Getting Ready

Barbara Ehrenreich inadvertently began this project over lunch with her editor. She was wondering how anyone coming off welfare could make ends meet on $6 to $7 an hour. Our author is a child of the 60’s and instead of saying, “ Let them eat cake,” she said someone should investigate the new “working poor.” That someone turned out to be Barbara Ehrenreich.
Ehrenreich comes from a background of people who worked their way up. Her father and grandfather worked in the coal mines. Her sister has held many minimum wage jobs. But what sets Barbara Ehrenreich apart from other wageworkers is her Ph.D., her excellent health, and her strong motivation. She has always honored her working class background by working hard at her writing.
It is essential to understand that Ehrenreich is a highly accomplished middle-aged woman, and she was not about to put herself through any unnecessary hardships for a wage earning experiment. She was not going to endure homelessness or allow herself to go hungry for any length of time. She sets three conditions for the project.
• She could not accept any job where her profession as a writer could give her an advantage.
• She had to accept the highest paying job she was offered of the several low wage jobs she was applying for.
• She had to accept the cheapest housing she could find.
She also had certain obedience rules like no sneaking off to the bathroom to read Jane Eyre or attacking management with a political manifesto.
There were many people who said she should simply stay at home and pay herself a minimum wage and charge herself a minimum rent, but her training as a biologist would not allow that. In biological fieldwork, even mundane measurements can reveal startling insights. Ehrenreich wanted to see if there might be some unseen benefits in the low wage economy or unseen pitfalls. What she found were people she cared about, and people who cared about what they did. The people she came in contact with were as much a mix of people as any group of professionals. Some were bright, some were funny, and some were neither.
Barbara did not plan to experience every aspect of being a low wage- worker. She was engaged in a modified experiment, and she freely admits this. She did not want to experience some of the extremes that some people go through working for a low hourly wage. She was not about to go hungry for any extended period, nor would she have allowed herself to be homeless. If she had to be homeless or hungry, her agreement with herself was she would end the experiment. Ehrenreich did not make any pretense about experiencing what it was really like to be low wageworker. All she intended to investigate was whether or not it was possible to keep a roof over her head and still have enough left over to eat. What she found was that, although it was possible to maintain food and shelter, the standard of living was very poor, and eventually, could affect a person’s health.