A Forest Park friend of mine says she has a bottomless supply of column topics. This week she suggested corporate greed.
Funny she should say that, because I just finished reading “Nickel and Dimed,” which catalogues how corporations virtually enslave the working poor. Author Barbara Ehrenreich researched the book by taking low-end jobs in various regions of the United States.
She waited tables in south Florida, cleaned houses in Maine and folded clothes at a Wal-Mart in Minnesota. She lived in trailers, tiny apartments and squalid motels, subsisting on sparse home cooked meals and greasy fast food.
During her journey, she learned that her co-workers can’t get by on minimum wages. Many of them live in vehicles, crash on couches, or pay exorbitant rates at “extended stay” motels.
Despite the backbreaking, mind-numbing work they perform, most of them are dedicated and loyal, and care more about doing their job well than do their employers. In return, they are ignored by upper segments of society, dehumanized by their bosses and struggle daily to find transportation, daycare and housing. Food is scarce and health care isn’t even on the agenda.
Many of them are members of the “welfare-to-work” movement so popular with politicians. They’re getting off the public dole and falling right through the ever-widening cracks in our economy.
As much as I admired the author’s voluntary immersion into poverty, I found “Nickel and Dimed” to be about the most depressing book I’ve ever read. It didn’t really offer any solutions for the working poor.
One aspect of the book really struck me, when the author talked about her co-workers fantasizing about food. When I was taking the census worker test, the woman next to me talked all day about the frozen dinner she had at home. She never tired of describing this rice bowl concoction with teriyaki chicken. Now, I understand why it was such a big deal for her.
The American landscape is increasingly cluttered with chain stores, chain restaurants and chain motels where the working poor struggle to not make it. I suppose we can do our part by trying not to patronize these places and by recognizing the humanity of the workers when we do.
And, if we’re employers ourselves, we can pay our workers a decent wage and treat them with dignity. Myself, I run a small detective agency and have hired many people over the years. There’s no demeaning application process. There’s no dress code, or even a written list of rules to follow. The only test is whether the applicant can find the office. All we ask for is regular attendance, productivity and mutual respect. Surely there are small businesses in Forest Park with similar practices.
Hopefully, there are few businesses here that could have been featured in Ehrenreich’s book, as well.