In 1991, my then-wife and I made $18,000. Together. This, with one kid the whole year, and another born in August.
We lived in a rat-trap of a house in the Midway: three drafty bedrooms, and a foundation that let mice in in droves; the rodents gamboled about inside the walls like Britney and Lindsay on the dance floor; they’d sweep across the floors like the herds of buffalo from Dances with Wolves. It was cheap, and it was awful. And it was all we could afford.
From mid-1991 into mid-1993, I (and, most of the time, my wife) went to Plasma Alliance twice a week – the maximum allowed – to get money for formula and diapers. I still have a divot at the crook of my left elbow, the “sweet spot” where they’d do the draws. I still know the language – waiting for the Fleeb to do the stick, hoping for a fast draw so I wouldn’t get partialled, because I needed a full check – and the drill (drink LOTS of water, eat NO fat for the 12 hours before the donation, so the lipids in the plasma didn’t slow down the plasmapheresis process); with enough care, you could donate a liter of plama in less than an hour. It was worth $45 a week, if you did everything right.
I worked, of course; I was a nightclub DJ, making maybe $50 a night for 3-5 nights a week (figure a weekly take-home around $200-250), through the beginning of 1992, working nights and (when my daughter was born) minding the baby during the day. I also worked at a couple of radio stations for 15 hours a week – KDWB AM and FM and WDGY – for about $6 an hour; $6.50 when I got a raise. I was choosing, at the time (and it turned out to be a bad choice) to sacrifice a lot, one might say even obsessively, to try to re-jumpstart my radio “career” (and in my own defense, I did come close; I came in second place for the Program Director job at KSTP-AM in 1991, a week before Bun was born). When that tanked, I worked at some other awful jobs; I was an essay reader for $7 an hour (a “sweatshop for people with degrees”, one of my co-workers called it), then worked for a legal document coding company for $6 an hour. My wife was a waitress, and then did data entry work, when the pregnancy allowed it.
In November of 1992, with my son on the way, I found a company that wanted to pay me a couple thousand dollars to write an installation manual for a database configuration system. I quit the coding job to put all my effort into it; on Christmas Eve, they called to tell me they were stiffing me for the money that’d been earmarked for two months of rent and NSP bills.
The day my son was born, I got eviction and power shutoff notices (and word that the company that had stiffed me had gone out of business).
Once, money was so tight – half a week away from payday, a day away from another Plasma Hut donation – that I fixed my at-the-time wife and I a dinner of rice with sauteed onions. It wasn’t bad. Other staples: fried potatoes and baloney; cube steak burgers; grilled cheese sandwiches; a zillion variations on spaghetti. Y’know – poor people food, the kind of starchy, fatty crap that is, at least, dirt-cheap.
But according to Mark Gisleson at Norwegianity, I know nothing about poverty, at least compared to upper-middle-class, Volvo-driving alpaca-wearing dilletante Barbara Ehrenreich:
Mitch, who I linked to earlier, ripped on Ehrenreich recently, but his criticism says more about Mitch’s failure to “grok” poverty than it does his understanding of Ehrenreich’s writings. Poverty is about having nothing. If you have an apartment or house to live in, you’re not poor by real world standards. Impoverished maybe, but not truly poor.
Yes, Mark, and gosh, we were in a discussion about the American minimum wage, a context which I didn’t figure was an entree to comparing “poverty” in America – where the “poor” overwhelmingly have roofs over their heads, TVs, refrigerators and cars – with poverty in, say, Sudan or Indonesia or Bolivia.
I didn’t figure it needed much explanation. On the other hand, we’re talking with someone who can say this…:
Let’s not even get into Ehrenreich’s new topic: slavery in the United States. But, like a radically anorexic minimum wage, I guess that’s OK with Mitch too, so long as it only affects a few people, and not Mitch.
…something too stupid and casually defamatory for even Kevin McKay or Jeff Fecke to write with a straight face. My point about
she who must not be criticized Ehrenreich was in Nickled and Dimed, she approached poverty wearing the equivalent of blackface; if she approaches slavery with the same upper-middle-class preconceptions as she approached minimum-wage life, she should (but likely won’t) get laughed off the public stage.
I don’t think Mitch is malicious in this regard, just unwilling to take a hard look at what Reaganism hath wrought. “Only a tiny, shrinking minority actually works for the minimum wage”? Mitch, if only one person was getting paid minimum wage, and if that wage didn’t allow them to eat and have a roof over their heads, why would that be OK?
