I’ve often wondered why traditional feminists keep pulling defeat out of the jaws of victory. One of the biggest advances in recent years for working mothers, I think, has been the move towards free agent jobs where we can work at home and set our own hours. There was a time when wanting this sort of career branded you as an oddball. Now it’s just par for the course.
But paleolefty true believers like Barbara Ehrenreich keep hammering away at social problems as if old-fashioned staff jobs were still the only ideal employment in the best of all possible worlds, and what a shame that such jobs are rapidly disappearing. Now I don’t think all problems of the working poor would be solved if more struck out as entrepreneurs, or considered alternate solutions. But is it really so heartless to imagine that some of them might be?
Ehrenreich is the author of the eye-opening and much-praised book “Nickel and Dimed,” in which she reported what it was like to work at several different minimum wage jobs while trying to pay for basic needs like food, clothing and shelter. She is also part of PBS’s “P.O.V.” series’ new public awareness campaign about low-wage workers – in connection with the premiere of “Waging a Living,” a new “P.O.V.” documentary premiered in August, in the wake of welfare reform’s 10th anniversary.
The film’s conclusion (along with Ehrenreich’s) is that the lives of the working poor are now pretty much impossible, and even the overextended middle-class can be plunged into poverty with just one big stroke of bad fortune. A struggling waitress in “Waging a Living,” for instance, was a comfortable suburban housewife until her husband left her with three kids but no child support.
I know from experience all that can be true. “You’ve got to accept that you’re a single mother now!” my ex-husband once yelled in frustration at me, during the years he was still paying child support. I think he was referring to the well-known fact that while a man’s financial situation typically improves after divorce, that of a typical woman’s sinks. So why couldn’t I just accept this natural order of things, and quit throwing a monkey wrench in the works with my eccentric demands for that child support check month after month?
Like many woman, the waitress in “Waging a Living” was not as insistent (or lucky) about child support as I once was, and so her house and car are about to be repossessed. Her circumstances are vastly improved, though, at the film’s end, when she gets a nice boyfriend, a barber who apparently owns his own business.
I was relieved, and probably most of the “Waging a Living” audience will be too. But I wonder how traditional feminists will appreciate the tacit message here, that most women do need men rather more than a fish needs a bicycle. Or the (equally unspoken) message that a free agent like that barber boyfriend is better off in this economy.
I was glad of the chance to hear Ehrenreich talk about all this, because I respect her reporting and writing skills even though her conclusions generally strike me as faulty. Her “Nickel and Dimed” chapter on cleaning ladies, for instance, began life as a long Harper’s Magazine article. I remember that when I first read it in that form, she’d basically decided it’s immoral to employ someone to clean your house unless there’s some medical reason (like asthma, for instance) you can’t do it. In that case, the government should step in to help out.
She softened that stance in “Nickel and Dimed,” while still stating in that book that she would never employ a cleaning lady herself “because this is just not the kind of relationship I want to have with another human being.” I remain unconvinced, however, that this relationship is necessarily so awful. Unlike the agency that paid an undercover Ehrenreich $6 or $7 an hour to clean houses, I pay my own cleaning lady between $12 and $15 an hour, depending how long she takes to finish her work that day. (I actually don’t pay by the hour, but a flat sum of $55 – or $60, if I’ve only got twenties that day – plus a nice bonus at Christmas. It’s up to her what time she shows up.)
If Esperanza needs to bring a small child with her occasionally, or arrange for a substitute because she wants to go away for a few weeks, or change days that week because she has a doctor’s appointment or something, that’s fine. She seems to appreciate the situation, since she’s been with me for years and is always cheerful. I don’t think she’d consider herself better off if we lived in a lefty utopia that made these arrangements impossible. So why does Ehrenreich think so?
“I don’t think that was quite my conclusion,” she said carefully, when I asked her about this at the “Waging a Living” press conference. “Fifteen dollars an hour is very good – although of course there are no benefits and no job security whatsoever. I was concerned about the effects on the children of the employers who never learn to pick up after themselves, and often are not too functional once they get away from home.”
It’s true that cheap, unskilled labor – often supplied by illegal immigrants — has helped turn many upper-middle-class kids into helpless, spoiled little pashas. A return to a world in which teenagers maintained neighborhood lawns with handheld mowers, for instance, instead of one where crews of immigrants in speeding trucks transport their (illegal) gasoline-powered leaf blowers noisily through the streets would make my section of Los Angeles, at least, much pleasanter.
But I don’t see why I’m under some moral obligation to clean my house personally, when Esperanza can do it so much quicker and better. In any case, she needs the money I pay her, which although decent for unskilled work is still far less than what I make writing articles instead of changing bed sheets. Since I’m not working for The Man (or, in fact, for any man) shouldn’t lefty feminists support that?
Apparently not. As it happens, a few years ago Ann Crittenden in her book “The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued” argued strongly against self-employed or part-time working mothers. Crittenden wrote that by defining “the consultant or editor who works out of a home-based office” as a working mother, the government “contributes to the false impression that most mothers are not available to their children during the day.”
What the U.S. government should do, Crittenden suggested, is follow the example of France, with its free health care and subsidized cash allowances for each child. (France’s stratospheric tax rates, of course, are never mentioned in these fantasies about a better world for you and me.) But I’ve always felt more job security as a freelance writer than I did as a newspaper staffer. And even Ehrenreich admitted at the PBS press conference that as a freelance writer, she’s probably better off now than most of the traditional media types in the audience.
I know how she felt. If I were to lose one of my regular gigs, for instance, I’d be unhappy; but unlike the laid-off staffer, my income wouldn’t suddenly plummet to zero. In a world of constant corporate downsizing, anyone who doesn’t realize this is sadly out of date.
Several years ago, as it happens, a veteran editor doing some consulting work at a local mid-sized newspaper offered me a staff job. Knowing the paper’s legendary cheapness, I explained that I doubted they’d be able to come up with as much money I made freelancing – and it would have to be a LOT more for me to even bother thinking about it.
“Why would it have to be MORE,” he asked, sounding genuinely shocked. “What about the SECURITY?”
Now I was shocked. This guy had been in the business half-a-century, witnessing God knows how many tanking media enterprises and in-with-the-new, out-with-the-old staff reorganizations, and he still could use the words “security” and “newspapers” in the same sentence without laughing?
I guess so. But as I explained, he’d have to count me out of that particular deadpan club.
Visit Cathy’s World here.