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Maid to Order
An interview with Barbara Ehrenreich, October 2000
Barbara Ehrenreich is a leading activist, lecturer, and writer. Among her many books are Fear of Falling and The Snarling Citizen. Her latest books are Blood Rites and Nickel and Dimed.
You've been somewhat successful in penetrating the mainstream media. What's your secret?
I don't know if I'm that successful. I was a regular essayist at Time for about seven years. Then we sort of went our separate ways, largely, from my view, because they got to a point where they only wanted me to write about so-called “women's issues,” which I am happy and pleased to write about, but anything on any other subject, like class, was turned down. I began to be irritated. Obviously, if I had a special secret it hasn't worked out well.
In the last year you did a couple of essays for Harper's, one entitled “Maid to Order” and the other “Nickel and Dimed: Low-Wage Work in America.” In the course of three months in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota you took a variety of low-wage jobs.
It all started with a lunch conversation with Louis Lapham, the editor of Harper's. We got to talking about welfare reform. It was 1997, a year after welfare reform was enacted. We were both remarking on how these women who were booted off welfare were going to support their families on the kind of wages that are available to entry-level workers. It seemed like a pleasant enough conversation, abstractly. Nobody seems to pay attention to the arithmetic, that this can't really work. I said, It's time for some journalists to go out there and try it for themselves. I meant somebody 25 years old, not me. He said, You. There I was. I couldn't wriggle out of it. It was an assignment. I went out and tried to see if it is possible to support yourself on entry-level wages, which in my case averaged $7 an hour and sometimes less.
One of those jobs was waitressing.
I had waitressed when I was in college. I thought things might have improved a little. I was being paid in one place $2.15 an hour and in another $2.40 an hour. The rest is in tips. In Key West, Florida it was very slow. It wasn't the tourist season. I sometimes sunk below the minimum wage. Actually, it's a law that your employer is supposed to make up any difference and bring you up to the minimum wage if you're in a tipped occupation, but they don't tell you that. I only found that out later.
What was it like working for Wal-Mart? What did you do for them?
I was an associate. We're all called associates. You're not called an employee. That might too blatantly bring out the fact that it is an exchange of labor for money. I worked in ladies' wear, which I thought would be quite genteel. In fact, it was one of the hardest jobs in Wal-Mart because people are trying on clothes. Women come in and try on clothes by the shopping cartful. My job was to put them all away and generally keep everything neat and tidy, which sounds easy, but in fact it was constant running back and forth, trying to find where things go and keep up with the chaos.
Were you using public transportation to get to work?
I used a car. I didn't count that as part of my budget. I just let the assumption be I was somebody who had a car. I wanted to try it with public transportation, because so many low-wage workers are doing that, but I am a journalist, and I figured a piece about waiting for buses would not be too interesting to read.
You also cleaned houses and hotels.
The job I originally wanted when I started this whole thing was a hotel housekeeping job. I thought, I can do that. That's easy. I thought waitressing would be too physically exhausting. I kept being steered toward waitressing, and I'm sure this has to do with being white and English-speaking. I'm not so sure whether it was a great advantage at that time when tips were so low, but it would have been if tips were high.
I wonder what it would be like to be a woman of color going the other way, trying for waitressing. I don't know. What I found when I finally insisted on getting a housekeeping job in addition to my waitressing job was that the other women who did that were African American as well as women from all parts of the Caribbean. This is in Key West. To my surprise, there were also Polish and Czech women, very recent immigrants who don't speak English, but are white and blue-eyed. It's quite a mix pouring into that kind of work. Cleaning is really hard, heavy work, not as much running as waitressing, but you're constantly bending and lifting. That was pretty exhausting.
This kind of journalism is rather unusual. There are articles and books describing poverty, but no one seems to get any dirt under their fingernails, as you literally did.
