive to her mother’s home so the kids could get ready for school and she could get ready for work.

In May, Vanessa finally secured a spot in public housing. But for almost three years, she had belonged to the “working homeless,” a now-necessary phrase in today’s low-wage/high-rent society. She is a home health aide, the same job her mother had until her knees and back gave out. Her work uniform is Betty Boop scrubs, sneakers and an ID badge that hangs on a red Bayada Home Healthcare lanyard. Vanessa works steady hours and likes her job, even the tougher bits like bathing the infirm or hoisting someone out of bed with a Hoyer lift. “I get to help people,” she said, “and be around older people and learn a lot of stuff from them.” Her rate fluctuates: She gets $10 an hour for one client, $14 for another. It doesn’t have to do with the nature of the work — “Sometimes the hardest ones can be the cheapest ones,” Vanessa said — but with reimbursement rates, which differ according to the client’s health care coverage. After juggling the kids and managing her diabetes, Vanessa is able to work 20 to 30 hours a week, which earns her around $1,200 a month. And that’s when things go well.

These days, we’re told that the American economy is strong. Unemployment is down, the Dow Jones industrial average is north of 25,000 and millions of jobs are going unfilled. But for people like Vanessa, the question is not, Can I land a job? (The answer is almost certainly, Yes, you can.) Instead the question is, What kinds of jobs are available to people without much education? By and large, the answer is: jobs that do not pay enough to live on.

In recent decades, the nation’s tremendous economic growth has not led to broad social uplift. Economists call it the “productivity-pay gap” — the fact that over the last 40 years, the economy has expanded and corporate profits have risen, but real wages have remained flat for workers without a college education. Since 1973, American productivity has increased by 77 percent, while hourly pay has grown by only 12 percent. If the federal minimum wage tracked productivity, it would be more than $20 an hour, not today’s poverty wage of $7.25.

American workers are being shut out of the profits they are helping to generate. The decline of unions is a big reason. During the 20th century, inequality in America decreased when unionization increased, but economic transformations and political attacks have crippled organized labor, emboldening corporate interests and disempowering the rank and file. This imbalanced economy explains why America’s poverty rate has remained consistent over the past several decades, even as per capita welfare spending has increased. It’s not that safety-net programs don’t help; on the contrary, they lift millions of families above the poverty line each year. But one of the most effective antipoverty solutions is a decent-paying job, and those have become scarce for people like Vanessa. Today, 41.7 million laborers — nearly a third of the American work force — earn less than $12 an hour, and almost none of their employers offer health insurance.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines a “working poor” person as someone below the poverty line who spent at least half the year either working or looking for employment. In 2016, there were roughly 7.6 million Americans who fell into this category. Most working poor people are over 35, while fewer than five in 100 are between the ages of 16 and 19. In other words, the working poor are not primarily teenagers bagging groceries or scooping ice cream in paper hats. They are adults — and often parents — wiping down hotel showers and toilets, taking food orders and bussing tables, eviscerating chickens at meat-processing plants, minding children at 24-hour day care centers, picking berries, emptying trash cans, stacking grocery shelves at midnight, driving taxis and Ubers, answering customer-service hotlines, smoothing hot asphalt on freeways, teaching community-college students as adjunct professors and, yes, bagging groceries and scooping ice cream in paper hats.

America prides itself on being the country of economic mobility, a place where your station in life is limited only by your ambition and grit. But changes in the labor market have shrunk the already slim odds of launching yourself from the mailroom to the boardroom. For one, the job market has bifurcated, increasing the distance between good and bad jobs. Working harder and longer will not translate into a promotion if employers pull up the ladders and offer supervisory positions exclusively to people with college degrees. Because large companies now farm out many positions to independent contractors, those who buff the floors at Microsoft or wash the sheets at the Sheraton typically are not employed by Microsoft or Sheraton, thwarting any hope of advancing within the company. Plus, working harder and longer often isn’t even an option for those at the mercy of an unpredictable schedule. Nearly 40 percent of full-time hourly workers know their work schedules just a week or less in advance. And if you give it your all in a job you can land with a high-school diploma (or less), that job might not exist for very long: Half of all new positions are eliminated within the first year. According to the labor sociologist Arne Kalleberg, permanent terminations have become “a basic component of employers’ restructuring strategies.”

