P.O.V.'s Borders visitors sent Barbara
Ehrenreich these questions in response to her work and her
answers to P.O.V.'s initial 6 Questions. Read on!
Question: There's been some talk about the concept of a "living
wage." From the experiences that you had working low-paying
jobs, how would you calculate a "living wage?"
I wouldn't even try; this is a job for the experts. Two years ago,
the Economic Policy Institute in Washington DC calculated that,
as a national average, a family of three (one adult and two children)
needed to earn $14 an hour in order to live at a barebones but adequate
level. But that's just a national average; obviously, you need to
earn more to live in San Francisco or Boston than in rural Missouri.
There's a scholar Diana Pearce at the University of Washington
who devotes herself to calculating what a living wage would be
for different cities and states. It's an arduous task, since she
has to take into account local costs of housing, childcare, transportation,
Question: I find it difficult to separate out how much of a "border"
is internal and how much is external. I know a 20 year old single
mother of a three year old, with a history of serious sexual abuse,
who is successfully making her way in the professional world
at some cost, no doubt. But after years of therapy, she finally
believed in herself and worked incredibly hard and is progressing.
She had all kinds of borders in her way. Granted, professional borders
can be artificial, exclusionary etc. What makes one person be able
to succeed and another to fail? I'm interested in your comments.
All kinds of things including personality and, it should be said,
luck. But I don't think we'll discover the secret to ending poverty
through psychological comparisons of those who escape it and those
who don't. For one thing, poverty is correlated with depression,
which is itself a major obstacle to upward mobility.
Ever since the idea of a "culture of poverty" arose in
the 1960s, many affluent people have subscribed to the convenient
and self-flattering myth that poverty represents some kind of characterological
disorder involving laziness, promiscuity, "inability to defer
gratification," and so forth. I have a simpler theory: Poverty
isn't a mental disorder; it's a lack of money.
Question: It seems from your responses that a border to you is
necessarily a negative thing. Can you think of any instances where
borders are a positive? Where people self-identifying around certain
shared characteristics, to the exclusion of other people, can be
I'm not the only one who thinks the absence of borders can be a
good thing: Wal-Mart's store brand of trendy, youth-oriented, clothing
is called "No Borders," and I've listened to classic rock
stations which advertise themselves as "rock without borders."
In our globalized world, I think many of us yearn for more freedom
of movement and a chance to interact with others everywhere.
But I don't associate people "people self-identifying around
certain shared characteristics, to the exclusion of other people"
with "borders." In order to tear down obstacles in their
collective path, people often have to get together with others like
themselves. I was a member of many women's-only groups in the 70s
and 80s, and our goal was to eliminate the "borders" that
kept us in traditional jobs and roles.
Question: I read "Nickel and Dimed" and wondered about
the Czech dishwasher that you worked with in Key West. Did you find
a lot of immigrants working illegally in the jobs that you had and
did you find that employers were taking advantage of them, paying
them even less than what they were paying you?
I'm not even sure that this dishwasher was in the U.S . illegally,
since this is of course not the kind of thing you can ask someone
about. But it is widely believed in Key West that the hotel and
restaurant industry depends to a certain extent on extremely underpaid
and undocumented workers. According to the Czech dishwasher whom
I wrote about, the "agent" who brought him over to this
country took a couple of dollars an hour out of his wage.
Question: Housing costs provide the biggest obstacle to low-wage
workers in your book, "Nickel and Dimed." Do you think
there are realistic solutions to the housing crisis? I mean, I'm
not even a low-wage worker and I still spend nearly 50% of my earnings
Tell me about it! We have a major housing crisis on our hands and
I hardly ever hear a politician mention it. I'm not a policy expert
on housing, but it seems to me the first steps would be "conservative"
in the original sense of restoring what used to be like former
levels of federal support for low-income housing. According to housing
expert Cushing Dolbeare, federal subsidies and other supports for
low income housing have dropped precipitously since the 1970s. Meanwhile,
of course, homeowners, who tend to be middle class or above, continue
to get a whopping housing subsidy in the form of the mortgage interest
Question: Have you done any comparison between the service sector
in the U.S. and the service sector abroad, like in say Europe? I
find that I get better service in Paris than in New York. Are they
paid more there? What's the difference?
Hmm, maybe I can get a grant to study, say, restaurant service in
New York versus Paris
But from what I know, European service
workers (and all workers) are more likely to be unionized and are
better paid than their American counterparts. Plus they get government
services unknown to us, like health insurance and, in France anyway,
Question: The U.S. economy has taken a beating in the last two
years. It seems that, typically, the working poor bear the brunt
of slow or damaged economy. How has the Bush White House responded
or not responded to the crisis of the working poor?
The answer is "not." The Republicans' major economic concern
has been to lower taxes for the rich. Right now they are resisting
the extension of unemployment benefits (which tend not to help the
poor much anyway, compared to the middle class.)
Of course, the working poor don't make generous campaign contributions,
which makes them uninteresting to politicians of either party. Sadly,
they also tend not to vote in 2000 and this year, the electorate
was badly skewed toward the upper half of the income distribution.
There's a vicious cycle going on: Poor people don't vote because
they don't hear candidates addressing their issues, and politicians
tend not to address their issues because poor people don't vote
Question: Was there any point during the planning of "Nickel
and Dimed" that you considered eliciting personal essays (that
might be published anonymously) from low-wage workers, instead of
recounting your story as an "outsider"? I realize that
this is an entirely different type of book, would you consider editing
such a book?
Remember, my book started as a magazine assignment to go out and
try to survive myself, not to interview people or collect essays.
Since the book came out, I've gotten so many letters from real low-wage
workers that I've started a website on which to post them along
with other relevant news and info
a publisher were interested in a collection of such stories and
essays, I'd probably be willing to edit it. But publishers tend
not to like collections, alas.