Saturday, January 31, 2009

A logical appeal to an emotional plea

In the interest of continued postings, I am yet again publishing one of my essays. This a response paper to Barbara Ehrenreich's book "Nickle and Dimed, On Not Getting By in America"
As always, I welcome and encourage counter arguments.

When you think about poverty, you probably do not picture someone working a full-time job. Most people envision someone living in a homeless shelter or panhandling near a busy intersection of town. However, poverty affects far more than just the unemployed, and perhaps even more than the national statistics reflect. In Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed, she takes a closer look into the world of the average minimum-wage worker and finds that the rising costs of basic needs like housing, childcare, and healthcare have taken many Americans to the brink of poverty and beyond. Ehrenreich presents an array of problems with the current minimum-wage system and convincingly argues that it is our moral duty to address them. Where Ehrenreich struggles however, is with possible solutions outside of her own political views. She suggests what would amount to a complete restructuring of the American labor system, but fails to offer any convincing argument that it would have any hope of working. The minimum-wage problem is bigger than partisan politics, and her narrow view of possible solutions would likely lead to more problems than they would fix. The system may well be broken, but it is not beyond repair as Ehrenreich suggests. There are many right-now solutions that can help to improve working conditions for minimum-wage workers, and barriers can be removed that may be keeping people from climbing the economic ladder. This must all be balanced with a healthy dose of reality, recognizing that naive idealism is no substitute for steady progress.

There are many areas where working conditions can be improved with little or no negative side effects on employers or the economy. Ehrenreich points out several areas where employer expectations are unreasonable, and these should be addressed. In Ehrenreich experience as a waitress in Florida for example, she explains that, “Employees are barred from using the front door” (16), and even when they are off-duty, “Barred from eating at the restaurant” (23). In Maine where Ehrenreich worked as a maid, “The rule is that no fluid or food item can touch a maid’s lips when she’s inside a house” (82). As Ehrenreich suggests, and I believe most people would agree, these rules are not only unnecessary but unkind. They make employees feel like the proverbial redheaded stepchild; like second class citizens who do not deserve to mingle with the normal citizenry. Ehrenreich also exposes unfair employer expectations in her Wal-Mart experience in Minnesota. Employees are expected to maintain a specific dress code, but for some that dress code is simply out of reach, as Ehrenreich points out, “At $7 an hour, a $7 shirt is just not going to make it to [the] shopping list” (159).

Clearly these are very real problems that should be addressed, but as is frequently the problem with Ehrenreich’s approach, no solutions are offered. She believes that these problems are simply inherent in the minimum-wage world, and are offered up as a condemnation of the bourgeois rather than as a problem to overcome. A solution is not so far out of reach however, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for instance was designed to deal with issues of worker’s rights, and should always be considered when discussing working conditions. Since its inception the EEOC has expanded into many areas regarding workers rights, not only creating and enforcing laws, but also supporting litigants in court (Commission).
Barriers that can stifle the ability of the minimum-wage worker to move up the economic ladder should also be addressed. In order to tackle this issue we must first establish what these barriers are, and then determine their severity. In the interest of honesty and clarity, let me begin this argument by stating that I believe class mobility is 10 percent circumstance and 90 percent determination. This belief may well cloud my vision on the matter, but I will endeavor to use only logic and objectivity in place of my personal feelings. It will be up to you, my reader, to determine my success in this.

One of the primary barriers for a minimum-wage worker to overcome is their parent’s economic status. In fact, Enrenreich contends that, “In poverty, as in certain propositions in physics, starting conditions are everything” (27). I will grant that starting conditions are something as it relates to poverty, but they are not everything. Enrenreich not so subtly suggests that there is not much hope for someone who is born into a lower economic class, pointing to education as one of the few means by which one can escape from poverty. In fact, education is often held to be one of the most important barriers to overcome in order to move up the economic latter, and for good reason. Todd Stinebrickner, professor of Econometrics and Labor at the University of Western Ontario has stated that, “There is a considerable earnings variation among individuals with college degrees” (Economics). He goes on to say that, “These issues are especially important to students from low-income families, who are less likely to complete college degrees than students from other backgrounds” (Economics).

Ehrenreich includes low access to education in her long laundry list of problems that the minimum-wage worker faces, but mentions it only offhandedly rather than discussing specifics. She stacks education on what she sees as a mountain of evidence against a flawed system that leaves the poor out in the cold. I suspect she glosses over the topic of education because significant efforts are already being made in this area. Government and private financial aid for low income students is staggeringly high, with over $80 billion annually in financial aid coming from the federal government alone (Federal Student Aid).

