Early in the summer I spent several weeks helping a daughter with a new baby. While I was there, she brought home a book about the working poor entitled Nichol and Dime - On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, a reporter with a PhD. In order to do research for an article, Ehrenreich took low-wage work in different parts of our nation to discover for herself the world of the working poor. She worked at six different low-income jobs: waitress (twice), hotel maid, cleaning lady, Wal-Mart clerk, and nursing home aide.
Ehrenreich discovered the following about low-income jobs: 1) No job is "unskilled" - every job needed concentration and most demanded the mastery of "new terms, new tools, and new skills." 2) "Each job presents a self-contained social world, with its own personality, hierarchy, customs, and standards." 3) All jobs were physically demanding. 4) There were few or no rewards for going beyond average work. 5) Each job required job readiness skills, such as punctuality, cleanliness, cheerfulness, and obedience. 6) Work seemed to always be pitted against life in general, such as having food to eat and a place to stay. 7) She had to work two jobs and/or seven days per week to make a bare living.
The author learned that the biggest problem for low-income earners comes from low wages and high rents. It is very difficult for the working poor to find a clean, safe place to sleep. Those who are fortunate to own a vehicle often end up sleeping in it. Another problem for poorer workers is that they have less mobility to move to a better paying job. Employers "do little to encourage economic literacy of their employees," and money taboos keep employees from talking about wages among themselves. The author found that low-wage work places often require employees to surrender basic civil rights and self-respect through purse searches, drug tests, talking with fellow employees, etc.
Ehrenreich wrote, "Humans … can pump up our self-image with thoughts of our families, our religion, our hopes for the future …. We depend for our self-image on the humans immediately around us - to the point of altering our perceptions of the world so as to fit in with theirs. My guess is that the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers - the drug test, the constant surveillance, being `reamed out' by management - are part of what keeps wages low. If you're made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you're paid is what you are actually worth" (p 211).
I found this book to be very interesting and kept thinking about it months after I read it. I kept trying to think of a way to help the working poor without involving the federal government or using force to get people to change their behavior. I was still thinking about the working poor a couple of months later when I read an article by David Baldacci entitled "Changing Lives through Books" (Parade, July 11, 2010, p 17). He wrote, "More than 30 million American adults can't read a prescription label or a short grocery list, much less a book, according to a large-scale federal survey. Another 63 million can't use a TV guide to find a specific program or compare ticket prices for two events. "The consequences of such high illiteracy rates are far-reaching, affecting virtually every social problem we have as a nation. More than half of prison inmates have difficulty reading. Only 35% of the least-literate American adults are fully employed. And high illiteracy seriously affects American global competitiveness."
Baldacci wrote that federal grants for millions of dollars, national literacy organizations and local organizations running on shoe-string budgets cannot solve the large and entrenched illiteracy problem in our nation. He and his wife have started several programs to fund literacy programs in thirty states and he shared some of the success stories. "In Pittsburgh, I met a 30-year-old man who tearfully related how he'd finally learned to read so he could support his family. In Connecticut, a woman shared her story of finally learning how to read at 50 just so she could be able to read to her grandchildren."
Baldacci wrote, "People who learn to read learn that they can succeed." He suggested the following ways we can participate in the fight against illiteracy - and perhaps help the working poor while we do it. 1) Go to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy's website at nces.ed.gov/naal to become aware of the literacy rates in your state and country. 2) Write a letter to your congressional representatives asking for increased funding. (His idea, not mine!) 3) Learn how to become a tutor or other volunteer in your local library or literacy organization.
To Baldacci's suggestions, I would add the following: 1) Teach your own children to love to read. Most of my children picked up on reading quickly, but my youngest lingered longer than I preferred with picture books. I kept telling her that words could paint better pictures than artists could and finally convinced her to do some reading with me. We chose a historical novel series of eight or nine books. She was hooked on reading before we got very far into the first book, but we continued to the end of the series. It wasn't long before teachers were telling me that they wished more of their students were good readers like her. 2) Take an interest in your grandchildren. Encourage them to read and compliment them often for their reading progress. Be aware of how they are doing in school. If they are struggling, spend some time helping them to read better. 3) Be aware of other children around you. One of my friends learned that her son's friend could not read very well. She invited - probably insisted - that he come to her house twice each week for reading lessons. The time and effort of my friend changed the boy's life. 4) Encourage non-English speakers to learn English. Being fluent in a native language does not help much if a person doesn't know the language used in a given country. I don't have ideas of how to solve every problem encountered by the working poor, but I do know that a simple thing like knowing how to read can decrease the number of people included in the group.
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