Excerpt: "Nickel and Dimed: On Turning Poverty into an American Crime" (2011)

Barbara Ehrenreich
August 11, 2011

I completed the manuscript for Nickel and Dimed
in a time of seemingly boundless prosperity. Technology innovators and
venture capitalists were acquiring sudden fortunes, buying up
McMansions like the ones I had cleaned in Maine and much larger. Even
secretaries in some hi-tech firms were striking it rich with their
stock options. There was loose talk about a permanent conquest of the
business cycle, and a sassy new spirit infecting American capitalism.
In San Francisco, a billboard for an e-trading firm proclaimed, “Make
love not war,” and then -- down at the bottom -- “Screw it, just make
money.”

When Nickel and Dimed was published in May 2001, cracks were
appearing in the dot-com bubble and the stock market had begun to
falter, but the book still evidently came as a surprise, even a
revelation, to many. Again and again, in that first year or two after
publication, people came up to me and opened with the words, “I never
thought...” or “I hadn’t realized...”

To my own amazement, Nickel and Dimed quickly ascended to
the bestseller list and began winning awards. Criticisms, too, have
accumulated over the years. But for the most part, the book has been far
better received than I could have imagined it would be, with an impact
extending well into the more comfortable classes. A Florida woman
wrote to tell me that, before reading it, she’d always been annoyed at
the poor for what she saw as their self-inflicted obesity. Now she
understood that a healthy diet wasn’t always an option.  And if I had a
quarter for every person who’s told me he or she now tipped more
generously, I would be able to start my own foundation.

Even more gratifying to me, the book has been widely read among
low-wage workers. In the last few years, hundreds of people have written
to tell me their stories: the mother of a newborn infant whose
electricity had just been turned off, the woman who had just been given a
diagnosis of cancer and has no health insurance, the newly homeless
man who writes from a library computer.

At the time I wrote Nickel and Dimed, I wasn’t sure how many
people it directly applied to -- only that the official definition of
poverty was way off the mark, since it defined an individual earning $7
an hour, as I did on average, as well out of poverty. But three months
after the book was published, the Economic Policy Institute in
Washington, D.C., issued a report entitled “Hardships in America: The
Real Story of Working Families,” which found an astounding 29% of
American families living in what could be more reasonably defined as
poverty, meaning that they earned less than a barebones budget covering
housing, child care, health care, food, transportation, and taxes --
though not, it should be noted, any entertainment, meals out, cable TV,
Internet service, vacations, or holiday gifts. Twenty-nine percent is a
minority, but not a reassuringly small one, and other studies in the
early 2000s came up with similar figures.

The big question, 10 years later, is whether things have improved or
worsened for those in the bottom third of the income distribution, the
people who clean hotel rooms, work in warehouses, wash dishes in
restaurants, care for the very young and very old, and keep the shelves
stocked in our stores. The short answer is that things have gotten much
worse, especially since the economic downturn that began in 2008.

Post-Meltdown Poverty

When you read about the hardships I found people enduring while I was
researching my book -- the skipped meals, the lack of medical care, the
occasional need to sleep in cars or vans -- you should bear in mind
that those occurred in the best of times. The economy was growing, and jobs, if poorly paid, were at least plentiful.

In 2000, I had been able to walk into a number of jobs pretty much
off the street. Less than a decade later, many of these jobs had
disappeared and there was stiff competition for those that remained. It
would have been impossible to repeat my Nickel and Dimed “experiment,” had I had been so inclined, because I would probably never have found a job.

For the last couple of years, I have attempted to find out what was
happening to the working poor in a declining economy -- this time using
conventional reporting techniques like interviewing. I started with my
own extended family, which includes plenty of people without jobs or
health insurance, and moved on to trying to track down a couple of the
people I had met while working on Nickel and Dimed.

This wasn’t easy, because most of the addresses and phone numbers I
had taken away with me had proved to be inoperative within a few months,
probably due to moves and suspensions of telephone service. I had kept
in touch with “Melissa” over the years, who was still working at
Wal-Mart, where her wages had risen from $7 to $10 an hour, but in the
meantime her husband had lost his job. “Caroline,” now in her 50s and
partly disabled by diabetes and heart disease, had left her deadbeat
husband and was subsisting on occasional cleaning and catering jobs.
Neither seemed unduly afflicted by the recession, but only because they
had already been living in what amounts to a permanent economic
depression.

