Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich’s best-selling investigation of how people in low-paying jobs live, is being re-issued on its tenth anniversary. Unfortunately, as Ehrenreich notes in a new afterword (published in TomDispatch),
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. … [B]ut 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.
If you didn’t read the book ten years ago, read it now. And pay special attention to the afterword, in which Ehrenreich describes today’s “institutional harassment of those who turn to the government for help or find themselves destitute in the streets” and even the criminalization of poverty. Perhaps the most dramatic example of the latter phenomenon is her story of Al Szekeley:
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?”
With corporate profits at record-breaking highs, and Wall Street riding the day-trading rollercoaster, we have to find a better way to care for people like Al Szekeley and to create living-wage jobs for those who can work.