There have been some legal barriers. A couple of years ago ABC sent reporters into Food Lion supermarkets who took jobs. They had hidden cameras and observed appalling meat handling procedures. In its suit against ABC, Food Lion won. It claimed that it was fraud to get a job by pretending to be something other than what you were. That had a chilling effect. Less than a year ago the Supreme Court reversed that somewhat. But the main barrier is the class polarization in our society. Classes are very widely divided. Journalists tend to be upper middle class. They're not like the working-class profession they once were. Because of this widening gap between the classes, it's very hard for people to imagine making that leap.
I've had people ask me, What was it like? Couldn't everybody tell you really didn't belong there? Of course not. There's not some huge difference in the kind of people or how articulate or bright they are. There's been that kind of fear. I hope more enterprising journalists will do this in all kinds of realms.
You as a single woman just said that occasionally you actually dropped below minimum wage. What about those women with children, who have to pay for day care and who don't have a car?
Pathetically enough, I never dropped below poverty-level wages. I say that's pathetic because it just shows how meaningless the poverty level is. At $7 an hour, that's $13,000 a year, that is the official poverty level for a family of three, an adult and two children. I was making that but I couldn't live on that. All I was spending money on was gas, food, and rent. The killer is rent. The poverty level calculation is still derived from the early 1960s. You basically take the amount of food that a family of a certain size needs, multiply the price of that by three and you come up with the budget the family needs. But food is not the deal-breaking item in the family budget any more, it's rent.
So our poverty level is meaningless. At $7 a hour I could not make ends meet, and I had all these advantages. I had a car. I'm in good health. I'm strong. I didn't have little children. I can't even imagine this with little children. That's beyond me. Not just the cost of child care, but when do you find the time to be a parent?
Isn't Key West an anomaly in terms of its concentration of wealth and high rents? Were women doubling up, tripling up?
Actually, Key West is not as anomalous as you might think. A lot of parts of this country have a tourist industry. Wherever you have a tourist industry you have people who have quite a bit of money, at least for their vacation or retirees competing for living space with the people who are going to be cleaning the areas they live in. First I thought something was out of whack and it must be Key West. When I got out of the situation and did some research I found that rents were not so out of whack. Higher than in many places. But what I found about my co-workers, one strategy you can have is you double up. You have a spouse, a boyfriend, a grown child. Most interesting to me, the idea that grown children could actually turn around and support you. You have some people pooling their money together. That's called a family, usually. That's one way.
A lot of people work more than one job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says only 6 percent of the workforce works more than one job. I sure met an awful lot of people doing that. There are ways that people just don't make it and things unravel for them. Some of my co-workers were homeless, but they didn't consider themselves homeless because they had a van or a truck they slept in. Homeless seemed to them a whole different level. Or people would live in motels together. But even with two people sharing a room, $40 to $60 a night is out of the question. When I first found out people were living in motels, I sort of scolded this sister waitress and said, Do the math, that's not going to work out. Dummy that I was. She said, Where am I ever going to get the money to have the first month's rent and a deposit to actually move into an apartment? That hurdle keeps so many people homeless or in desperately ever-changing living situations. Then the laugh was on me a few months ago when I was in Minneapolis. I could not find an apartment. At any price. I ended up living in a residential motel for part of that time at $250 a week. There you are making $7 an hour and paying $250 a week. This is crazy. I thought, I have totally screwed up this whole experiment in low-wage living and yet, everybody else in the motel was another working person, usually, though, with four or five people in one little room instead of just one.
What were gender relations like, dealing with the men doing low-wage work?
Not too different from gender relations anywhere. I was pleased to see that everywhere I worked the message about the sexual harassment law has gotten through. That is taught, usually. Wal-Mart spent some time on that in their orientation. Of course they also spend time in their orientation on a union-busting video. In a number of places I was told, Watch out for so-and-so. If he comes on to you or starts calling you Sweetie, tell me. I felt good about that. That may be the only advance in workplace rights we've had in decades.
Wal-Mart has an economy larger than 161 countries. Charlie Kernaghan, the director of the National Labor Committee in New York, has identified Wal-Mart as using sweatshop labor. Did sweatshop labor come up in the video at all?
