JEFFREY KAYE: At the Los Angles Music Center this fall, many patrons enjoyed valet parking, fine dining al fresco, and for up to $45 a ticket, "Nickel and Dimed," a play about the working poor.
ACTOR: Starting next week, I'm putting you at $6.75.
ACTRESS: For a split second there, I thought about quitting my weekend job.
JEFFREY KAYE: The play, which so far has only been seen in LA, is based on the best-selling 2001 book by Barbara Ehrenreich. Her journey into the world of low-wage workers cast a spotlight on their struggle to survive. A revolving stage showed the main character rushing, exhausted between multiple low-paying jobs.
ACTRESS: I need eight salads.
RIMA WRIGHT: I need the bacon, the eggs over easy.
JEFFREY KAYE: But Rima Wright says she doesn't have to attend a play to learn about low-wage workers.
RIMA WRIGHT: It's sad that they don't know. They don't realize. But how can they? You know, they don't live that life, how are they going to know?
JEFFREY KAYE: What should they know?
RIMA WRIGHT: That a lot of us work really, really hard just to make ends meet -- just to makes ends meet. It's not even about having all the extras in life, it's just about being able to live and pay your bills.
JEFFREY KAYE: Wright is a 42-year-old single mother of two. When she's not working irregular hours as a waitress, she's at her full-time day job as a medical billing clerk. Most days, she races home, changes, and drives off to a third job at Wal-Mart, where she works weekends and nights.
RIMA WRIGHT: I hate to say "I'm hardly ever home," but I'm hardly ever home. I probably work about 70 hours a week between the three jobs.
JEFFREY KAYE: Wright's two-bedroom apartment is in Covina, California, east of Los Angeles.
RIMA WRIGHT: Who else wants some?
JEFFREY KAYE: With the three jobs, she brings in close to $22,000 a year, enough-- just enough-- to support herself and her two kids, Bruce, 19, and Arianna, 12.
JEFFREY KAYE: Could you keep going if you didn't have these three jobs?
RIMA WRIGHT: Keep going as far as living?
JEFFREY KAYE: Paying your own expenses.
RIMA WRIGHT: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I couldn't afford nothing. Nothing. My rent, that would probably be about it -- the rent and food.
JEFFREY KAYE: Wright says these days simply making it is the American dream.
RIMA WRIGHT: I think the American dream is just being able to survive nowadays, unless you're rich. Unless you have a lot of money.
JEFFREY KAYE: Wright's predicament is shared by an increasing number of working Americans. During the '90s, the bottom fifth of American income earners grew by more than 12 percent, and that trend continues.
Ruth Milkman, director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California, says the current economic slowdown aggravates the difficulties of the working poor.
RUTH MILKMAN: We're seeing maybe flat unemployment at the moment, but not a lot of signs of vigor in the national economy right now. Slow growth is always bad for people at the bottom of the labor market, because it means there's not any new jobs being, you know, generated to move into or relatively few such new jobs.
JEFFREY KAYE: For low-paid working Americans, the struggle to survive can be a constant challenge. As the population of America's working poor has increased, so too has the number of Americans without health insurance -- 41 million at last count.
Affordable housing is, also, often hard to find. Even if you've got enough to pay the rent, where do you live if you can't afford the deposit? One common solution: Move into a motel, as Rima Wright and her family once did.
RIMA WRIGHT: Motels, nowadays, are living quarters, actual living quarters, because people can't afford to pay the monthly rent or can't afford a deposit or whatever, so they'll go and rent a motel room as an apartment.
JEFFREY KAYE: Then there are the bills that don't always get paid on time.
RIMA WRIGHT: The lights ended up getting shut off.
JEFFREY KAYE: They shut off your lights.
RIMA WRIGHT: Yeah. Twice, twice. If it's not one thing, it's another. And then today, I just sent off my car payment, which it's late, and I'm getting a deferment for next... for this month so that I don't have to worry about it this month because it's Christmas and that'll give me my extra... a little bit extra Christmas money.
JEFFREY KAYE: So you do a lot of juggling.
RIMA WRIGHT: Yeah.
JEFFREY KAYE: Most new jobs are being created at the low and high ends of the spectrum. So opportunities for low-wage workers, particularly in California, to move up have declined over the last quarter of a century says economist Milkman.
RUTH MILKMAN: The middle-level jobs are increasingly an endangered species today.
JEFFREY KAYE: The latest economic numbers show a continuation of a long-term trend, what she calls job polarization.
RUTH MILKMAN: The generation of lots of very desirable jobs and lots of very undesirable jobs-- low-wage jobs with few benefits and few opportunities for advancement-- and very little growth in the middle.
JEFFREY KAYE: And the less education one has, the fewer opportunities there are. For Rima Wright, one welcome break from her long hours of work comes from supporting her daughter Arianna's cheerleading hobby. With just a high school degree and some training as a billing clerk, Wright says it's almost impossible to find a better paying job. But Arianna already knows that if she wants to avoid the kind of life her mother has, she needs an education.
JEFFREY KAYE: What do you think of the kind of life she leads?
ARIANNA WRIGHT: Really difficult and exhausting and, you know, it would be really hard for me to do that job. I want to finish school and go to college and everything.
JEFFREY KAYE: You worked here for... as a waitress, you work at Wal-Mart. Are people moving on to better paying jobs?
RIMA WRIGHT: Some.
JEFFREY KAYE: But for most people?
RIMA WRIGHT: Most people, they're either not working as by their choice or they're going onto maybe the same thing, but somewhere else.
JEFFREY KAYE: Same, same kind of pay.
RIMA WRIGHT: Same kind of pay, same kind of job, but in a different store.
JEFFREY KAYE: Experts disagree about the potential for upward mobility. Liberal economist Milkman has a bleak view.
RUTH MILKMAN: Basically the opportunity structure becomes like an hour glass instead of a ladder. Right, the rungs on the ladder that used to be there in the middle are being knocked out.
JEFFREY KAYE: That's not the point, says Adrian Moore. He met us at J&D's Country Cafe, where Wright works part time.
ADRIAN MOORE: This ladder of progression isn't really the way people move through jobs anymore.
JEFFREY KAYE: Moore is executive director of the Reason Public Policy Institute, a think tank which promotes free-market policies. He says instead of climbing a ladder, there are still ways for low-wage workers to get ahead.
ADRIAN MOORE: What we know about how people make that transition from low- income to high-income is they work hard, they get some education, they learn some specialized skills, and they use their relationships and their networks in order to find the next and better job. And that's really, you know, that sounds very simple, and I don't want to make it oversimplified. That's hard work, but that is the recipe for moving up in America.
ACTRESS: Joe, could we have the house lights up please?
JEFFREY KAYE: There's also the argument that the more affluent must pay a price if low-wage workers are to earn more. At the play, actors broke out of their roles to confront the audience with their responsibilities.
ACTRESS: Those of who that are hiring these days, how much do you pay? $10 per person per hour? $20? Good, I want to hear a higher number. ( Laughter ) You get paid the most, right? How about $25? $30 an hour? I think that's fair.
ACTRESS: This is a servant culture. We should have the courage to pay more. $30 an hour plus benefits. (Laughter)
JEFFREY KAYE: While "Nickel and Dimed" posed the question about how much we as a society are willing to pay to boost the wages of low-income workers, the gap between the Rima Wrights of America and the more well-to-do is expected only to widen.