Thursday, August 02, 2007

"Nickel and Dimed" vs. "What's the Matter with Kansas?"

Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: on (not) getting by in America is a book that I've been wanting to read since it came out in 2001. Finally I did.

The book is based on her experiences in the late 90's traveling around the country taking menial jobs and trying to make ends meet. It's chockfull of heartbreaking stories about the suffering and desperation of America's low-wage workers. And remember, this was when the economy was roaring through the boom, before the selection of our "compassionate conservative" President (you know, the guy who had a nice pat on the back for the "uniquely American" woman who had to work three jobs to stay afloat.) Just as a guess, there are probably at least 10 million more Americans without health insurance now than back then (Oh, right--Bush says they can get all the care they need at the emergency room).

Any Republican who dares to oppose--from a comfortable distance--hikes in the minimum wage really ought to read this book (or better yet, go out like Ehrenreich did and actually try living the low end of the American Dream).

But here's what's really confounding:the attitudes of many of these low-wage workers. Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? speculates at length about why people vote against their own economic interests; I've long thought that a good deal of the explanation is the "Someday I'm going to hit the Lotto and I'll be damn glad taxes are low" syndrome.

Of course, supporting this attitude is the fact that poor people don't see much benefit from tax expenditures, so why insist that the rich pay for them?

Here's a dramatic passage from Nickel and Dimed: Ehrenreich has been working for a maid service, cleaning the homes of the rich, and on her last day reveals what she's up to to her co-workers.

At least now that I'm "out" I get to ask the question I've wanted to ask all this time: How do they feel, not about [their boss] but about the [home] owners, who have so much while others, like themselves, barely get by? This is the answer from Lori, who at twenty-four has a serious disk problem and an $8,000 credit card debt: "All I can think of is like, wow, I'd like to have this stuff someday. It motivates me and I don't feel the slightest resentment because, you know, it's my goal to get to where they are."

What can you even say? Apart from actually hitting the Lotto, poor Lori has about as much chance of joining the ranks of the affluent as of being elected Pope. Yet she clings to the dream.

I guess corporate America has its unskilled workforce right where they want them: ignorant, insecure, demoralized, scared, too preoccupied keeping body and soul together to make any trouble, and still clinging to the fantasy that someday they'll hit the jackpot (so don't you go raising them taxes!)

Michael Moore's film Sicko has a scene where a former British MP says that if you have a population that's healthy, optimistic, and educated, great things are possible.

Maybe that's why so much of the greatness seems to have gone out of America.

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