Friday, August 29, 2008

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich (Metropolitan Books 2001)

Guilt, you may be thinking, warily. Isn't that what we're supposed to feel? But guilt doesn't go anywhere near far enough; the appropriate emotion is shame - shame at our own dependency, in this case, at the underpaid labor of others. When someone works for less pay than she can live on - when she, for example, goes hungry so you can eat more cheaply and conveniently - then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The "working poor", as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else. As Gail, one of my restaurant co-workers put it, "you give and you give and you give."

Someday of course - and I will venture no predictions as to when - they are bound to tire of giving so little in return, and demand to be paid what they're worth. There'll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption. But the sky will not fall, and we will all be better off for it in the end.

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