Media attention has focused, understandably enough, on the “nouveau
poor” -- formerly middle and even upper-middle class people who lost
their jobs, their homes, and/or their investments in the financial
crisis of 2008 and the economic downturn that followed it, but the brunt
of the recession has been borne by the blue-collar working class, which
had already been sliding downwards since de-industrialization began in
the 1980s.

In 2008 and 2009, for example, blue-collar unemployment was
increasing three times as fast as white-collar unemployment, and African
American and Latino workers were three times as likely to be unemployed
as white workers. Low-wage blue-collar workers, like the people I
worked with in this book, were especially hard hit for the simple reason
that they had so few assets and savings to fall back on as jobs
disappeared.

How have the already-poor attempted to cope with their worsening
economic situation? One obvious way is to cut back on health care. The New York Times reported
in 2009 that one-third of Americans could no longer afford to comply
with their prescriptions and that there had been a sizable drop in the
use of medical care. Others, including members of my extended family,
have given up their health insurance.

Food is another expenditure that has proved vulnerable to hard times,
with the rural poor turning increasingly to “food auctions,” which
offer items that may be past their sell-by dates. And for those who like
their meat fresh, there’s the option of urban hunting. In Racine,
Wisconsin, a 51-year-old laid-off mechanic told me he was supplementing
his diet by “shooting squirrels and rabbits and eating them stewed,
baked, and grilled.” In Detroit, where the wildlife population has
mounted as the human population ebbs, a retired truck driver was doing a
brisk business in raccoon carcasses, which he recommends marinating
with vinegar and spices.

The most common coping strategy, though, is simply to increase the
number of paying people per square foot of dwelling space -- by doubling
up or renting to couch-surfers.

It’s hard to get firm numbers on overcrowding, because no one likes
to acknowledge it to census-takers, journalists, or anyone else who
might be remotely connected to the authorities.

In Los Angeles, housing expert Peter Dreier says that “people who’ve lost their jobs, or at least their second jobs, cope by doubling or tripling up in overcrowded apartments, or by paying 50 or 60 or even 70 percent of their incomes in rent.” According to a community organizer in Alexandria, Virginia, the standard apartment in a complex occupied largely by day laborers has two bedrooms, each containing an entire family of up to five people, plus an additional person laying claim to the couch.

No one could call suicide a “coping strategy,” but it is one way some
people have responded to job loss and debt. There are no national
statistics linking suicide to economic hard times, but the National
Suicide Prevention Lifeline reported more than a four-fold increase in
call volume between 2007 and 2009, and regions with particularly high
unemployment, like Elkhart, Indiana, have seen troubling spikes in their
suicide rates. Foreclosure is often the trigger for suicide -- or,
worse, murder-suicides that destroy entire families.

“Torture and Abuse of Needy Families”

We do of course have a collective way of ameliorating the hardships
of individuals and families -- a government safety net that is meant to
save the poor from spiraling down all the way to destitution. But its
response to the economic emergency of the last few years has been spotty
at best. The food stamp program has responded to the crisis fairly
well, to the point where it now reaches about 37 million people, up
about 30% from pre-recession levels. But welfare -- the traditional last
resort for the down-and-out until it was “reformed” in 1996 -- only
expanded by about 6% in the first two years of the recession.

The difference between the two programs? There is a right to food
stamps. You go to the office and, if you meet the statutory definition
of need, they help you. For welfare, the street-level bureaucrats can,
pretty much at their own discretion, just say no.

Take the case of Kristen and Joe Parente, Delaware residents who had
always imagined that people turned to the government for help only if
“they didn’t want to work.” Their troubles began well before the
recession, when Joe, a fourth-generation pipe-fitter, sustained a back
injury that left him unfit for even light lifting. He fell into a
profound depression for several months, then rallied to ace a
state-sponsored retraining course in computer repairs -- only to find
that those skills are no longer in demand. The obvious fallback was
disability benefits, but -- catch-22 -- when Joe applied he was told he
could not qualify without presenting a recent MRI scan. This would cost
$800 to $900, which the Parentes do not have; nor has Joe, unlike the
rest of the family, been able to qualify for Medicaid.

When they married as teenagers, the plan had been for Kristen to stay
home with the children. But with Joe out of action and three children
to support by the middle of this decade, Kristen went out and got
waitressing jobs, ending up, in 2008, in a “pretty fancy place on the
water.” Then the recession struck and she was laid off.

