How Do You Live On $7 an Hour?


Ed O’Rourke

Author Barbara Enrenreich wondered what is was like to live on $7 an hour after the 1996 welfare reform.  Her bestseller Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America describes her work as a waitress, cleaning lady, and a Wal Mart employee in different cities.  Her book reminded me of John Howard Griffin, a white man who changed his skin color for six weeks in the early 1960s to find out what it was like a black person.  His book Black Like Me was a sensation.

She had the advantages of being white, a native English speaker, good health and an automobile.  In one word, it was brutal.  People who think that it is easy being a waitress or performing other $7 an hour jobs have never done it.

Paying rent was the deal breaker that made it necessary to get two full time jobs to make ends meet.  Low wage workers have no money to pay one month’s rent and a month’s deposit for an apartment.  They pay weekly rates at an apartment or daily rates in a motel.  The rich buy the convenient locations forcing the poor to rent more expensive, run down

property far from work.  When she worked in Key West, she found flophouses and trailer homes with neither air conditioning, screens, fans nor television going for $500 per month.  She had a choice between getting a second job and living in her car.  Coworkers packed three or four people into an efficiency or at most a one-bedroom apartment.

Expenditures for public housing have fallen since the 1980s and public rental subsidies stopped growing in the middle 1990s.  On the other hand, the mortgage interest deduction subsidizes homeowners.  The near poor are constrained by lack of mobility.  They frequently have to depend on a relative to drop them off and pick them up on a route that includes a babysitter.

When you make $7 an hour, you leave your dignity and civil rights at the door.  Until April 1998, there was no federally mandated right to bathroom breaks.  Management reminds the employees that the break room is not a right and can be taken away.  Employers have the right to search lockers and purses at will. Managers can sit for hours at a time but many feel that it is their duty to make sure that no one else does.

Personality questionnaires are designed to screen in docile people who are ready to snitch on coworkers.  Although the test givers allege that there are no right answers, it is obvious what answer the employer wants to hear.  Should a coworker observed stealing be forgiven or denounced? Do you agree or disagree with, “ Management is to blame when things go wrong”?  Do you think that safety is the responsibility of the management?

There are many claims for drug testing, that it results in fewer accidents, fewer health insurance claims and increased productivity.  A 1999 American Civil Liberties report shows that these claims are unsubstantiated.  In fact, other studies show that drug testing lowers productivity, possibly because of lower morale.

Work at $7 an hour is a world of physical pain, cramps and arthritic attacks managed by Excedrin, Advil, cigarettes and for some, on the weekends, alcohol. Work as a cleaning lady and other jobs are brutally repetitive, physically demanding and even damaging.

Assistance for the working poor is hard to obtain.  Barbara called one of the charitable agencies when she needed money to buy food.  On her first call, she was on hold for four minutes until someone picked up.  Then she mad four more calls until a helpful person told her how to get a food voucher.  The food available through the voucher was limited.  There were no fresh vegetables or fruit, no chicken nor cheese.  In seventy minutes of calling and driving, she acquired $7.02 worth of food, less $2.80 for telephone calls.

Employers of low wage workers frequently make their employees work without pay.  As a cleaning lady, the company required employees to get to work by 7:30 but they did not start getting paid until about 8:00.  Employees did not get paid the half hour at the end of the day sorting out dirty rags and refilling cleaning fluid bottles.

The driving force of the 1996 welfare reform was that a job was the way out of poverty.  All the state had to do was provide training for some social and technical skills, then make people go out and get a job.  The legislation had no provision for monitoring post welfare economic condition of former recipients.  The media have paid attention to occasional successes, proclaimed them to be universal and ignored increased hunger.

The lives of the near poor are not seen on television.  In the drama and comedies, you see policemen, schoolteachers, and other professionals.  It is easy for the near poor to see themselves as the odd persons out and not get the idea that society is giving them a raw deal.  Since the near poor live in different neighborhoods, socialize in different places, it is easy to think that they do not exist.

It turns out that no job is truly unskilled.  All the low wage jobs that Barbara got required concentration, a mastery of new terms, new tools and skills from the restaurant computer screen to working a backpack vacuum cleaner.  The near poor are not lazy.  They find few or no rewards for heroic performance.  The challenge is to budget your energy to have some left at the end of the day.

What can society do to remedy this gruesome situation?  Encouragement of labor union activity, enforcement of existing labor and immigration law would have some effect.  It may be easier to raise the minimum wage, provide national health insurance not linked to employment and subsidize low-income housing.

Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America, Metropolitan Press, 2001, 224 pages.