Homelessness is the state of not possessing the right to use a single place for shelter persistently.
Joblessness is the state of not possessing the privilege to be paid for work persistently.
Homelessness and joblessness are both very prominent problems here in America, and have been for quite some time. However, they are not always causally linked, nor does remedying one necessarily remedy the other.
In the book Nickel & Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich explores the state of America’s lower-class (the various poverty strata) that struggle to live even modestly while working one or more jobs. At the time this book was written (1998-2000), America’s job market was booming; in fact, that time period was at the tail end of a decline in unemployment that led to the lowest unemployment rates we’ve seen in the past 20 years. [As a side note, unemployment has been steadily eking upwards since World War II ended, along a boom-bust pattern]
It seems completely counter-intuitive: we are told time and time again this Protestant mantra that hard work is the path to prosperity; that the poverty-stricken and homeless are the way they are because of sloth or carelessness and bad choices; that having a job will logically lead to having a home and ultimately a life.
But the reality is far less simplistic.
Ehrenreich’s approach to research, calling on her background in the natural sciences, is to, as she says, sit at the bench and do the work. This particular approach has been tried by others, such as Morgan Spurlock on his show 30 Days, and while I wouldn’t say it’s absolutely accurate, it definitely provides more insight than simply crunching numbers. She confesses, in the beginning, that while she will work hard and fully intends to make her research as realistic as possible by abandoning the opportunities and resources granted to her by her privileged social stratum, she will not do so to the point that it threatens her health or safety. Personally, I felt this was a reasonable compromise.
Throughout the course of the book she works under a pseudonym as a food server in Florida, in a nursing home and as a cleaning maid in Maine, and in retail at Wal-Mart in Minnesota. She works roughly a month in each job before leaving; although I can never tell if her job-changes are arbitrary based on time or because she just can’t take the work anymore.
Her writing style is very candid, informal, and I would even venture to say that she certainly doesn’t pull her punches, referring to one of her bosses as a “pimp” at one point. She does anonymize the people in the book, to protect their identities, however.
I felt this book was worth reading: it’s relatively short (~230 pages) but provides some terrific insight which is backed by textual research (“Real Research™”). Despite the book being 10 years, things haven’t changed all that much, which is quite unfortunate.
More in-depth discussion after the jump. (Due to this particular review being so massive, I’ve broken it up into two parts, with part 2 posting tomorrow)