On (Not) Getting By in America is the title of a book written by prominent political activist, democratic socialist, pop sociologist, and well-known feminist Barbara Ehrenreich who among her many titles also holds a PhD in cellular biology, about the lives led by the poor working classes in America.
Written under the guise of an undercover journalist, Ehrenreich’s investigative journalism piece delves into the effects of the 1996 welfare reform Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which was enacted on August 22, 1996 which supposedly considers the economical status of the poor by providing federal cash handouts or assistance as welfare, although its reform, kept single parent families off of welfare, making it harder for single mothers to go by. In her expose, Ehrenreich disputes the traditionalist ideals that imply that poverty can be overcome so long as one has a job – any job.
As many traditionalists seem to think that the only reason people are poor is because they don’t have jobs – and that they don’t have jobs because they are “too lazy to work” is challenged fervently as Ehrenreich herself goes through the tasks underwent by low-wage workers to personally know what it is to work as a single mother with a low-wage job without having to rely on welfare assistance. During the course of Ehrenreich’s investigation, she travels to different cities, working different jobs, and trying to live off the low wages.
As such she had to adjust her housing and lifestyle budget, trying to make ends meet to see if it really is possible to get by by just her low-paying job without financial support from the government. Ehrenreich systematically approaches the project, deigning it an experiment of sorts with pre-set conditions such as; not making use of any skills she may have acquired from her educational background or current work, doing her best to take and keep the highest paying job she is offered, and making the cheapest accommodations she can afford without having to sacrifice security and privacy.
Eventually Ehrenreich breaks all her pre-set conditions and allows herself a few advantages such as having her car, not allowing herself to be homeless, and not letting herself go hungry as caused by the conditions of her experiment. Ehrenreich admittedly states that because of these limitations she set, the experience of absolute poverty will not be felt by her, rather she only seeks to experience the possibility of having to match her expenses to the money she makes in a low-wage job as many poverty-stricken individuals do in their day to day lives.
Ehrenreich caps off her analysis and experiment by evaluating her overall performance and commenting on the status of low-wage workers, pointing out the difficulty of making a living out of the work they do let alone raising a child on their own in the case of single mothers. She grades herself with a B, as she thinks she did well on her experiment. Despite this, she maintains that the poverty-strickenhas little chance of competing against the wealthy and well-off in terms of housing as housing prices have drastically increased over the years while wages remained low regardless of demand.
Also according to Ehrenreich, the government has difficulty in determining who should be categorized as poor and deserving of welfare as she argues of the misapplication of economic laws on low-wage workers. Low-wage workers, according to Ehrenreich, are often lacking in information and resources, as well as geographically restricted and burdened with anxiety regarding having to adapt and adjust to new job environments.
Ehrenreich adds that low-wage jobs do not necessarily entail “unskilled” work, as she herself had experienced that most of these “low-wage” jobs were not only degrading and uninteresting, but that they also strenuous, exhausting, and generally demanding of the human body. Most of the jobs she experienced during her experiment required the need for quick learning, fast reflexes, clear focus, a good memory, not to mention much physical prowess and stamina as most low-wage jobs often entail the need for manual labor.
Overall, Ehrenreich shares vital information that is integral in this field of study as it helps understand the development of society in accordance to matters of poverty and sustenance. The labor sector is obviously in need of changes to accommodate the demand for decent-paying jobs that are not demeaning and should provide a stable income that would allow for individuals to lead lives in favorable conditions.
The understanding of the position that low-wage workers are in is crucial in the understanding of society as a whole as not only do they make up of major component of the general population, but also as most of them who work these “low-wage” jobs are responsible for holding up key components of the societal structure. These jobs they perform, though they may seem menial and belittling from the perspective of those who are better off, keep majority of what we take for granted functioning.
Particularizing the issues of women in the matter of single parents being taken out of welfare, as it is more often women who end up with custody of a child, the matter of single mothers being taken out of welfare is also a key component in Ehrenreich’s social commentary, as she comments that the taking out of single mothers from welfare support would only result in further stigmatizing unemployment, which in the first place is not entirely the fault of the individual, as many factors play parts in an individual’s unemployment.
This social stigma created by the welfare reform would lead to passiveness and docility in employees, which many employers are quick to exploit. Add to that the further demonizing of single parents, especially its effects on women as past misogynistic cultures have embedded in traditionalists and purists, and the fate of single, unemployed women truly remains a difficult enough ordeal even without having to think of welfare being cut off.
Courtney from Study Moose
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