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The United States is a society that prides itself on its working population. Having a job is valued in American society and is associated with social and financial competence. However, the reality of many workers is jarring since some jobs pay very little and the connection between having a job and decent living is non-existent for these workers. Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed explores the life of low-wage workers and brings to light the incredible unfairness of low-wage work. Ehrenreich’s work is demonstrative of the stifling and unfair economic and social realities which trap low-wage workers in a nearly endless cycle of poverty.
Low-wage workers’ economic conditions and circumstances are unfair as these wages provide little chance for upward mobility. Upward economic mobility, is a fundamental aspiration for many human beings. Upward mobility is in essence the hope for a better future and evidence of rewards for the effort that one puts in at their job. While low-wage workers earn a salary, the amounts they earn compared to the effort and time they have to put this to earn these salaries essentially traps them in a nearly inescapable cycle of poverty (Schmitt). Ehrenreich in her book narrates how the wages she earned per day as a low-wage worker were barely enough to live on. Ehrenreich adds that to survive, she and others working in low-wage jobs had to seek other jobs to supplement their income (Ehrenreich). This economic reality is jarring. With such wages, it is nearly impossible to save or invest in the hope of a better future. Low-wage workers are hence forced to stay at these jobs and live in perpetual misery since their income combined with the hours that they have to put in makes it nearly impossible for them to engage in other activities that would have created avenues for upward mobility. Low wages are hence unfair since they subject workers to a life which does not offer avenues for economic improvement.
Other than limited upward mobility, low-wage workers have to contend with unfair living conditions. Decent living conditions are fundamental in any society that cares about the welfare of its people. Low wages rob people of the ability to live in dignity. Dignified living implies decent housing, food, and healthcare at the very least. Most of these basic needs are inaccessible or hard to come by for any low-wage workers. Ehrenreich narrates how she had to live in a trailer park, in a cramped room with minimal amenities because that was what she could do on her wages (Ehrenreich). The tale of her colleagues, many of whom had to be codependent to survive on their meager salaries. These poor living conditions make one vulnerable to various risks caused by poor nutrition, capricious housing, and the mental turmoil of working in such conditions (Leigh and De Vogli). With such wages, people barely have money for emergencies and other circumstances. In a society that prides itself in its prosperity, the living conditions of low-wage workers are a disgrace to the United States. Such economic vulnerability is unfair to low-wage workers and the US as a society needs to address the issue.
The precarious social circumstances of low-wage workers are also proof of the unfairness of this type of work. Some people ignore the vital importance of a decent social life to the proper functioning of human beings. Low-wage work largely deprives them of a socially healthy life and subjects them to significant mental and emotional challenges. Ehrenreich for example writes about her experiences at Jerry’s, Key West, and the mental and emotional suffering that she and other low-wage workers endure (Ehrenreich). Other than the grueling nature of the work, the low wages are a key source of frustration and mental turmoil. Low wages expose people to exploitation as they do have the financial capability to leave their jobs or engage in other socially nourishing activities (Krueger and Posner). Low-wage workers are exploited by employers who know that these workers have limited opportunities elsewhere. Essentially low wages are a fundamental barrier to social justice (Sangheon and Sobeck). This takes a toll on low-wage workers who easily and rightly become cynical, suspecting, and hostile because of the mental turmoil they are exposed to at work.
Low-wage work is unfair exposes people to tough economic and social circumstances. Low-wage workers mostly have no means of upward economic mobility and are forced to live in unfair living conditions. These circumstances are hostile and should not be the reality of anyone in the prosperous society that the US claims it is. Furthermore, the reality of earning barely enough to afford a decent living exposes workers to significant social challenges which have adverse psychological and social effects. Thus, it is high time that the US considers the plight of its low-wage workers.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and dimed: On (not) getting by in America. Metropolitan Books, 2010.
Krueger, Alan B., and Eric Posner. “Corporate America Is Suppressing Wages for Many Workers.” The New York Times 28 (2018).
Lee, Sangheon, and Kristen Sobeck. “Low‐wage work: A global perspective.” International Labour Review 151.3 (2012): 141-155.
Leigh, J. Paul, and Roberto De Vogli. “Low wages as occupational health hazards.” Journal of occupational and environmental medicine 58.5 (2016): 444-447.
Schmitt, John. Low-wage lessons. No. 2012-03. Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), 2012.
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