So what is the solution to the poverty of so many of America’s working people? Ten years ago, when Nickel and Dimed first came out, I often responded with the standard liberal wish list — a higher minimum wage, universal health care, affordable housing, good schools, reliable public transportation, and all the other things we, uniquely among the developed nations, have neglected to do.
Today, the answer seems both more modest and more challenging: if we want to reduce poverty, we have to stop doing the things that make people poor and keep them that way. Stop underpaying people for the jobs they do. Stop treating working people as potential criminals and let them have the right to organize for better wages and working conditions.
Stop the institutional harassment of those who turn to the government for help or find themselves destitute in the streets. Maybe, as so many Americans seem to believe today, we can’t afford the kinds of public programs that would genuinely alleviate poverty — though I would argue otherwise. But at least we should decide, as a bare minimum principle, to stop kicking people when they’re down.
—From Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2011 TomDispatch essay, which was adapted from the afterword of the 10th anniversary edition of her bestselling 2001 book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. When she worked on the book, Ehrenreich took jobs as a waitress, nursing-home aide, hotel housekeeper, Wal-Mart associate, and maid with a house-cleaning service. “I did not choose these jobs because they were low-paying. I chose them because these are the entry-level jobs most readily available to women,” she explained in an article last year for The Atlantic. Concern about income inequality has encouraged cities and states to raise the minimum wage, and the push has been gaining prominence in the presidential campaign.