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Besides, I am not doing this for the anthropology. My aim is nothing so mistily subjective as to"experience poverty" or find out how it "really feels" to be a long-term low-wage worker. I've had enoughunchosen encounters with poverty and the world of low-wage work to know it's not a place you want tovisit for touristic purposes; it just smells too much like fear. And with all my real-life assets - bankaccount, IRA, health insurance, multiroom home - waiting indulgently in the background, I am, of course,thoroughly insulated from the terrors that afflict the genuinely poor.Nickel and Dimed - Barbara Ehrenreich1 of 188/22/09 3:02 PM
No, this is a purely objective, scientific sort of mission. The humanitarian rationale for welfare reform - asopposed to the more punitive and stingy impulses that may actually have motivated it - is that work willlift poor women out of poverty while simultaneously inflating their self-esteem and hence their futurevalue in the labor market. Thus, whatever the hassles involved in finding child care, transportation, etc.,the transition from welfare to work will end happily, in greater prosperity for all. Now there are manyproblems with this comforting prediction, such as the fact that the economy will inevitably undergo adownturn, eliminating many jobs. Even without a downturn, the influx of a million former welfarerecipients into the low-wage labor market could depress wages by as much as 11.9 percent, according tothe Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington, D.C.But is it really possible to make a living on the kinds of jobs currently available to unskilled people?Mathematically, the answer is no, as can be shown by taking $6 to $7 an hour, perhaps subtracting a dollaror two an hour for child care, multiplying by 160 hours a month, and comparing the result to theprevailing rents. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, for example, in 1998 it took, onaverage nationwide, an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one-bedroom apartment, and the PreambleCenter for Public Policy estimates that the odds against a typical welfare recipient's landing a job at such a"living wage" are about 97 to 1. If these numbers are right, low-wage work is not a solution to povertyand possibly not even to homelessness.It may seem excessive to put this proposition to an experimental test. As certain family members keepunhelpfully reminding me, the viability of low-wage work could be tested, after a fashion, without everleaving my study. I could just pay myself $7 an hour for eight hours a day, charge myself for room andboard, and total up the numbers after a month. Why leave the people and work that I love? But I am anexperimental scientist by training. In that business, you don't just sit at a desk and theorize; you plungeinto the everyday chaos of nature, where surprises lurk in the most mundane measurements. Maybe, whenI got into it, I would discover some hidden economies in the world of the low-wage worker. After all, if