We might think that the existence of millions of working poor Americans would cause us to question the notion that indolence and poverty go hand in hand. But no.

Home health care has emerged as an archetypal job in this new, low-pay service economy. Demand for home health care has surged as the population has aged, but according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2017 median annual income for home health aides in the United States was just $23,130. Half of these workers depend on public assistance to make ends meet. Vanessa formed a rapport with several of her clients, to whom she confided that she was homeless. One replied, “Oh, Vanessa, I wish I could do something for you.” When Vanessa told her supervisor about her situation, he asked if she wanted time off. “No!” Vanessa said. She needed the money and had been picking up fill-in shifts. The supervisor was prepared for the moment; he’d been there before. He reached into a drawer and gave her a $50 gas card to Shell and a $100 grocery card to ShopRite. Vanessa was grateful for the help. She thought Bayada was a generous and sympathetic employer, but her rate hadn’t changed much in the three years she had worked there. Vanessa earned $9,815.75 in 2015, $12,763.94 in 2016 and $10,446.81 last year.

To afford basic necessities, the federal government estimates that Vanessa’s family would need to bring in $29,420 a year. Vanessa is not even close — and she is one of the lucky ones, at least among the poor. The nation’s safety net now strongly favors the employed, with benefits like the earned-income tax credit, a once-a-year cash boost that applies only to people who work. Last year, Vanessa received a tax refund of around $5,000, which included earned-income and child tax credits. They helped raise her income, but not above the poverty line. If the working poor are doing better than the nonworking poor, which is the case, it’s not so much because of their jobs per se, but because their employment status provides them access to desperately needed government help. This has caused growing inequality below the poverty line, with the working poor receiving much more social aid than the abandoned nonworking poor or the precariously employed, who are plunged into destitution.

When life feels especially grinding, Vanessa often rings up Sheri Sprouse, her best friend since middle school. “She’s like me,” Vanessa said. “She’s strong.” Sheri is a reserve of emotional support and perspective, often encouraging her friend to be patient and grateful for what she has. But Sheri herself is also just scraping by, raising two daughters on a fixed disability check. And because Sheri’s housing is subsidized through a federally administered voucher, it is also monitored. “With Section 8, you can’t have people staying with you,” Vanessa said. “So I wouldn’t want to mess that up.” When Vanessa was homeless, Sheri couldn’t offer her much else besides love.

Vanessa received some help last year, when her youngest child, Tatiyana, was approved for Supplemental Security Income because of a learning disability. Vanessa began receiving a monthly $766 disability check. But when the Mercer County Board of Social Services learned of this additional money, it sent Vanessa a letter announcing that her Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits would be reduced to $234 from $544. Food was a constant struggle, and this news didn’t help. A 2013 study by Oxfam America found that two-thirds of working poor people worry about being able to afford enough food. When Vanessa stayed at a hotel, her food options were limited to what she could heat in the microwave; when she slept in her car, the family had to settle for grab-and-go options, which tend to be more expensive. Sometimes Vanessa stopped by a bodega and ordered four chicken-and-rice dishes for $15. Sometimes her kids went to school hungry. “I just didn’t have nothing,” Vanessa told me one morning. For dinner, she planned to stop by a food pantry, hoping they still had the mac-and-cheese that Shamal liked.


