Too Poor to Make the News
By BARBARA EHRENREICH
The New York Times
June 14, 2009 Op-Ed Contributor
THE human side of the recession, in the new media genre
that's been called "recession porn," is the story of an
incremental descent from excess to frugality, from ease
to austerity. The super-rich give up their personal
jets; the upper middle class cut back on private
Pilates classes; the merely middle class forgo
vacations and evenings at Applebee's. In some accounts,
the recession is even described as the "great leveler,"
smudging the dizzying levels of inequality that
characterized the last couple of decades and squeezing
everyone into a single great class, the Nouveau Poor,
in which we will all drive tiny fuel-efficient cars and
grow tomatoes on our porches.
But the outlook is not so cozy when we look at the
effects of the recession on a group generally omitted
from all the vivid narratives of downward mobility --
the already poor, the estimated 20 percent to 30
percent of the population who struggle to get by in the
best of times. This demographic, the working poor, have
already been living in an economic depression of their
own. From their point of view "the economy," as a
shared condition, is a fiction.
This spring, I tracked down a couple of the people I
had met while working on my 2001 book, "Nickel and
Dimed," in which I worked in low-wage jobs like
waitressing and housecleaning, and I found them no more
gripped by the recession than by "American Idol";
things were pretty much "same old." The woman I called
Melissa in the book was still working at Wal-Mart,
though in nine years, her wages had risen to $10 an
hour from $7. "Caroline," who is increasingly disabled
by diabetes and heart disease, now lives with a grown
son and subsists on occasional cleaning and catering
jobs. We chatted about grandchildren and church,
without any mention of exceptional hardship.
As with Denise Smith, whom I recently met through the
Virginia Organizing Project and whose bachelor's degree
in history qualifies her for seasonal $10-an-hour work
at a tourist site, the recession is largely an
abstraction. "We were poor," Ms. Smith told me
cheerfully, "and we're still poor."
But then, at least if you inhabit a large, multiclass
extended family like my own, there comes that e-mail
message with the subject line "Need your help," and you
realize that bad is often just the stage before worse.
The note was from one of my nephews, and it reported
that his mother-in-law, Peg, was, like several million
other Americans, about to lose her home to foreclosure.
It was the back story that got to me: Peg, who is 55
and lives in rural
part-time jobs to support her disabled daughter and two
grandchildren, who had moved in with her. Then, last
winter, she had a heart attack, missed work and fell
behind in her mortgage payments. If I couldn't help,
all four would have to move into the cramped apartment
Only after I'd sent the money did I learn that the
mortgage was not a subprime one and the home was not a
house but a dilapidated single-wide trailer that, as a
"used vehicle," commands a 12-percent mortgage interest
rate. You could argue, without any shortage of
compassion, that "Low-Wage Worker Loses Job, Home" is
nobody's idea of news.
In late May I traveled to
unemployment rate, including underemployed people and
those who have given up on looking for a job, is
estimated at 20 percent -- to meet with a half-dozen
community organizers. They are members of a profession,
derided last summer by Sarah Palin, that helps
low-income people renegotiate mortgages, deal with
eviction when their landlords are foreclosed and, when
necessary, organize to confront landlords and bosses.
The question I put to this rainbow group was: "Has the
recession made a significant difference in the
low-income communities where you work, or are things
pretty much the same?" My informants -- from Koreatown,
South Central, Maywood, Artesia and the area around
Skid Row -- took pains to explain that things were
already bad before the recession, and in ways that are
disconnected from the larger economy. One of them told
me, for example, that the boom of the '90s and early
2000s had been "basically devastating" for the urban
poor. Rents skyrocketed; public housing disappeared to
make way for gentrification.
But yes, the recession has made things palpably worse,
largely because of job losses. With no paychecks coming
in, people fall behind on their rent and, since there
can be as long as a six-year wait for federal housing
subsidies, they often have no alternative but to move
in with relatives. "People are calling me all the
time," said Preeti Sharma of the South Asian Network,
"They think I have some sort of magic."
The organizers even expressed a certain impatience with
the Nouveau Poor, once I introduced the phrase. If
there's a symbol for the recession in
Davin Corona of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy
said, it's "the policeman facing foreclosure in the
suburbs." The already poor, he said -- the undocumented
immigrants, the sweatshop workers, the janitors, maids
and security guards -- had all but "disappeared" from
both the news media and public policy discussions.
Disappearing with them is what may be the most
distinctive and compelling story of this recession.
When I got back home, I started calling up experts,
like Sharon Parrott, a policy analyst at the Center on
Budget and Policy Priorities, who told me, "There's
rising unemployment among all demographic groups, but
vastly more among the so-called unskilled."
