Barbara Ehrenreich decides to do some ‘old-fashioned’ journalism—by which she means undercover ethnographic research—to learn more about the working poor of America. Specifically, she wants to find out how they survive on the minimum wage. She decides to spend three months each in three different parts of America performing low-paid jobs. She takes a small amount of money with her for setting up costs, and goes about starting her new life—finding somewhere affordable to live, and importantly finding low-paid work. An urban, working-poor “Survivor”, if you like. Unlike Survivor, however, we soon see that there is no safety net and no support from teammates for the working-poor.
To put it simply and briefly, this is a Marxist critique of capitalism. Or is that an oxymoron? Is a critique of capitalism automatically Marxist? Not sure about that, but the author does reference him now and then. She also does not hold back on judging the wealthy owners of the houses she cleans, indicating a loathing of the capitalist class (of which, in all honestly, she is a member). Herein lies the difficulty that accompanies any attempt to critique the capitalist system: Are our criticisms valid when we profit from the system—however little—ourselves? In a system where companies own companies who own companies, sometimes the line between capitalist owner and working class gets very blurry.
Ehrenreich gets jobs as a waitress, a room cleaner (for one day!), a cleaner attached to a maid agency, a retirement village ‘dietician’ and a sales assistant at Wal-Mart. If that sounds like a lot of jobs for nine months, it’s because—as Ehrenreich discovers—to survive in the world of low-paid work, you have to work at least two jobs.
Apart from the appalling level of pay given to people in these jobs, one of the most disturbing things to come out of this book was the exposure of housing unaffordability. Ehrenreich ended up staying in motel rooms for a lot of the time because she simply could not find affordable accommodation. People on very low wages, it seems, get caught in a catch-22 situation where they end up paying through the nose for motel rooms while ‘waiting’ for more affordable housing to become vacant. Sometime they must continue living in motels because they cannot find the deposit required to rent a property—staying in expensive motels means they can never accumulate the required amount of capital to make a start.
The work she does is not easy. In fact, it is physically gruelling—her foray into house cleaning demonstrated particularly well how arduous the work is. Her experience in housecleaning also demonstrated sexual inequality in the labour market which she did not explore fully. I think the book can be interpreted as a feminist text because even without articulating it, Ehrenreich illustrates that it is women who are doing all this low-paid work, and men who are managing them. The scene where she espies workmen outside one of the houses she is cleaning chugging down Gatorade while she and her colleagues sweat buckets but are not permitted to drink while inside the house (as per the rules their male manager has designed) is a beautiful but depressing picture of how some work (men’s work) is valued higher than other (women’s work). I wish Ehrenreich had discussed the feminisation of low-paid work further—this is a hole in her otherwise excellent Marxist expose of the inequalities that American-style capitalism has produced.
I am at a bit of a loss how to handle the conclusion. She revealed her true Marxist colours in the very last passage when she expressed her hope that the low-paid workers would one day rise in protest (the proletariat revolution? Finally?), yet she didn’t explore adequately the hypocrisy of her own life. She admits to living a middle-upper class lifestyle but doesn’t suggest any solutions for people like her who are, on the one hand ashamed of the inequalities in America, but on the other benefit from those very inequalities.