In America,

if you work hard, you will succeed. So those who do not succeed have not worked hard. It’s an idea found deep in the marrow of the nation. William Byrd, an 18th-century Virginia planter, wrote of poor men who were “intolerable lazy” and “Sloathful in everything but getting of Children.” Thomas Jefferson advocated confinement in poorhouses for vagabonds who “waste their time in idle and dissolute courses.” Leap into the 20th century, and there’s Barry Goldwater saying that Americans with little education exhibit “low intelligence or low ambition” and Ronald Reagan disparaging “welfare queens.” In 2004, Bill O’Reilly said of poor people: “You gotta look people in the eye and tell ’em they’re irresponsible and lazy,” and then continued, “Because that’s what poverty is, ladies and gentlemen.”

Americans often assume that the poor do not work. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute, nearly two-thirds of respondents did not think most poor people held a steady job; in reality, that year a majority of nondisabled working-age adults were part of the labor force. Slightly over one-third of respondents in the survey believed that most welfare recipients would prefer to stay on welfare rather than earn a living. These sorts of assumptions about the poor are an American phenomenon. A 2013 study by the sociologist Ofer Sharone found that unemployed workers in the United States blame themselves, while unemployed workers in Israel blame the hiring system. When Americans see a homeless man cocooned in blankets, we often wonder how he failed. When the French see the same man, they wonder how the state failed him.

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If you believe that people are poor because they are not working, then the solution is not to make work pay but to make the poor work — to force them to clock in somewhere, anywhere, and log as many hours as they can. But consider Vanessa. Her story is emblematic of a larger problem: the fact that millions of Americans work with little hope of finding security and comfort. In recent decades, America has witnessed the rise of bad jobs offering low pay, no benefits and little certainty. When it comes to poverty, a willingness to work is not the problem, and work itself is no longer the solution.

Vanessa in the living room of her mother’s house with Tatiyana.Credit…Devin Yalkin for The New York Times

Until the late 18th century, poverty in the West was considered not only durable but desirable for economic growth. Mercantilism, the dominant economic theory of the early modern period, held that hunger incentivized work and kept wages low. Wards of public charity were jailed and required to work to eat. In the current era, politicians and their publics have continued to demand toil and sweat from the poor. In the 1980s, conservatives wanted to attach work requirements to food stamps. In the 1990s, they wanted to impose work requirements on subsidized-housing programs. Both proposals failed, but the impulse has endured.

Advocates of work requirements scored a landmark victory with welfare reform in the mid-1990s. Proposed by House Republicans, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, welfare reform affixed work requirements and time limits to cash assistance. Caseloads fell to 4.5 million in 2011 from 12.3 million in 1996. Did “welfare to work” in fact work? Was it a major success in reducing poverty and sowing prosperity? Hardly. As Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein showed in their landmark book, “Making Ends Meet,” single mothers pushed into the low-wage labor market earned more money than they did on welfare, but they also incurred more expenses, like transportation and child care, which nullified modest income gains. Most troubling, without guaranteed cash assistance for the most needy, extreme poverty in America surged. The number of Americans living on only $2 or less per person per day has more than doubled since welfare reform. Roughly three million children — which exceeds the population of Chicago — now suffer under these conditions. Most of those children live with an adult who held a job sometime during the year.

A top priority for the Trump administration is expanding work requirements for some of the nation’s biggest safety-net programs. In January, the federal government announced that it would let states require that Medicaid recipients work. A dozen states have formally applied for a federal waiver to affix work requirements to their Medicaid programs. Four have been approved. In June, Arkansas became the first to implement newly approved work requirements. If all states instated Medicaid work requirements similar to that of Arkansas, as many as four million Americans could lose their health insurance.

In April, President Trump issued an executive order mandating that federal agencies review welfare programs, from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to housing assistance, and propose new standards. Although SNAP already has work requirements, in June the House passed a draft farm bill that would deny able-bodied adults SNAP benefits for an entire year if they did not work or engage in work-related activities (like job training) for at least 20 hours a week during a single month. Falling short a second time could get you barred for three years. The Senate’s farm bill, a bipartisan effort, removed these rules and stringent penalties, setting up a showdown with the House, whose version Trump has endorsed. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that work requirements could deny 1.2 million people a benefit that they use to eat.

Work requirements affixed to other programs make similar demands. Kentucky’s proposed Medicaid requirements are satisfied only after 80 hours of work or work-related training each month. In a low-wage labor market characterized by fluctuating hours, tenuous employment and involuntary part-time work, a large share of vulnerable workers fall short of these requirements. Nationally representative data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation show that among workers who qualify for Medicaid, almost 50 percent logged fewer than 80 hours in at least one month.

In July, the White House Council of Economic Advisers issued a report enthusiastically endorsing work requirements for the nation’s largest welfare programs. The council favored “negative incentives,” tying aid to labor-market effort, and dismissed “positive incentives,” like tax benefits for low-income workers, because the former is cheaper. The council also claimed that America’s welfare policies have brought about a “decline in self-sufficiency.”

Is that true? Researchers set out to study welfare dependency in the 1980s and 1990s, when this issue dominated public debate. They didn’t find much evidence of it. Most people started using cash welfare after a divorce or separation and didn’t stay long on the dole, even if they returned to welfare periodically. One study found that 90 percent of young women on welfare stopped relying on it within two years of starting the program, but most of them returned to welfare sometime down the road. Even at its peak, welfare did not function as a dependency trap for a majority of recipients; rather, it was something people relied on when they were between jobs or after a family crisis. A 1988 review in Science concluded that “the welfare system does not foster reliance on welfare so much as it acts as insurance against temporary misfortune.”

Image

Vanessa and her client Laura at Laura’s home in Hamilton, N.J.Credit…Devin Yalkin for The New York Times

Today as then, the able-bodied, poor and idle adult remains a rare creature. According to the Brookings Institution, in 2016 one-third of those living in poverty were children, 11 percent were elderly and 24 percent were working-age adults (18 to 64) in the labor force, working or seeking work. The majority of working-age poor people connected to the labor market were part-time workers. Most couldn’t take on many more hours either because of caregiver responsibilities, as with Vanessa, or because their employer didn’t offer this option, rendering them involuntary part-time workers. Among the remaining working-age adults, 12 percent were out of the labor force owing to a disability (including some enrolled in federal programs that limit work), 15 percent were either students or caregivers and 3 percent were early retirees. That leaves 2 percent of poor people who did not fit into one of these categories. That is, among the poor, two in 100 are working-age adults disconnected from the labor market for unknown reasons. The nonworking poor person getting something for nothing is a lot like the cheat committing voter fraud: pariahs who loom far larger in the American imagination than in real life.

When Vanessa was not working for Bayada, she was running after her kids. Vanessa worried over Shamal the most. At more than six feet tall, his size made him both a tool and a target in the neighborhood. Smaller kids wanted him to be their enforcer or trouble-starter. Harder kids saw him as a threat. Last year, Shamal was suspended twice for fighting. As punishment, Vanessa made him shave off his prized Afro. But she also set her children’s outbursts against a larger backdrop. “How’s their behavior supposed to be when we’re out here on these streets?” she asked me in frustration. Shamal once told me that outsiders “probably think I’m selling drugs. But I’m not. I’m just a cool person that likes hanging out and making people laugh.” He wanted to become a chef. Vanessa wondered if she could get Shamal a police-issued ankle bracelet, which would track his movements. It was impossible, of course, but Shamal liked the idea. “It could help me when my friends want me to go somewhere,” he told me. That is, the bracelet would give him a good excuse to back down when his friends nudged him toward a risky path.

Shamal and Tatiyana’s father had recently moved back to Trenton, “carrying a sack like a hobo,” Vanessa remembered. Other than erratic child-support payments and a single trip to Chuck E. Cheese’s, he doesn’t play much of a role in his children’s lives. Taliya’s father went to prison when she was 1. He was released when she was 8 and was killed a few months later, shot in the chest. Sometimes Vanessa’s three kids teased one another about their fathers. “Your dad is dead,” Tatiyana would say. “Yeah? Your dad’s around, but he don’t give a crap about you,” Taliya would shoot back.