Gisleson mixes his questions.
The vast majority of those getting minimum wage aren’t responsible for feeding or sheltering themselves, much less anyone else; they’re teenagers working at their first jobs. Would that be “OK?” Absolutely.
For the remainder – those adults who are responsible for feeding, sheltering and clothing themselves? Well, my religion bids me to take care of the most unfortunate among us, an injunction that I take as seriously as the aggressively atheist Gisleson ridicules it. But that’s a personal thing.
Speaking for society, I have to ask; why does an adult earn minimum wage?
Because no employer is willing or able to pay more for the skills they bring to the market, either because the skill is of little value to employers (flipping burgers) or the market is glutted with people able to do the job (non-profit work).
So why do these adults – responsible as they are for feeding and sheltering themselves and, sometimes, others – go onto the job market with skills that are only worth the minimum wage to employers (or even less; as the minimum wage rises, Macdonalds and Burger King are moving to minimize the number of burger flippers in their restaurants; they’re switching to pre-cooked patties heated en masse in microwaves, to eliminate the need even for most of the minimum wage employees at the grill)?
In many cases, it’s because of a physical or psychological problem; they’re not able to learn a skill that’s worth more than the minimum wage.
In many other cases – including my own, way back when – it’s because of that hoary old conservative cliche, “bad choices” which, like so many conservative cliches, is true more often than not. Criminal records, drug or alcohol problems, getting pregnant as a teenager, dropping out of school, or just plain dissipation – all of them get in the way of learning a skill, or even just-plain good work habits that can take a person out of the minimum wage world. And, unfortunately, it’s not just ones’ own bad choices that’ll get you; when criminals, addicts and slackers go on to have kids, and raise them in poverty (yeah, the American version of it, bla bla bla), and pass the culture of poverty down to their families, the kids are indeed victims of those bad choices. And yes, before the inevitable self-righteous leftyblogger points it out, society has made some bad choices as well – African-American and Indian societies are chronically dysfunctional a century and change after slavery and the extinction of native culture, respectively.
Factor out that last bit there (I personally favor extending tribal gambling as “reparations” – perhaps we should legalize marijuana, licensing the sales to proven descendants of slaves, to continue the pattern); what is society’s obligation to insulate people from their own bad choices? Their parents’ bad choices?
Why should anyone who works be unable to feed, shelter and clothe themselves, and I’m not even mentioning healthcare.
Because tacking a few extra dimes per hour onto a miserable paycheck isn’t going to change anything!
And more importantly, because merely “working” isn’t the point; if society subsidizes the mere act of showing up and “working” with food, shelter, clothing and healthcare, then eventually 90% of our society will be leaning against shovels (figuratively and literally) while the other 10% slaves away to pay the bills.
If society is going to subsidize anything, it should be good behavior – staying in school, learning a skill that can eventually help someone support themselves and those for whom they’re responsible, putting down the damn bong and keeping your johnson in your pants and learning how to support oneself and, eventually, raise families that value the same thing.
Blogging is about advocacy, but I don’t understand advocacy that seeks to take from those who have the least to give. Does it bother Mitch that minimum wage workers in Hennepin county will individually pay more for the new baseball stadium than all the millionaires in Duluth put together?
Mark: Show me where I’ve ever stumped for subidies of baseball parks.
You’ll be looking a long time. I’ve always opposed it.
As well as, for that matter, government subsidies of all businesses; corporate welfare is just as debilitating as subsidizing poverty.
I continue to have problems with capitalists who think they sprang fully formed from Adam Smith’s forehead, and that they owe nothing to society or other workers. Right now the underpaid restaurant workers are supporting the overtime that drives our economy, feeding people who don’t have time to cook, but can’t afford to pay real prices.
This isn’t as stupid as the “slavery” crack above, but it does show exactly how “reality-based” Gisleson and his ilk are not, when he notes that…
…to the [“]reality-based[“]: eating out shouldn’t be inexpensive, or competitive with cooking for yourself. Or do you hate all those restaurant workers that much?
Maybe Gisleson has never fed a family (I’m willing to bet on it); cooking at home is pretty much always cheaper, and can certainly be faster.
Of course, not being “reality-based”, and a mere bread-winner who’s been raising kids through thick and (at times, very) thin for the past 17 years, what would I know about “reality”, as people like Gisleson see it?