The Dehumanizing Qualities of Low Wage Work

By Summer Dowd-Lukesh '14Staff Writer

Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America” is an exercise in investigative journalism examining the lives of low-wage workers, especially women, in the United States.  Ehrenreich worked low wage jobs for a year and lived entirely off of the money earned in those positions.  Her work makes excellent points about the life of a low-wage worker in the United States.  It is true that working hard every day for little pay takes an extreme toll on one’s body and mind, but most fascinating was her discussion of the tolls that low-wage work take on the soul.  In her section about low-wage maid work in Maine, Ehrenreich quotes a coworker as saying, “We’re nothing to these people. We’re just maids.”  The book is littered with words like “helpless” and “pain.” Then there’s the question: “If you hump away at menial jobs 360-plus days a year, does some kind of repetitive injury of the spirit set in?”

In President Franklin Roosevelt’s State of the Union speech in 1944 he laid out “The Economic Bill of Rights,” a list of things he dreamed would be guaranteed to every American worker.  These included “The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation… the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health” and “the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment.”  Our president saw these conditions not just as privileges, but also as basic rights necessary to living a good human life.  It could be said that the women Ehrenreich worked with in Maine did not have a remunerative job, good health or adequate protection from the fears of sickness or accident.  Not having these basic tenements of security made their lives terribly unstable and restricted their ability to live a good life.  Such working conditions have a harmful effect not only on their bodies and minds, but on their very souls.  “Maybe it’s low-wage work in general that has the effect of making you feel like a pariah,” Ehrenreich writes.  Our nation lives off of the backs of individuals who live and work in ways that the middle and upper classes would never consider decent, let alone humane.

Ehrenreich’s tale about the suffering of women in Maine working low-wage jobs in order to feed their families reinforces the belief that allowing the stratification of classes, so that the world’s poor live on nothing and the world’s rich live on almost everything, is inhumane and morally wrong.  We as a species have a moral obligation to level the playing field for women like Ehrenreich’s coworkers and make our new globalized world a place where no one has to keep working despite broken bones; eat little to no food in a high-stress and high-activity environment; or have her soul crushed by a society that says low-wage work and the people who do it are worthless and unimportant.