Other times, though, the siblings offered soft reassurances that their fathers’ absence wasn’t their fault. “I don’t have time for him,” Tatiyana said once, as if it were her choice. “I have time for my real friends.” Taliya looked at her baby sister and replied: “Watch. When you’re doing good, he gonna start coming around.”

If Vanessa clocked more hours, it would be difficult to keep up with all the ways she manages her family: doing the laundry, arranging dentist appointments, counseling the children about sex, studying their deep mysteries to extract their gifts and troubles. Yet our political leaders tend to refuse to view child care as work. During the early days of welfare reform, some local authorities thought up useless jobs for single mothers receiving the benefit. In one outrageous case, recipients were made to sort small plastic toys into different colors, only to have their supervisor end the day by mixing everything up, so the work could start anew the next morning. This was thought more important than keeping children safe and fed.

Caring for a sick or dying parent doesn’t count either. Vanessa spooned
arroz con gandules into her ailing father’s mouth, refilled his medications and emptied his bedpan. But only when she does these things for virtual strangers, as a Bayada employee, does she “work” and therefore become worthy of concern. As Evelyn Nakano Glenn argues in her 2010 book, “Forced to Care,” industrialization caused American families to become increasingly reliant on wages, which had the effect of reducing tasks that usually fell to women (homemaking, cooking, child care) to “moral and spiritual vocations.” “In contrast to men’s paid labor,” Glenn writes, “women’s unpaid caring was simultaneously priceless and worthless — that is, not monetized.” She continues: “To add insult to injury, because they could not live up to the ideal of full-time motherhood, poor women of color were seen as deficient mothers and caregivers.”

Vanessa attributed her own academic setbacks — a good student in middle school, she began cutting class and courting trouble in high school — to the fact that her parents were checked out. At a critical juncture when Vanessa needed guidance and discipline, her father was using drugs and her mother seemed always to be at work. She didn’t want to make the same mistake with her kids. Vanessa’s life revolved around a small routine: drop the kids off at school; work; try finding an apartment that rents for less than $1,000 a month; pick the kids up; feed them; sleep. She didn’t spend her money on extras, including cigarettes and alcohol. She was trying to save “the little money that I got,” she told me, “so when we do get a place, I can get the kids washcloths and towels.”

Vanessa and Laura going to buy groceries.Credit…Devin Yalkin for The New York Times

We might think that the existence of millions of working poor Americans like Vanessa would cause us to question the notion that indolence and poverty go hand in hand. But no. While other inequality-justifying myths have withered under the force of collective rebuke, we cling to this devastatingly effective formula. Most of us lack a confident account for increasing political polarization, rising prescription drug costs, urban sprawl or any number of social ills. But ask us why the poor are poor, and we have a response quick at the ready, grasping for this palliative of explanation. We have to, or else the national shame would be too much to bear. How can a country with such a high poverty rate — higher than those in Latvia, Greece, Poland, Ireland and all other member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — lay claim to being the greatest on earth? Vanessa’s presence is a judgment. But rather than hold itself accountable, America reverses roles by blaming the poor for their own miseries.

Here is the blueprint. First, valorize work as the ticket out of poverty, and debase caregiving as not work. Look at a single mother without a formal job, and say she is not working; spot one working part time and demand she work more. Transform love into laziness. Next, force the poor to log more hours in a labor market that treats them as expendables. Rest assured that you can pay them little and deny them sick time and health insurance because the American taxpayer will step in, subsidizing programs like the earned-income tax credit and food stamps on which your work force will rely. Watch welfare spending increase while the poverty rate stagnates because, well, you are hoarding profits. When that happens, skirt responsibility by blaming the safety net itself. From there, politicians will invent new ways of denying families relief, like slapping unrealistic work requirements on aid for the poor.