Are you kidding? Wal-Mart is a little bit of a cult. In fact, the video, weirdly enough, emphasizes Sam Walton, and Walton, although dead, is very much alive. In many training videos Sam Walton comes out and pumps you up about something like the perpetual inventory system. He's shown saying that he tries to buy American. I said, What? Because nothing in the ladieswear department was made in this country. All of Wal-Mart's clothes and most of the clothes that I buy, unfortunately, are made in pretty dreadful conditions somewhere in the Third World.
Corporations like Nike, for example, in response to criticism of sweatshop labor say, We are providing work where no work exists. We're putting money into the pockets of poor Third World people. How would you respond to that?
Why not create better jobs for them? If these corporate guys want to represent themselves as philanthropists bringing jobs and income to people in the Third World, why not do better at it? That's in a way a flippant response. The more serious response is, alternatives have been taken away. Imperialism of the classic 19th and right through the 20th century kind destroyed traditional ways of living. So naturally there has to be another way of making a living.
But I hate that kind of argument that, At least they've got something to do. You can make that argument about the worst things in the world, prostitution. Better than starving. Why are our standards so low that the baseline is starvation? Why isn't our baseline a decent life with some degree of security?
A recent article in In These Times entitled “America's Disappeared” looks at what really happened to those who left welfare. Valora Washington of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, is quoted as saying, “Welfare as we know it is dead and gone, but poverty is very much alive.”
I would like to credit Frances Fox Piven, the political scientist and activist, whom I'm working with very closely. We want to write a fairly detailed article about what's happened with welfare reform. Part of the story is that there has been almost a conspiracy, and I use that word hesitantly, because I don't like to use that word, but it almost looks that way, to cover up the negative effects of welfare reform and to totally bright-side it. An example of that would be the Democratic Convention. Both Bill Clinton and Al Gore boasted about welfare reform as one of the great achievements of their administration. Then on August 31, I was in Washington, DC and heard Donna Shalala, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, on a panel. She was asked about welfare reform. She said, We don't know the results. The jury is still out on that. If she doesn't know, they can't know, because she heads up the department that includes Temporary Aid to Needy Families, (TANF). So they're lying. There are very disturbing signs, increased use of food pantries, homeless shelters, a rise in infant mortality in cities like Milwaukee, all of which seem to be associated with welfare reform.
In that same article, Bob Erlenbusch, director of the Los Angeles Coalition To End Hunger and Homelessness, said that “Within six to nine months of welfare reform, there was this explosion of women and children out on the streets,” noting that women and children have risen from about one-third of the national homeless population to 40 percent since welfare reform went into effect.
It's kind of pathetic that anybody has to do this. It only reflects the fact that the legislation never included any provision to monitor the effects of welfare reform. Senator Paul Wellstone has six times introduced into the Senate legislation to start monitoring the impact of welfare reform and six times it's been defeated.
You've written, “The Democratic Party is no longer much interested in using government as a tool to achieve social justice, but it's more eager than ever to use government as an instrument of force.”
We have some very basic questions to raise about what we expect of government. One of the reasons people aren't interested in electoral politics and tend not to vote is not just that the process is totally corrupt and trivial, but beyond that, we're not that interested in the product of the process. We're not too sure what we want of government. We don't have a government, as some European countries do, that makes some guarantees to us in terms of health care or security in old age. Social Security is not enough to live on any more. Certainly not that bottom-line safety net that welfare once represented. As the helping functions of government have declined since Reagan and right through Clinton, the coercive functions have increased. The war on drugs certainly takes a lot of the blame for this. That's behind the incarceration industry. We have seen in about 20 years a redefinition of what government means in our lives. It's not the cops who helps you across the street, that police person of myth. It's more likely cops who stop you because they've decided to search you for drugs. The Democratic convention in August was a show of police force beyond anything I had ever seen—8,000 cops.
This gradual diminution of the welfare state and increasing of police function is something that is occurring in other countries, too. It certainly started with the right wing in this country. The problem is it becomes a vicious cycle. People can't see that government is doing much positive for them, so they tend to withdraw from the political process. Voting tends to be concentrated among the more affluent, who aren't using public services already. They're sending their kids to private schools. They're not using the public park. They certainly don't care about public transportation. They will be more interested in police protection against what they see as an unruly underclass or working class.
Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon in the Nation write that “The women's liberation movement, as it was called in the sixties and seventies, was the largest social movement in the history of the United States.... Its impact has been felt in every home, school and workplace, in every form of art, entertainment and sport, in all aspects of personal and public life in the United States...it permanently altered the landscape.” What's the state of the movement today?
I worry that the large feminist organizations have become almost a little too respectable. It's great that feminism is respectable. It was not to begin with, it should be recalled. It was considered quirky, bizarre, and marginal. I was in Los Angeles for the Democratic convention. There were protests in the street. But there was very little feminist presence in those protests. I asked myself, Where are the feminists? I realized they were inside the Staples Center with the Democrats. That's where you would find the people from NOW. It's great to be an insider, but you don't want to get so comfortable on the inside that you can't challenge the power.
What are the issues that feminists should be focusing on right now?
For me, number one is undoing welfare reform or ending welfare reform as we know it. The legislation comes up for review in 2002. This is a women's issue, a labor issue, but for me it's a paramount feminist issue. What kind of feminists are we if we are standing by and letting the poorest of our sisters sink into hunger and homelessness? I put right under that the effort to extend reproductive rights to everyone. It's not enough just having abortion legal and RU-486 legal if they're not available.
It took the FDA a long time to approve the RU-486 pill that's widely used in Europe. Dorothy Guellec in a ZNet commentary writes that RU-486 will probably cost $700. Most HMOs won't cover it.
I was shocked to hear that they're going to be charging the same amount for it as they charge for a regular medical abortion. That does not expand accessibility very much.
What's the state of patriarchy today? Is it alive and well?
I don't call the system of male power that we have in much of the modern world patriarchy, because patriarchy meant something rather definite. It was the rather individual, personalized control of men over women within the family. A lot of forces, including capitalism and market economies, have done a great deal to disrupt that kind of personalized power of individual men over individual women.
This is not true, of course, in the countries where fundamentalist forms of religion have brought that back with a vengeance, like some of the Islamic parts of the world, or even parts of Colorado. The kind of male power that women run into, if it's individual, is not so structured. It's more likely to be the violence of a partner, as a man who doesn't really feel he has any true patriarchal authority that comes to him by tradition or law or custom. He can just use his fists to get his way. Or the other replacement is the corporation. The more impersonal power of the corporation over women and men alike.
Susan Douglas, who teaches at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, says “family values” is code for patriarchy.
There's no question about it. One of the themes of the religious right is, Let's bring back patriarchy, that highly personalized power of the father in the family and the husband over the wife. I've seen material from the Christian right that illustrates that with diagrams. There's God, the husband, then the wife and children. The hard part, what got them stumbling on that even in the 1980s, was that more women are in the workforce. It's harder for a woman to be in a completely subordinate position vis-à-vis her husband if she's also a wage earner, if she has another life she goes out to.
There is a surge of student activism. What accounts for it?
More people are interested in the issues. More people have participated. It's amazing how many have gotten around to one or another of the protests recently, anti-globalization or at the Democratic or Republican conventions. There's a lot of criticism within that movement that maybe we're doing too much with demonstrations. It shouldn't be this road show, but I think there's a good side, too. It's been fun to travel, to meet people, to go to these events, which can be quite festive as well as confrontational. That's one part of it. Then the fact that the things like the sweatshop issue bring the issue right to the university. You can't ignore that.
A number of independent media centers have been set up all over the U.S. imparting skills and serving as distribution points. What kind of issues would you suggest to reach average working-class people?
I have never met many people who would turn up their nose at a comprehensive national health insurance system. But we sort of lose hope. We've seen government retreat so much from providing those kinds of things that you really can't provide very well on your individual wage. We've got to have a new sense that there are ways of doing it. We've got to take it back and say, Government is an instrument. We can use it for good or evil, to make war or to help the hungry and the needy. We've lost that sense that this is a tool in our hands, something we collectively own and have to collectively take control of again. Z
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