There is an assumption in Western societies that anyone in full-time employment should at least be able to put food on the family table and a roof over their heads. Such was the premise that inspired the public work schemes of the Great Depression, and also the premise that has driven the movement from welfare to work since the 1980s. It is the most fundamental of social contracts in an industrialized democracy: work, and ye shall eat.
In much of modern America, however, with its proliferation of low-wage, service-sector jobs offered by multinational corporations, that basic contract is no longer being fulfilled. A job at Wal-Mart or McDonald's might offer the legal minimum wage, but it won't guarantee a living. Across the country, workers are being forced to seek second jobs simply to keep themselves from homelessness or starvation. And we are not talking about a marginal group: the so-called working poor are a growing army numbering in the tens of millions.
According to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think-tank, almost 30 per cent of working families in America do not earn enough to meet their basic expenditures rent, food, clothing, childcare and medical care. Of this group, 70 per cent miss rent payments or have to resort to the casualty ward for their medical care because they cannot afford normal doctor's visits. About 30 per cent have it even tougher: regularly missing meals or facing eviction from their home.
The minimum wage, which varies at about $6 (£4) an hour, is clearly insufficient. So, too, is the official yardstick for measuring poverty, which takes the bare-bones food budget of a household and multiplies it by three. This measure was inadequate when it was introduced in the 1960s, and is even more so now that housing costs, in particular, have jumped dramatically as a proportion of spending. While the official poverty rate stands at 12 per cent, the EPI study shows the real tally is more than twice as high. The federal government thinks a two-parent family with two children needs $17,463 (£12,000) to get by, but the EPI's research shows the true median figure is more than $33,000.
The working poor have been invisible in public discourse for several years, partly because of the long Clinton-era boom and partly because of the assumption that plentiful employment was a hedge against poverty. That may now be changing, thanks in part to a remarkable new book by the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, who spent three one-month stints working minimum-wage jobs in different parts of the country trying, and largely failing, to make ends meet.
Her book, Nickel and Dimed: Or (Not) Getting by in America, depicts a world of hard-driving corporate employers, of workers skipping meals and pushing themselves to continue with their jobs even when they suffer serious injuries, of fleapit residential motels and miserable one-room trailers, of fear, exhaustion and misery.
Ehrenreich argues that the country's leaders failed to understand what they were doing when they radically overhauled the welfare system five years ago. The low-wage service sector jobs that many former welfare recipients were pushed into have left them just as destitute and many times more exhausted. "I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that 'hard work' was the secret of success," she writes. "No one ever said that you could work hard harder even than you ever thought possible and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt."
The book has been warmly received, provoking the kind of debate unheard in America since the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson launched the Great Society in response to a flurry of studies showing that one in four Americans were living in poverty. The fact that the figure is now inching closer to one in three may no longer be a spur to political action in Washington the Bush administration has shown no discernible interest in the poor other than a desire to subcontract federal welfare services to religious organizations but it has handed a powerful argument to the growing anti-globalization movement that sees the erosion of labor standards as a consequence of corporate power.
Among the people Ehrenreich worked alongside were waiters in Florida living in vans or flophouses, a housemaid in Maine who ate next to nothing for lunch and then fantasized about what her co-workers would be having for dinner, a Wal-Mart employee in Minnesota who hoped working would put him through college but had no money and no time to spare for his studies, and any number of people who risked serious injury through sheer fatigue but kept "working through it".
Many people described by Ehrenreich survived only with second jobs, or by hanging on to unsatisfying, even abusive relationships for the sake of sharing living expenses with another wage-earner. The lack of affordable health insurance in a country without a public medical system, along with the fear of being fired for taking sick days, was a major obstacle. The long working hours made it almost impossible for parents to take proper care of their children.
This miserable world exists everywhere in the US. Recently I talked to Celia Talavera, who works as a housekeeper at a fancy beachside hotel in Santa Monica, California. She earns just $250 a week, a rate that is legal only because her employers reserve the right to deny her hours of work without warning, in what is supposed to be a full 40-hour schedule.
Celia lives with her family in a rickety semi-detached house directly beneath the flight path for Los Angeles International Airport. Every day, she spends an hour commuting to work on three different buses, and an hour coming back home again. At night the jumbos screech overhead every two minutes, obliterating conversation and shaking the house to its foundations. The only reason she can survive is because both her husband and her oldest son work full time. One salary just about pays the $1,000 monthly rent, while the other two cover food, clothes and basic household bills. There are no extras in their lives.
A few years ago, before any of her three children had grown up, times were often so tough that Celia had to go to her local church to beg for food. "We just had nothing to eat. I don't like to think about it because it makes me ill," she said, looking exhausted at the end of a workday. She is 42, but looks like she has lived several lifetimes.
There are some signs of change. LA's union movement is in the ascendant, with an effort to organize office cleaners, bus drivers and hotel workers. The city of Santa Monica has just passed a "living wage" ordinance which guarantees workers in beachside hotels like Celia's $10.50 an hour rather than the minimum of $6.25.
But these are small pockets of resistance to a wider trend. Barbara Ehrenreich wondered why wages were so low in a time of economic prosperity and discovered a system that was self-defeating for the low-paid: people working too many hours to have time to look for other jobs and accumulating too much debt to feel they have any leverage in negotiating better working conditions.
Company profits may go up, and there may be an increase in overall global wealth. But the workers who fuel the wealth are themselves struggling on the brink of destitution. This is the misery that the anti-globalization movement fears will spread everywhere as free trade expands to suit the corporate agenda. One has to wonder just whose wealth we are talking about, and at what cost to society as a whole.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd