I would like to recommend an eye-opening book that is important for anyone to read, but is an especially important read for those who are concerned about changing the world for the better. The book is called Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.
I am not announcing this as the latest “must read.” In fact it has been around for a while, but it just came to my attention. Here is the backstory.
Barbara is a writer. The genesis of this book took place over lunch with her editor at Harper’s. Their conversation “drifted” to the question, “How does anyone live on wages available to the unskilled?” In particular, they discussed the difficulties of the roughly four million women who were forced back into the labor market by welfare reform. Whatever your political stand on welfare (and that stand is NOT the point of this blog), this mass migration from public support to $6-7.00 an hour wages, had immediate, practical consequences.
The discussion progressed to the point where Barbara was asked, or told rather, to write about the experience by living it. She was take on the role of a single woman with no support system, in cities she did not know, and live on whatever wage she could secure. The experiment took her to waitressing at a restaurant, cleaning hotel rooms, home cleaning for a national service chain and a shelf-stocker for a major retail chain.
These stories are interesting on the surface, and had I read this book 10 years ago, I would have enjoyed it on merits and likely dismissed it. However, reading it now, with a decade of experience in the public sector, I realize how our misunderstandings of one another continue to sabotage our efforts to improve the lives of others. We still, all too often, do not know how to help because we do not understand the lives and circumstances of those we would choose to help.
For instance, we view poverty as a choice that was somehow made by each and every person who lives it. While I am well aware of the qualifiers on this subject, and that issues of self-motivation and work ethic often come into play, this book will open your eyes as to how nearly impossible it is for a person living on minimum wage, with no other support, to get out of the cycle.
The author was, and is, a hard-working, intelligent woman who, stripped of her credentials and background, learned how exhausting and hopeless the plight of millions of the “working poor” really is. Her journey brought to light everything from transportation issues to housing, health care, minimum wage and drug testing; not from a public policy standpoint, but rather from a victimization standpoint – a standpoint of what it is like to live in a cycle of working to simply exist.
It is worth a read and it will have an impact on how you view those around you, and perhaps on the manner in which you choose to help others in the future. It will certainly change your view next time you are in a coffee shop, checking out of a hotel room and passing the maid in the hall, or shopping at the world’s largest retailer.