Lessons in Living
P.O.V.'s conclusions and mine.


For several weeks two summers ago, the New York Times op-ed page had a regular woman columnist who, unlike Maureen Dowd, actually took the trouble to think about  issues and marshal some arguments. Not that I agree with Barbara Ehrenreich any more than I agree with Dowd, but at least Ehrenreich is an elegant writer who respects her reader’s intelligence enough to realize that cute alliteration, tossed-in pop-culture references and a few phone calls to friends do not an op-ed make.

Much as I respect Erhrenreich’s reporting and writing, though, I continue to find her Hard-Left conclusions full of holes. And now, just in time for the tenth anniversary of welfare reform, these conclusions are in the media spotlight once again: Ehrenreich is part of the PBS P.O.V. series’ new public-awareness campaign about low-wage workers, in connection with the new P.O.V. documentary Waging a Living, which premieres Aug. 29.

The weaknesses in Ehreinreich’s basic argument against capitalism were more obvious in her latest book, Bait and Switch (about the travails of white-collar job-seekers) than in her previous one, Nickel and Dimed, which earned a lot of deserved praise for at least exploring personally the real difficulties of affording basic food, clothing and shelters on minimum wage pay.

Ehrenreich faked her George Plimpton foray into the laid-off middle-class in Bait and Switch; a journalist of her stature and connections actually looking for a comfortable full-time job in public relations would almost certainly find one without spending all (or even any) of her time in futile networking seminars. Ehrenreich never did, but that’s because she approached this project, as she did in Nickel and Dimed, incognito. So her conclusion that laid-off middle-class job seekers are therefore hopeless “white-collar victims” isn’t very convincing.

For the kind of educated, upper-middle-class people who read Barbara Ehrenreich, though, Nickel and Dimed was at least an eye-opening exploration of what life is really like for waitresses and Wal-Mart salesclerks and cleaning ladies: Ehrenreich actually worked at each of these jobs for a period, trying (unsuccessfully) to carve out some kind of decent life on the money she earned. Only the truest of free-market true believers — and I’m not one of them — could read about her experiences and remain convinced that, even in this land of opportunity, the haves don’t unfairly exploit the have-nots. Human nature being what it is, some kind of government protection is necessary to keep those lowest on the totem pole from being thoroughly exploited.

Ehrenreich never appears in Waging a Living, but her presence is felt not only in the film’s detailed and unblinking look at four distinct situations, but in its true believer Lefty conclusion that all low-paying jobs are inherently unfair and exploitative unless the government steps in and takes charge. Affecting and compelling as the film is, I also can’t buy its basic (if tacit) premise, so obviously influenced by the Ehrenreichs of this world, that every tragic aspect of the human condition is a policy issue that can and should be corrected through legislation.

Producer-director Roger Weisberg was understandably very careful to choose four of the most sympathetic examples imaginable of the working poor, the better to make his case that no, the problem isn’t just that they’re all lazy, hopeless cases. And so, in Waging a Living, we meet:

Mary, a 41-year-old former housewife whose comfortable life in suburban New Jersey fell apart after a bitter divorce from a husband who doesn’t pay child support. Now Mary works as a waitress, sometimes coming home with $30 and tips but owing the babysitter for her three kids $28.

Barbara, a smart and striving 36-year-old single mother of five in Freeport, N.Y. who’s doing her best to get off welfare. But although she gets a promotion and raise from $8.25 to $11 an hour, that costs her $600 in government aid, making her feel she’s “hustling backwards.”

Jerry, a 42-year-old San Francisco security guard who’s managed to overcome his drug and alcohol addiction and sends $200 in child support every month to two kids he hasn’t seen in years. But all he can afford on his $12-an-hour job in one of the most expensive cities in the world is a tiny $520 room in a single-room occupancy hotel.

Jean, a churchgoing 51-year-old New Jersey grandmother who struggles to support her grown daughter Bridget — who has thyroid cancer and no health insurance — plus  Bridget’s four children, all on her $11-an-hour nursing assistant’s salary.

Three of these four are white (only Barbara is black). All are likable characters clearly doing their best; none is the much-loathed welfare-queen stereotype. The problem, though, if you’re trying to make the point that welfare-reform boosters are hardhearted and wrong, is we see from these examples that maybe welfare reform does work sometimes.

Enterprising Barbara understandably breaks down in tears at the harsh news that her pay raise and two-year college degree will cost her $600 in government aid. So eventually she tells her supervisor she needs to quit in order to get her bachelor’s degree, which will mean working part-time at a different, worse-paying job for a time while she goes back to school. Sure, that’s hard. But is this ambition a bad thing?

Waitress Mary’s circumstances are vastly improved once she gets a nice boyfriend — a barber who owns his own business, apparently — and traditional feminists probably won’t appreciate the message that maybe a woman needs a man a little more than a fish needs a bicycle.

Jean the nurse’s aide and Jerry the security guard are by film’s end no better off, but I’m not sure what anyone can do about that. Jean’s unmarried daughter Bridget should not have had all those kids, obviously, and (although the film doesn’t dwell on this) her medical travails involve more than cancer; she also has Hepatitis C, which is typically passed on by heroin use.

At least Bridget is still alive — and, in fact, looking much better — a year after we first meet her, although the film informs us that her doctors said she probably wouldn’t be. Health care in this country is in crisis, obviously, but what we learn from Waging a Living is that evidently even uninsured cancer patients sometimes do get effective treatment in this country.

I kept wondering why Jerry didn’t just move out of that grim little hotel room into a spare room of a lonely older person who needs live-in, part-time help — a pretty common situation these days. I guess although you can lead a man to craigslist, you can’t make him use it. I couldn’t help noticing that just a little thinking outside the box would make many poor people’s lives a whole lot easier. But then, of course, that’s not a government solution to their problems.

 – Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.


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