Democrats may scoff at Republicans’ work requirements, but they have yet to challenge the dominant conception of poverty that feeds such meanspirited politics. Instead of offering a counternarrative to America’s moral trope of deservedness, liberals have generally submitted to it, perhaps even embraced it, figuring that the public will not support aid that doesn’t demand that the poor subject themselves to the low-paying jobs now available to them. Even stalwarts of the progressive movement seem to reserve economic prosperity for the full-time worker. Senator Bernie Sanders once declared, echoing a long line of Democrats who have come before and after him, “Nobody who works 40 hours a week should be living in poverty.” Sure, but what about those who work 20 or 30 hours, like Vanessa?

Because liberals have allowed conservatives to set the terms of the poverty debate, they find themselves arguing about radical solutions that imagine either a fully employed nation (like a jobs guarantee) or a postwork society (like a universal basic income). Neither plan has the faintest hope of being actually implemented nationwide anytime soon, which means neither is any good to Vanessa and millions like her. When so much attention is spent on far-off, utopian solutions, we neglect the importance of the poverty fixes we already have. Safety-net programs that help families confront food insecurity, housing unaffordability and unemployment spells lift tens of millions of people above the poverty line each year. By itself, SNAP annually pulls over eight million people out of poverty. According to a 2015 study, without federal tax benefits and transfers, the number of Americans living in deep poverty (half below the poverty threshold) would jump from 5 percent to almost 19 percent. Effective social-mobility programs should be championed, expanded and stripped of draconian work requirements.

While Washington continues to require more of vulnerable workers, it has required little from employers in the form of living wages or job security, creating a labor market in which the biggest disincentive to work is not welfare but the lousy jobs that are available. Judging from the current state of the nation’s poverty agenda, it appears that most people creating federal and state policy don’t know many people like Vanessa. “Half of the people in City Hall don’t even live in Trenton,” Vanessa once told me, flustered. “They don’t even know what goes on here.” Meanwhile, this is the richest Congress on record, with one in 13 members belonging to the top 1 percent. From such a high perch, poverty appears a smaller problem, something less gutting, and work appears a bigger solution, something more gratifying. But when we shrink the problem, the solution shrinks with it; when small solutions are applied to a huge problem, they don’t work; and when weak antipoverty initiatives don’t work, many throw up their hands and argue that we should stop tossing money at the problem altogether. Cheap solutions only cheapen the problem.

This month, I had dinner with first-year honors students at a university in Massachusetts. Some leaned right, others left. But all of them were united in their inability to explain poverty in a way that didn’t somehow hold the poor responsible for their predicament. Poor people lacked work ethic, they told me, or maybe a strong backbone or a commitment to a better life. I began to regret that alcohol hadn’t been served when one student brought up the movie “The Pursuit of Happyness,” in which Will Smith’s character performs superhumanly well at his job to leap from homelessness to affluence. The student was no senator’s son: He told us that times were lean after his parents divorced. As I watched this young man identify with Smith’s character, it dawned on me that what his parents, preachers, teachers, coaches and guidance counselors had told him for motivation — “Study hard, stick to it, dream big and you will be successful” — had been internalized as a theory of life.

We need a new language for talking about poverty. “Nobody who works should be poor,” we say. That’s not good enough. Nobody in America should be poor, period. No single mother struggling to raise children on her own; no formerly incarcerated man who has served his time; no young heroin user struggling with addiction and pain; no retired bus driver whose pension was squandered; nobody. And if we respect hard work, then we should reward it, instead of deploying this value to shame the poor and justify our unconscionable and growing inequality. “I’ve worked hard to get where I am,” you might say. Well, sure. But Vanessa has worked hard to get where she is, too.

Matthew Desmond is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author of “Evicted,” which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

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