What sort of country is it, where a single woman, working six days a week and ten hours a day, is unable to survive without government benefits? A country where millions of hard-working people live in motels or caravans because they are unable to rent an apartment, let alone buy it? A country where every fifth homeless person in big city works full or part time? A country where only in 1996 a federal law was introduced allowing employees to use the toilet at work?

That country is the United States.

Barbara Ehrenreich, a well-known American columnist, did the simplest thing under the sun. She decided to find out how the four million women who entered the labor market as a result of the social welfare reform (back under Bill Clinton) were able to get by making seven dollars an hour (i.e. slightly above the minimum wage at the time). The conclusions she reached would not be particularly revealing if her research regarded illegal immigrants. Overwork, psychological terror on the part of the employers, and above all exploitation – all this is nothing new for those who work illegally. But the protagonists of the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America are American citizens, working under conditions described by the author as: “We really should not praise ourselves for being a leading democratic country of the world if a huge number of our citizens spend half a day in the system which, to put it plainly, is a dictatorship.”

Ehrenreich worked for several months as a salesperson in a Wal-Mart supermarket in Minnesota, a cleaner in Maine, and a waitress in Florida. The greatest asset of her book is not the statistics she quotes (showing, for example, that almost 30% of the labor force in the US works for eight dollars an hour or less; data from 1998), but a meticulous description of how a graduate of good university, a middle-class woman for whom a $30 lunch in French restaurant was something obvious, became a “darling,” “Blondie,” and most often simply a “girl.”

Throughout the experiment the author feared that someone would recognize her and ask her why an educated person from her social class decided to serve meals in a Key West greasy spoon. Her fears were much exaggerated – without her host of credit cards, college diploma, and a pile of publications nominated for prestigious prizes she turned out to be just a middle-aged woman striving for the privilege of cleaning restrooms for a miserable salary. In almost every place where she tried to find work, and there were dozens of them, she was told to fill out idiotic questionnaires and was subjected to drug tests. The author claims that the only aim of these is to humiliate the future employee and show her where her place is: if you are applying for such a low-paid job, obviously you are a nobody. And since you are a nobody, it should not even occur to you that you are earning too little.

Employers are supported in all this by contemporary mass culture. “In a society constantly praising billionaires from the computer industry and athletes making hundreds of millions of dollars, the rate of seven dollars an hour is a sign of an innate inferiority,” writes the American author.

Ehrenreich’s bestselling book, translated into many languages, appeared in 2001. Since that time, despite the technological revolution, nothing has changed. The least-earning Americans are still making less than in 1973. The relatively wealthy ones receive for their work at best the same amount as their parents did in Nixon’s time. The richest are getting richer (and paying increasingly low taxes).

And Donald Trump has become President.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, a Polish bohemist, journalist and author. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Ota Pavel and Isaac Babel. He won the Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

These web pages use cookies to provide their services. You get more information about the cookies after clicking on the button “Detailed setting”. You can set the cookies which we will be able to use, or you can give us your consent to use all the cookies by clicking on the button “Allow all”. You can change the setting of cookies at any time in the footer of our web pages.
Cookies are small files saved in your terminal equipment, into which certain settings and data are saved, which you exchange with our pages by means of your browser. The contents of these files are shared between your browser and our servers or the servers of our partners. We need some of the cookies so that our web page could function properly, we need others for analytical and marketing purposes.