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
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.