She walks the line of poverty, incognito

Money: Writer Barbara Ehrenreich left her comfortable home and life behind to learn if she could survive on low-wage jobs.

September 16, 2001|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,Sun Staff

WASHINGTON -- It's 4 a.m. when Barbara Ehrenreich wakes up in a cold sweat. A writer with 20 years experience, it's not a deadline that's shaken her out of peaceful slumber.

"I'm thinking about the table whose order I screwed up so that one of the boys didn't get his kiddie meal until the rest of the family had moved on to their Key Lime pies," she writes in her latest book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Metropolitan Books, $23).

This is not the kind of thing that most best-selling authors and social critics think about late at night. But then again most journalists might think twice about taking on a secret identity that pays $2.43 an hour plus tips, working 10-hour shifts with no breaks, and answering to impatient patrons as well as Big Brother-ish managers.

"At the beginning of June 1998 I leave behind everything that normally soothes the ego and sustains the body -- home, career, companion, reputation, ATM card -- for a plunge into the low-wage work force," she writes in the Harper's Magazine article that preceded the book.

"There, I become another, occupationally much diminished 'Barbara Ehrenreich' -- depicted on job-application forms as a divorced homemaker whose sole work experience consists of housekeeping in a few private homes."

Sitting on a couch in a Washington Holiday Inn is Barbara Ehrenreich, the veteran of book tours and speaking engagements that accompany a distinguished career writing about women, poverty and health issues for publications including Time, The Nation and the New York Times Magazine.

"There's such a fundamental moral problem here," says Ehrenreich, 59, who has two grown children. "I was raised by initially blue-collar parents who always talked about hard work. Throw yourself into it, and you'll be OK, or you'll get ahead. And that was implanted in me as a social contract -- if you put out this much, you'll get something back. And that social contract no longer seems to be in force."

As she describes it in the introduction to her book, the assignment emerged during a conversation she and Harper's Magazine editor Lewis Lapham were having about the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. "How, in particular, we wondered, were the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour?" she recalls.

Ehrenreich found out she couldn't, dispelling the myth that poverty is the exclusive station of the unemployed. She slipped into her different roles in Florida (where she lives), Maine and Minnesota, equipped with a Rent-A-Wreck car, a laptop and a goal of earning enough money for a month's rent. A one-time waitress, she landed her first job at a restaurant. It wasn't enough to keep her afloat so she briefly took a second job as a motel housekeeper. Then there was the weekend gig as a nursing home dietary aide while she worked during the week as a professional maid, and finally a stint as a Wal-Mart associate.

Though apprehensive at first about her co-workers catching on to her real identity, she found common ground soon enough. "What women talk about are children and men and a lot of health-related things: arthritis, diets and on and on," she says.

"I finally found a use for all the working out I'd been doing, which always seemed to me an exercise in vanity. But in these jobs I was grateful for every weight I ever lifted," she says.

"But mentally I had no way of preparing myself. I wasn't prepared for how mentally challenging this was going to be. I mean intellectually challenging. I knew I was going to have to work hard and I was afraid it was physically maybe too much for me. Actually, I did fine physically -- though I don't know how fine it would have been after many months.

"But here I am with a Ph.D. in biology and I was struggling to master all these things that were being thrown at me. I mean from day one, learning to use the computerized ordering system in restaurants -- it's not like big, high tech computer skills -- but the thing is you have to be right and you have to learn it immediately and each restaurant has a different program, different quirks you have to know. Not to mention what I'd forgotten about waitressing is that it takes a tremendous amount of concentration. You don't daydream."

In fact, much of what she observed and experienced is the stuff of third-world nightmares. Co-workers doubled up in motel rooms or slept in cars. Others made all-day meals out of a bag of chips. And because they had to pay doctor visits out of their own pocket, many blue-collar workers self-medicated to cope with what Ehrenreich calls, "a world of pain -- managed by Excedrin and Advil, compensated for with cigarettes and, in one or two cases, and then only on weekends, with booze.

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