From the Bottom Up
Ehrenreich's more serious commentary -- of working as a waitress, a housecleaner, a hotel worker, and a Wal-Mart "associate" -- recounted that even with her middle-class advantages (higher education, a car, no children to support) she could not make enough to live on, even by holding down two jobs. She found full-time co-workers who had become uncounted "homeless" (they lived in their cars), and realized the meaninglessness of the "official poverty level" that is based only on food costs but ignores rent, medical care, and the true effects of inflation. Using the realistic statistics of the Economic Policy Institute, Ehrenreich estimates that some 29% of Americans live in poverty, unable to make a living wage of $14 an hour for a family of three.
Moreover, Ehrenreich's experience took place before 9/11 and the economic downturn, which has hit the working poor the hardest. The biggest lesson she learned, she said, is that "low-wage workers are our major philanthropists ... sustaining our middle-class lifestyles with underpaid and exhausting labor." In response to the common argument, "This is what 'the market' dictates," she asked: "What is the economy for, if not to allow people to live a decent life?"
She closed the evening with her sense of the ultimate consequences of such structural inequality: "You don't have a democracy when some people can buy their own politicians, and other people can't afford to buy groceries."