Kristen is bright, pretty, and to judge from her command of her own
small kitchen, probably capable of holding down a dozen tables with
precision and grace. In the past she’d always been able to land a new
job within days; now there was nothing. Like 44% of laid-off people at
the time, she failed to meet the fiendishly complex and sometimes
arbitrary eligibility requirements for unemployment benefits. Their car
started falling apart.

So the Parentes turned to what remains of welfare -- TANF, or
Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. TANF does not offer
straightforward cash support like Aid to Families with Dependent
Children, which it replaced in 1996. It’s an income supplementation
program for working parents, and it was based on the sunny assumption
that there would always be plenty of jobs for those enterprising enough
to get them.

After Kristen applied, nothing happened for six weeks -- no money, no
phone calls returned. At school, the Parentes’ seven-year-old’s class
was asked to write out what wish they would present to a genie, should a
genie appear. Brianna’s wish was for her mother to find a job because
there was nothing to eat in the house, an aspiration that her teacher
deemed too disturbing to be posted on the wall with the other children’s
requests.

When the Parentes finally got into “the system” and began receiving
food stamps and some cash assistance, they discovered why some
recipients have taken to calling TANF “Torture and Abuse of Needy
Families.” From the start, the TANF experience was “humiliating,”
Kristen says. The caseworkers “treat you like a bum. They act like every
dollar you get is coming out of their own paychecks.”

The Parentes discovered that they were each expected to apply for 40
jobs a week, although their car was on its last legs and no money was
offered for gas, tolls, or babysitting. In addition, Kristen had to
drive 35 miles a day to attend “job readiness” classes offered by a
private company called Arbor, which, she says, were “frankly a joke.”

Nationally, according to Kaaryn Gustafson of the University of
Connecticut Law School, “applying for welfare is a lot like being booked
by the police.”  There may be a mug shot, fingerprinting, and lengthy
interrogations as to one’s children’s true paternity. The ostensible
goal is to prevent welfare fraud, but the psychological impact is to
turn poverty itself into a kind of crime.

How the Safety Net Became a Dragnet

The most shocking thing I learned from my research on the fate of the
working poor in the recession was the extent to which poverty has
indeed been criminalized in America.

Perhaps the constant suspicions of drug use and theft that I
encountered in low-wage workplaces should have alerted me to the fact
that, when you leave the relative safety of the middle class, you might
as well have given up your citizenship and taken residence in a hostile
nation.

Most cities, for example, have ordinances designed to drive the
destitute off the streets by outlawing such necessary activities of
daily life as sitting, loitering, sleeping, or lying down. Urban
officials boast that there is nothing discriminatory about such laws:
“If you’re lying on a sidewalk, whether you’re homeless or a
millionaire, you’re in violation of the ordinance,” a St. Petersburg,
Florida, city attorney stated in June 2009, echoing Anatole France’s
immortal observation that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids
the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges...”

In defiance of all reason and compassion, the criminalization of
poverty has actually intensified as the weakened economy generates ever
more poverty. So concludes a recent study from the National Law Center
on Poverty and Homelessness, which finds that the number of ordinances
against the publicly poor has been rising since 2006, along with the
harassment of the poor for more “neutral” infractions like jaywalking,
littering, or carrying an open container.

The report lists America’s ten “meanest” cities -- the largest of
which include Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Orlando -- but new contestants
are springing up every day. In Colorado, Grand Junction’s city council
is considering a ban on begging; Tempe, Arizona, carried out a four-day
crackdown on the indigent at the end of June. And how do you know when
someone is indigent? As a Las Vegas statute puts it, “an indigent person
is a person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be
entitled to apply for or receive” public assistance.

That could be me before the blow-drying and eyeliner, and it’s
definitely Al Szekeley at any time of day. A grizzled 62-year-old, he
inhabits a wheelchair and is often found on G Street in Washington, D.C.
-- the city that is ultimately responsible for the bullet he took in
the spine in Phu Bai, Vietnam, in 1972.

He had been enjoying the luxury of an indoor bed until December 2008,
when the police swept through the shelter in the middle of the night
looking for men with outstanding warrants. It turned out that Szekeley,
who is an ordained minister and does not drink, do drugs, or cuss in
front of ladies, did indeed have one -- for “criminal trespassing,” as
sleeping on the streets is sometimes defined by the law. So he was
dragged out of the shelter and put in jail.

“Can you imagine?” asked Eric Sheptock, the homeless advocate
(himself a shelter resident) who introduced me to Szekeley. “They
arrested a homeless man in a shelter for being homeless?”