Enrenreich also glosses over other areas that do not fit her “broken system” message. She dismisses a Time magazine story from June of 2000 showing that Minnesota’s welfare-to-work program had sharply reduced poverty, saying that it, “was a pilot project that offered far more generous child care and other subsidies than Minnesota’s actual welfare program” (Ehrenreich 218). I hardly see this as a cause for dismissal, but rather a reason for reflection. If this so-called pilot project did indeed have a positive impact on the poverty rates, then why not discuss this as a possible part of a greater solution? Put simply, it is because this small step toward progress does not comport with her radical reconstructionist views. Ehrenreich is not looking for renovation, she is looking for revolution. Her radical views are also made apparent by her belief that drug testing and prisons are simply tools of repression, and that management and the police are the beneficiary “agents of repression” (Ehrenreich 212-213).

Ehrenreich is so blinded by her militantism that she even resorts to subtle deception. She quotes an Economic Policy Institute study that “$30,000 a year for a family of one adult and two children” constitutes a living wage (Ehrenreich 213). This amounts to about $14 an hour, and according to the study would be enough to cover basic needs like housing, health insurance, and childcare, but little else. Ehrenreich goes on to say that, “The shocking thing is that the majority of American workers, about 60 percent, earn less than $14 an hour” (213). Did you catch the sleight-of-hand there? Neither did I the first time I read it. The parallel language distracts you from thinking anything is amiss. What you read is that a family needs $14 an hour, but 60 percent do not receive it. What you likely did not notice is that the $14 an hour figure is based on a single adult with two children, while the “shocking” 60 percent is based simply on the American worker.

Ehrenreich gets braver as she progresses through the book, going from disingenuous to downright dishonest when she states that single mothers, “have nothing but their own wages to live on, no matter how many mouths there are to feed” (213). This is simply not true. There are many private and government programs available to women with children who need assistance. Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) for instance, “Provides Federal grants to States for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk” (USDA). There is of course always room for progress in the many systems already in place to aid the poor, but these systems should be evaluated and improved rather than thrown out and replaced as Ehrenreich suggests.

Amid all this discussion of imperfect systems and class struggle, it is important to note that while there are legitimate concerns about class barriers, mobility does exist. In The New York Times written book Class Matters, one of the authors chronicles the life story of John Zannikos, “An illiterate [Greek] immigrant who came to New York years ago with nothing but $100 in his pocket and a willingness to work etched in his heart” (DePalma 112). He worked his way up in the restaurant industry through hard work; learning English as he went from dishwasher to short-order cook, and from small restaurant owner to successful entrepreneur. My father too, shares a similar story. He started as a janitor in a grain inspection office and over a period of years worked his way up into upper management.

Stories like these are at the heart of the American dream, but some dismiss these as anecdotal evidence that may actually be problematic to society. In Class Matters, another author states that, “These success stories reinforce perceptions of mobility” (Leonhardt 19) and labels this perception as, “Blind optimism” (Leonhardt 26). But are these merely misplaced perceptions, or justified hope? Mobility may not be as fluid or common as we would like, but it does nonetheless exist. In fact, many in America have apparently been vindicated in their optimism. In a 2005 survey by The New York Times “45 percent of respondents said they were in a higher class than when they grew up, while just 16 percent said they were in a lower one” (Leonhardt 10).

Renovation of the current system is certainly needed, but the principals of utility necessitate the use of reason over passion. While Ehrenreich presents many valid critiques of the minimum-wage system that need to be addressed, her well-intentioned suggestions would make matters far worse. Her suggested sharp increases in minimum-wage and social programs for instance, would force companies to raise prices and lay off employees in order to recover their costs. This would inevitably lead to a market stagflation; that is, higher prices but no new jobs. While some on the lower rung would now be able to live at a slightly higher standard living, we would be putting millions of people out of the job market, and consequently off the economic ladder all together. A balanced approach to improving working conditions for the minimum-wage worker should therefore be our primary short-term focus, and increased class mobility our long-term greater goal. While simple reparation certainly lacks the excitement of Ehrenreich’s proletarian revolution, it is our best hope for sustainable progress.

Works Cited
Commission, Equal Employment Opportunity. U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 22 1 2009 .
DePalma, Anthony. "Fifteen Years on the Bottom Rung." Times, The New York. Class Matters. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005. 112.
Economics, Gatton College of Business and. University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research. 22 1 2009 .
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001.
Federal Student Aid, Free Application for. About Federal Student Aid. 7 4 2008. 22 1 2009 .
Leonhardt, Scott , David, Janny. "Shadowy Lines That Still Divide." Times, New York. Class Matters. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005. 10.
USDA, Food and Nutrition Services. Women, Infants, and Children. 19 12 2008. 23 1 2009 .