I am consistently dismayed and horrified by the attitudes I discover within myself while reading The Sun. Though compassionate, educated, and motivated by spiritual principles, I keep falling into the trap of considering myself mostly free of bias. Then the latest issue of The Sun arrives.
Reading Jamie Passaro’s interview with Barbara Ehrenreich [“Fingers to the Bone,” January 2003], I realized that I secretly suspected the minimum wage might be adequate, and that within my heart lurks the “straighten her out” and “give her back her self-respect” attitude about women on welfare. This, despite the fact that I was once forced to go on welfare myself, and that my daughter and her family have had to do the same in order to survive.
What is wrong with me? Though certainly not a member of the upper class, I am guilty of the self-satisfaction Ehrenreich describes. That’s why I need The Sun. It’s the best antidote I know of for ignorance, complacency, and intolerance.
I am a great admirer of Barbara Ehrenreich. Her dedication to speak and write on behalf of those who have been treated unfairly by our society has inspired and encouraged me. She is the greatest muckraker since Lincoln Jeffers.
Her book Nickel and Dimed was made into a thought-provoking play performed at the Mark Taper Theater in Los Angeles. The highlight of the production was when all the actors momentarily stepped out of their roles and confronted their affluent audience about the way they treat their own domestic help. It was a provocative and effective scene.
People often ask me: “Are you related to Barbara Ehrenreich?” My answer is always: “Oh, how I wish!”
Barbara Ehrenreich is right: welfare reform is really a plot to create a desperate underclass who will work for any wage, with no benefits, and feel lucky to have a job.
As a Californian in the seventies, when Reagan was governor, I watched his administration release the mentally ill from institutions, under the guise of granting them their “civil right” to live uncared for with a flimsy, shredded safety net. The homeless population is now overwhelmingly made up of the mentally ill. The real purpose of shoving these helpless people out into the open was to frighten workers into submission, lest they too end up on the streets.
The attacks on unions are also part of the plan to demoralize and disenfranchise labor. The recent corporate scandals highlight the elite’s true mission: to possess the wealth of America at any cost.
Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Faulkner wrote about the poor with dignity and respect. Barbara Ehrenreich writes about them with condescension. I get the distinct impression that she wouldn’t want to socialize with them in any significant way. She is merely parroting all the old extremist arguments. “I’m an old socialist,” she says. “Workers’ privacy is being invaded with random drug testing and monitoring e-mail.” As if an employer doesn’t have the right to expect a sober eight hours’ work for eight hours’ pay.
Ehrenreich says that menial jobs will always be necessary: “Why don’t we just pay people decently for doing them?” But isn’t supply and demand a better regulator than government-mandated wages? If domestics aren’t getting paid enough, then they should go into another field where there is more demand. Poor people often get on the bus and go to where there are jobs. They work two jobs, as many of us have had to do at some time. They work harder. They work smarter. They go to night school. They stop defining wealth or happiness in terms of their possessions.
In the interview by Jamie Passaro [“Fingers to the Bone,” January 2003], Barbara Ehrenreich notes that unions helped low-wage workers much more effectively in the past. “During the great wave of union organizing in the thirties, members of the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] saw themselves as part of a real crusade,” she says. “They weren’t just out to increase union dues, but to change the lives of American workers. That’s one big difference between then and now.”
An even bigger and more damaging difference is television. As harried as low-wage workers are today, they still watch many hours of television each week.
Television is destructive to the interests of low-wage workers entirely apart from its content, because it cuts deeply into their time for sleeping, reading, talking, and thinking. This accounts for a large part of workers’ disinterest in politics, which Ehrenreich observed while researching Nickel and Dimed.
In addition, television’s content — both advertising and programming — artificially creates and stimulates desires that lead people to spend what little discretionary income they have in counterproductive ways, thus further limiting their ability to take stock of their situation and engage in political or union activity.
Television adversely affects the middle class, too, but they (or should I say “we”) can better afford the loss.
I loved Jamie Passaro’s interview with Barbara Ehrenreich [“Fingers to the Bone,” January 2003], but I take issue with one thing Ehrenreich said, regarding the boycotting of chain stores and restaurants that don’t pay a living wage. If you boycott these chains, she said, “then where are you going to shop or eat?”
In spite of the big chain takeovers, there are still places to shop and eat where the workers are treated decently and paid enough. There are even places where the workers are the owners. These places would proliferate and grow if given half a chance.
My own small business, The Root and the Leaf, is struggling to survive in a downtown decimated by Wal-Mart, Kmart, Shopko, and various other chains. I’ve been in business for two and a half years and am still not quite able to pay myself a living wage. I’ve been forced to take outside jobs and sometimes have worked up to eighty hours a week. I am willing to do this because I love my store and believe that eventually I will not only be able to support myself, but also to hire others and pay them a decent wage. This would come about sooner if people boycotted the big chains and patronized small local businesses instead.
And I promise Ehrenreich that she wouldn’t feel guilty for shopping in my store.