View from Lodi, CA: A Labor Day Lament

[VDARE.COM comment: This Labor Day weekend, it's worth remembering – because you won't be reminded by the mainstream media – that the plight of America's working poor has been greatly exacerbated by mass immigration. A constant stream of low-wage immigrants, competing for their jobs, kept low-income workers from prospering during the boom. To quote Steve Sailer, writing about rising poverty in California: "What could possibly be causing the number of jobs in California to go up while wages go down? If I recall my Econ 101 correctly, the supply of less-skilled workers must be going up faster than the demand." And Steve was writing in 2000 – before the downturn.]

A good read for the long Labor Day weekend is Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America."

For anyone who thinks the minimum wage is at the right level or feels that welfare reform eliminated one of our most pressing societal ills, the book provides insights into what goes on in the real world of dead-end employment. Nickel and Dimed is a close-up look at the opposite pole of the economic spectrum than that occupied by the former high-flyers at Enron and World Com.

In 1996, after the passage President Bill Clinton's Public Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, Ehrenreich became inspired to write about the working poor. As a result of that historic legislation, 12 million women went from the dole into the labor market.

With a stake of $1,000, a car and her laptop (three things most new job seekers do not have), Ehrenreich set out to find out what it means to work in a WalMart, make beds at highway motels, sling hash in greasy spoons or change sheets at a nursing homes.

All of those jobs paid $6-$7 an hour, about half of what is considered a living wage. Each carried its own special indignity. In Florida, where Ehrenreich waited on tables, she was referred to as "girl." Before she secured her job as a nursing home assistant, Ehrenreich had to fill out an application form asking if she worked better when she is "a little bit high."

In Minnesota, working at Wal-Mart, Ehrenreich was under the constant surveillance of guards who monitored her for drug abuse, theft and sloth.

What Ehrenreich quickly discovered was, that despite having a car and a beginning cushion that covered her first month's expenses, she had to work two jobs, seven days a week to eke out an existence.

And what Ehrenreich also learned was that the laws of supply and demand are in effect but not as we normally think of them. Rent, food and utilities rise in direct proportion to market conditions but wages remain fixed.

Ehrenreich discovered fallacies that the middle class has about the working poor.

First, going into her project, Ehrenreich reasoned that she would find certain "hidden economies" known to low-income people that help them get by. Instead, she found that the working poor face a string of not so hidden costs that hold them back.

For example, since minimum wage earners can never scrape together a security deposit, they end up paying premiums for housing by renting weekly or monthly rooms. Since those rooms have no kitchen facilities, unhealthy, fast food meals are often eaten out.

The working poor have tight cash flows and rarely pay bills on time. They often must chose between paying late fees and penalties or taking out high interest rate loans.

Health care is non-existent among the minimum wage earners. [VDARE.COM comment: except for immigrants, who use emergency rooms.]

Second, Ehrenreich quickly found out that the "bracing psychological effects of getting out of the house" promised by welfare reform "wonks" didn't exist. The author, who said she was almost always on the verge of seeking refuge in a shelter, did not find the life style exhilarating.

In all, Ehrenreich tried three times in three different cities to make her income match her expenses. Even though she had no children or other dependents, she could not balance her personal books.

And although some safety nets such as food stamps are still available under certain circumstances, Ehrenreich did not have much success when she tried to tap into that well.

In an effort to get food vouchers, Ehrenreich once spent 70 minutes and $3 on toll phone charges to get a $7 grocery credit.

Reading Ehrenreich's book - written before the severe economic downturn - I kept reminding myself that these were the plights of working people. They get up early, get their kids off to school, report to work on time, take the guff - but end up broke.

Beginning in 1964 with Lyndon Johnson's Great Society War on Poverty, the nation has consistently fallen behind in meeting the needs of the working poor.

For many, time is running out. President Clinton's 1996 welfare legislation set a five-year life time limit on receiving benefits.

With the Bush administration focused on the War on Terrorism and corporate malpractice, the plight of the needy has dropped off the Congressional radar screen.

As a headline last year in a Connecticut paper read: "It's Very Scary, No Food for the Poor."

VDARE.COM's Labor and Immigration Archive

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.