The viciousness of the official animus toward the indigent can be
breathtaking. A few years ago, a group called Food Not Bombs started
handing out free vegan food to hungry people in public parks around the
nation. A number of cities, led by Las Vegas, passed ordinances
forbidding the sharing of food with the indigent in public places,
leading to the arrests of several middle-aged white vegans.

One anti-sharing law was just overturned in Orlando, but the war on
illicit generosity continues. Orlando is appealing the decision, and
Middletown, Connecticut, is in the midst of a crackdown. More recently,
Gainesville, Florida, began enforcing a rule limiting the number of
meals that soup kitchens may serve to 130 people in one day, and
Phoenix, Arizona, has been using zoning laws to stop a local church from
serving breakfast to homeless people.

For the not-yet-homeless, there are two main paths to
criminalization, and one is debt. Anyone can fall into debt, and
although we pride ourselves on the abolition of debtors’ prison, in at
least one state, Texas, people who can’t pay fines for things like
expired inspection stickers may be made to “sit out their tickets” in
jail.

More commonly, the path to prison begins when one of your creditors
has a court summons issued for you, which you fail to honor for one
reason or another, such as that your address has changed and you never
received it. Okay, now you’re in “contempt of the court.”

Or suppose you miss a payment and your car insurance lapses, and then
you’re stopped for something like a broken headlight (about $130 for
the bulb alone). Now, depending on the state, you may have your car
impounded and/or face a steep fine -- again, exposing you to a possible
court summons. “There’s just no end to it once the cycle starts,” says
Robert Solomon of Yale Law School. “It just keeps accelerating.”

The second -- and by far the most reliable -- way to be criminalized
by poverty is to have the wrong color skin. Indignation runs high when a
celebrity professor succumbs to racial profiling, but whole communities
are effectively “profiled” for the suspicious combination of being both
dark-skinned and poor. Flick a cigarette and you’re “littering”; wear
the wrong color T-shirt and you’re displaying gang allegiance. Just
strolling around in a dodgy neighborhood can mark you as a potential
suspect. And don’t get grumpy about it or you could be “resisting
arrest.”

In what has become a familiar pattern, the government defunds services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement.  Shut down public housing, then make it a crime to be homeless. Generate no public-sector jobs, then penalize people for falling into debt. The experience of the poor, and especially poor people of color, comes to resemble that of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks. And if you should try to escape this nightmare reality into a brief, drug-induced high, it’s “gotcha” all over again, because that of course is illegal too.

One result is our staggering level of incarceration, the
highest in the world.  Today, exactly the same number of Americans --
2.3 million -- reside in prison as in public housing. And what public
housing remains has become ever more prison-like, with random police sweeps and, in a growing number of cities, proposed drug tests for residents. The safety net, or what remains of it, has been transformed into a dragnet.

It is not clear whether economic hard times will finally force us to
break the mad cycle of poverty and punishment. With even the official
level of poverty increasing -- to over 14% in 2010 -- some states are
beginning to ease up on the criminalization of poverty, using
alternative sentencing methods, shortening probation, and reducing the
number of people locked up for technical violations like missing court
appointments. But others, diabolically enough, are tightening the
screws: not only increasing the number of “crimes,” but charging
prisoners for their room and board, guaranteeing they’ll be released
with potentially criminalizing levels of debt.

So what is the solution to the poverty of so many of America’s working people? Ten years ago, when Nickel and Dimed
first came out, I often responded with the standard liberal wish list
-- a higher minimum wage, universal health care, affordable housing,
good schools, reliable public transportation, and all the other things
we, uniquely among the developed nations, have neglected to do.

Today, the answer seems both more modest and more challenging: if we
want to reduce poverty, we have to stop doing the things that make
people poor and keep them that way. Stop underpaying people for the jobs
they do. Stop treating working people as potential criminals and let
them have the right to organize for better wages and working conditions.

Stop the institutional harassment of those who turn to the government
for help or find themselves destitute in the streets. Maybe, as so many
Americans seem to believe today, we can’t afford the kinds of public
programs that would genuinely alleviate poverty -- though I would argue
otherwise. But at least we should decide, as a bare minimum principle,
to stop kicking people when they’re down.

Excerpted from Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, 10th Anniversary Edition,
published August 2nd by Picador USA. New afterword © 2011 by Barbara
Ehrenreich. Excerpted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an imprint
of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved.


This article was originally published on TomDispatch.com.  It is reprinted here with permission.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of a number of books, most recently Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. This essay is a shortened version of a new afterword to her bestselling book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, 10th Anniversary Edition, just released by Picador Books.