Understanding of Responsibility for Social and Economic Justice
Barbara Ehrenreich, a prolific writer, found herself having wandered into the topic of poverty during lunch with an editor. The topic was especially current. In 1996, Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed into law, the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,” welfare-reform legislation that radically restructured welfare programs, reduced federal spending on welfare, and required many to work in order to receive limited social benefits (Kirst-Ashman, 205). Ehrenreich, challenged by of her own idea that “someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism” and experience the struggles of the poor, working-class by living on working-class wages, found herself doing just that (Ehrenreich, Introduction). From her self-imposed experiences, spanning nearly a year, living in three different regions of the United States, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, was written. Ehrenreich confesses, as a critical premise, that a middle-class white woman cannot, based on her distinctive life experience, know what it is to live as the working poor. This is an inherent profession that the difference between living amidst the working-poor versus living in the middle-class is not a difference of degree, but of kind.
Any good journalist or columnist, (or social worker) brings awareness to a number of issues. Awareness is the first step toward promoting change but is imperative to advance social and economic issues. The process toward change and empowerment must begin at the micro level to support a macro level change. Engaging in self-reflection, to analyze and assess one’s personal values and beliefs, and to develop a knowledge base on perspectives of social justice is immeasurably valuable. In order to foster social and economic justice by diminishing, and ideally eradicating, oppressive maltreatment nationally and globally, it mandates personal commitment and social alteration on a substantial scale. Ehrenreich did just that. By placing herself in another’s shoes, quite literally, she began her journey on a micro level. She brought awareness to the issues through writing about her experience. The reader now participates on a micro level in allowing his/her perspectives to broaden through Ehrenreich eyes. It brings to light the reality of attempting to live within the confines of a “working wage,” therefore, advancing social and economic justice. It is a project that attempts to raise the consciousness of the middle-class, a project that might lead to the recognition that characteristic perceptions of the working poor are indiscriminating and, at its base, untrue. The book endeavors to present how prevalent assumptions about the working poor fail to bring legitimacy to their experience and, above all, fail to do justice to their struggle.
Ehrenreich writes of situations where she or her “friends” experienced demeaning and disrespectful attitudes, even if merely perceived. She explains trips to the grocery in her maid’s uniform: “What are you doing here? And, no wonder she’s poor, she’s got a beer in her shopping cart!” (Ehrenreich, 100). Ehrenreich also conveys several distinct cases of the ways in which corporate rhetoric demeans and embarrasses employees. They lack basic rights like privacy or free speech and are subjected to, from what she describes, as shaming random drug tests. That fact that Ehrenreich hadn’t received such management reminds her how different middle- and upper-class workers are regarded. She writes, “My guess is that the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers”the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being ‘reamed out’ by managers”are part of what keeps wages low. If you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you’re actually worth” (211). These create barriers that establish class awareness, demoralizes workers, and facilitates the point that they should feel fortunate to have any job at all in a system where workers’ pay is the main expense rather than a requirement on the part of the company to those who supply their profits.
There are numerous barriers the Ehrenreich observes in her experiment with poverty that help to maintain, or in many cases keep people in poverty. Due the inefficient working wage, savings becomes unachievable. Without savings, people cannot afford a deposit for a rental, and many end up paying more for a motel room. Most motels do not have a full kitchen; therefore food preparation becomes nearly impossible and food becomes expensive and/or very unhealthy because fast-food restaurants or convenience stores become the only options. This inability to create a savings to afford deposits and pay more for hotel rooms end up running out of money and thus, leads to unintended homelessness, further exacerbating the struggles of poverty. Ehrenreich details the withholding of a first paycheck, making meeting immediate needs (and most of them are) unattainable. The mere fact that Ehrenreich had her own transportation was a luxury to most of co-workers. A lack of transportation becomes a major barrier as to the ability to expand the radius of job possibilities. Ehrenreich also discusses the plight of her co-worker Gail at the Hearthside who struggles with health issues due to her lack of health insurance.
In addressing the barriers that create an atmosphere for workers that is demeaning and disrespecting, one might consider something as simple as language and visibility. It is often discussed within social philosophy, “whoever” controls the language controls the culture. Ehrenreich writes, “But now I know something else. In orientation, we learned that the store’s success depends entirely on us, the associate; in fact, our bright blue vests bear the statement ‘At Wal-Mart, our people make the difference.’ Underneath those vests, though, there are real-life charity cases, maybe even shelter dwellers” (175). The very language on their vests suggested a state of dependency, while barely making a wage off of which to survive. Again, “If you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you’re actually worth” (211). What if workers were seen? Ehrenreich writes, “there are few or no rewards for heroic performance”(195). She explains at the beginning of the book about the “deception” of going into her job and yet states, “”There’s no way, for example, to pretend to be a waitress: the food either gets to the table or not. People knew me as a waitress, a cleaning person, a nursing home aid or a retail clerk not because I acted like one, but because that’s what I was…” (Ehrenreich, 9). She was not longer “Barbra Ehrenreich a professional writer,” she had become a function. Maybe barriers begin to come down, starting on a micro level, when the person, not just the function, is seen.
As Ehrenreich concluded her project, she evaluated many things, including things she learned about herself. She learned that in a world of “unskilled” labor, she a Ph.D, was merely average (193-194). She learned that although she was physically fit, the intensity and duration of many of the jobs left her sore and exhausted. Through Ehrenreich’s writing, I was reminded about my own time as an “unskilled” worker. I am constantly reminded of how very grateful I am to have had the experiences I have that I might better understand things I would not have otherwise. I cannot say I was shocked by anything I read. Saddened? Yes. Shocked? No. I am most certain this has more to do with my age and experiences life experiences. I pray my experiences will remain fresh in my memory. These experiences keep me focused on making our world, or at least the one around me, a better place. I will continue give on a personal level, as well as advocate for others.
On nights when I am exhausted and feel like I cannot read another word, write another paper, complete another assignment, remind myself that I am working for others. My education, networking, and training are avenues on which I intend to advance social and economic justice. We are all responsible for the advancement of social and economic justice within our culture and nation, but it starts with me.
- Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Henry Holt and Company, 2010.
- Kirst-Ashman, Karen K. Empowerment Series: Introduction to Social Work & Social Welfare: Critical Thinking Perspectives. Cengage Learning, 2016.