|Mike Lukovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution|
This cartoon really impacted me because I saw it just after finishing Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America.
This book was inspired by the welfare-to-work reform of the 1990s; it attempts to answer the question: can a person live on minimum wage? Ms. Ehrenreich courageously endeavored to find out by actually living the life of a low-wage worker (she was in her 50s which makes her willingness to undergo the humiliations and physical strain even more admirable). She spent a month in three different cities, working as a chain restaurant waitress, maid, and Wal-Mart associate. She lived in housing and ate the food that was affordable at her wages. She lived in horrible places—a tiny trailer, a squalid motel, and ate fast food because of a lack of kitchen facilities. Working one job full-time, she could barely afford to cover her most basic expenses, and she had a lot of advantages: no children, and because this was a short-term experiment, she didn’t have to worry about medical expenses or things like clothing (other than what she had to purchase for the job).
This experiment was done in 1999 and 2000, before the bursting of the dot-com bubble, when the country was experiencing prosperity and jobs were easy to get. This was also before corporations learned that they could save money by not hiring people as full-time workers. Ms. Ehrenreich tried to work two jobs so she could afford a better apartment; she just didn’t have the stamina required to pull off cleaning hotel rooms in the morning and waiting tables in the evening.
She also discusses the psychological effect of low-income work, that it encourages submissiveness and lack of initiative. At the same time, she makes clear that these are hard-working people, doing their best with the pitiful resources at their disposal.
In the aftermath of the Great Recession, things are much worse, which after reading her account, is hard to imagine. Certainly, jobs are much harder to get. Ms. Ehrenreich was able to get a job almost instantly in 1999; today she might have spent her entire 30-day allotment just finding a job (if she was lucky).
Working-class people suffer from major disadvantages when it comes to food. Most of the places Ms. Ehrenreich could afford to rent had no kitchen facilities, so she had little choice but to eat fast food. Lower-income neighborhoods often are “food deserts,” which means there are no major grocery stores, just convenience stores and small markets with poor quality produce. In addition, these stores’ prices are higher than in the large chains that wealthier people can shop in.
National Geographic magazine is doing an eight-month series on “The Future of Food,” exploring how we’ll feed nine billion people in 2050 without overwhelming the planet. In the August issue the focus is on hunger in America. This article documents that:
The diets of low-income Americans have worsened in the past decade, even as the diets of the wealthiest Americans have improved, according to a new study that is among the first to measure changes in diet quality over time by socioeconomic status…[A] survey from the food bank umbrella group Feeding America found that nearly 80 percent of its clients bought the cheapest food available even though they knew it wasn't healthy.
Accompanying one of the articles was a graphic that stopped me in my tracks. “What’s For Dinner” compared what $10 would buy at McDonald’s with what it would buy at a grocery store (see below).
I did a quick calculation. Let’s say my husband and I ate two meals a day at fast food restaurants, and we each spent $10 on dinner and $7 on lunch. That’s $34 a day, or $238 a week, and that doesn’t include morning coffee or any snacks. I spend less than this on our groceries, and I buy organic produce, organic dairy products, and better-quality meats! My grocery bill also includes gourmet coffee, cat food, toilet paper, vitamins, whatever I buy at the various grocery stores where I shop, so the actual cost of the food we eat comes to much less than that $34 a day. And this includes almost all of our food consumption because we almost never eat out—mostly because I think it’s a waste of money, and I like to cook.
As I was working on this post I got an email from the New Yorker with links to some of the stories in their latest magazine. “Dignity” is about the fight to unionize fast food workers. The article focuses on a McDonald’s in New York City, where
Most of the workers here make minimum wage, which is eight dollars an hour in New York City, and receive no benefits. Rosa Rivera, a grandmother of four who has worked at McDonald’s for fourteen years, makes eight dollars and fifty cents. Exacerbating the problem of low pay in an expensive city, nearly everyone is effectively part time, getting fewer than forty hours of work a week. And none of the employees seem to know, from week to week, when, exactly, they will work.
Ms. Ehrenreich mentioned this uncertainty about your work schedule as another burden on the low-wage worker, because it creates great difficulty in taking a second job.
The New Yorker article continues with some dismal statistics:
In 1968, the minimum wage, in current dollars, was $10.95. (Today, it’s $7.25)
But in Denmark McDonald’s workers over the age of eighteen earn more than twenty dollars an hour—they are also unionized—and the price of a Big Mac is only thirty-five cents more than it is in the United States.
Mother Jones has an online fast-food wage calculator (scroll to bottom of story) where you enter the number of people in your household, where you live, and your annual income. When you click “submit” you get back the number of hours you’d have to work to earn that sum. A household like mine (2 adults no children) needs to earn $29,821 annually to make a secure yet modest living. A fast-food worker working full time would have to earn $14.29 an hour to make that much. Or, to make that much at the federal minimum wage, I’d have to work 63 hours a week.
One of the arguments that conservatives make to justify not raising the minimum wage is that those kinds of jobs are meant for teen-agers. But as both Ms. Ehrenreich’s book and the New Yorker article make clear, there are plenty of adults, with children, trying to survive on these jobs because there’s not much else out there in this outsourced, downsized economy. Clearly there is something wrong with an economic system that is failing so many of its workers so miserably.
What’s For Dinner: At McDonald’s you would get a Big Mac, large French fries, fruit and yogurt parfait, three cookies, and a large soft drink. That same ten dollars in Washington DC would buy you a half gallon of milk, half pound of green beans, one loaf of wheat bread, bell pepper, two bananas, two chicken drumsticks, and “crown” broccoli.