How much more? Larry Mishel, the president of the
Economic Policy Institute, offers data showing that
blue-collar unemployment is increasing three times as
fast as white-collar unemployment. The last two
recessions -- in the early '90s and in 2001 -- produced
mass white-collar layoffs, and while the current one
has seen plenty of downsized real-estate agents and
financial analysts, the brunt is being borne by the
blue-collar working class, which has been sliding
downward since deindustrialization began in the '80s.
When I called food banks and homeless shelters around
the country, most staff members and directors seemed
poised to offer press-pleasing tales of formerly
middle-class families brought low. But some, like Toni
Muhammad at Gateway Homeless Services in
admitted that mostly they see "the long-term poor," who
become even poorer when they lose the kind of low-wage
jobs that had been so easy for me to find from 1998 to
2000. As Candy Hill, a vice president of Catholic
middle class -- on Wall Street and
it's the people on the back streets who are really suffering."
What are the stations between poverty and destitution?
Like the Nouveau Poor, the already poor descend through
a series of deprivations, though these are less likely
to involve forgone vacations than missed meals and
medications. The Times reported earlier this month that
one-third of Americans can no longer afford to comply
with their prescriptions.
There are other, less life-threatening, ways to try to
make ends meet. The Associated Press has reported that
more women from all social classes are resorting to
stripping, although "gentlemen's clubs," too, have been
hard-hit by the recession. The rural poor are turning
increasingly to "food auctions," which offer items that
may be past their sell-by dates.
And for those who like their meat fresh, there's the
option of urban hunting. In
laid-off mechanic told me he's supplementing his diet
by "shooting squirrels and rabbits and eating them
stewed, baked and grilled." In
wildlife population has mounted as the human population
ebbs, a retired truck driver is doing a brisk business
in raccoon carcasses, which he recommends marinating
with vinegar and spices.
The most common coping strategy, though, is simply to
increase the number of paying people per square foot of
dwelling space -- by doubling up or renting to
couch-surfers. It's hard to get firm numbers on
overcrowding, because no one likes to acknowledge it to
census-takers, journalists or anyone else who might be
remotely connected to the authorities. At the legal
level, this includes Peg taking in her daughter and two
grandchildren in a trailer with barely room for two, or
my nephew and his wife preparing to squeeze all four of
them into what is essentially a one-bedroom apartment.
But stories of Dickensian living arrangements abound.
lost their jobs, or at least their second jobs, cope by
doubling or tripling up in overcrowded apartments, or
by paying 50 or 60 or even 70 percent of their incomes
in rent." Thelmy Perez, an organizer with Strategic
Actions for a Just Economy, is trying to help an
elderly couple who could no longer afford the $600 a
month rent on their two-bedroom apartment, so they took
in six unrelated subtenants and are now facing
eviction. According to a community organizer in my own
complex occupied largely by day laborers contains two
bedrooms, each housing a family of up to five people,
plus an additional person laying claim to the couch.
Overcrowding -- rural, suburban and urban -- renders the
mounting numbers of the poor invisible, especially when
the perpetrators have no telltale cars to park on the
street. But if this is sometimes a crime against zoning
laws, it's not exactly a victimless one. At best, it
leads to interrupted sleep and long waits for the
bathroom; at worst, to explosions of violence. Catholic
Charities is reporting a spike in domestic violence in
many parts of the country, which Candy Hill attributes
to the combination of unemployment and overcrowding.
And doubling up is seldom a stable solution. According
to Toni Muhammad, about 70 percent of the people
seeking emergency shelter in
been living with relatives "but the place was too
small." When I asked Peg what it was like to share her
trailer with her daughter's family, she said bleakly,
"I just stay in my bedroom."
The deprivations of the formerly affluent Nouveau Poor
are real enough, but the situation of the already poor
suggests that they do not necessarily presage a
greener, more harmonious future with a flatter
distribution of wealth. There are no data yet on the
effects of the recession on measures of inequality, but
historically the effect of downturns is to increase,
not decrease, class polarization.
The recession of the '80s transformed the working class
into the working poor, as manufacturing jobs fled to
the third world, forcing American workers into the
low-paying service and retail sector. The current
recession is knocking the working poor down another
notch -- from low-wage employment and inadequate housing
toward erratic employment and no housing at all.
Comfortable people have long imagined that American
poverty is far more luxurious than the third world
variety, but the difference is rapidly narrowing.
Maybe "the economy," as depicted on CNBC, will revive
again, restoring the kinds of jobs that sustained the
working poor, however inadequately, before the
recession. Chances are, though, that they still won't
pay enough to live on, at least not at any level of
safety and dignity. In fact, hourly wage growth, which
had been running at about 4 percent a year, has
undergone what the Economic Policy Institute calls a
"dramatic collapse" in the last six months alone. In
good times and grim ones, the misery at the bottom just
keeps piling up, like a bad debt that will eventually come due.
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of "This Land Is Their Land: Reports From a Divided
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company