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Why care about the poor? Low unemployment and the rising stock market were supposed to have lifted most boats in the ’90s. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act’s unspoken premise was that if you can’t make it in these flush times, you don’t really deserve to make it at all.

Numbers tell another story. The Preamble Center for Public Policy, for example, estimated that at the boom’s height the odds were 97-1 against a typical welfare recipient landing a job that would provide for decent housing and a “living wage.” The same year,

1998, the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute reported that 30 percent of the work force toiled for less than $8 an hour, a wage that would barely guarantee subsistence.

So why does a rosy picture of prosperity persist? One place to look for an answer is Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

Starting in 1998, Ehrenreich went “undercover” for two years and six jobs to figure out, as she put it, “How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? And how, in particular, were the 12 million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour?”

She presented herself as a “divorced homemaker re-entering the workforce after many years” and quickly landed jobs as, among others, a waitress in Key West, Fla., a housecleaner in Portland, Maine, a Wal-Mart “associate” in Minneapolis, Minn. But she found that, thanks largely to the lack of affordable housing, she could barely get by.

She discovered that her co-workers lacked health insurance; they had no savings; they certainly did not own their homes, yet they seemed to be working all the time. And when trouble strikes — a sick relative, a pregnancy, a work injury — there is often nowhere to turn. Soup kitchens are in crisis. Social service agencies prove inadequate. Employers do not come to the rescue. Neither does the government in the form of extended sick pay, affordable childcare or adequate low-income housing. One co-worker lived in her car; another was pregnant but withering away from lack of food. Many held two jobs.

Just as disturbing were the work conditions Ehrenreich describes as “authoritarian” and “dictatorial.” Ehrenreich is shocked to find that her employers freely search her belongings, chastise her for “gossiping,” submit her to personality tests, bar bathroom breaks and generally treat her as if she were in high school. She reports that Wal-Mart frustrates attempts at unionizing or job negotiating, advocating instead a philosophy to “respect the individual, exceed customers’ expectations and strive for excellence.”

“You have relative freedom when you’re not at work,” Ehrenreich said in a telephone interview. “When you’re not at work you are a citizen of a democracy and a bill of rights applies to you. But when you enter the workplace, especially in low-wage jobs, you check your civil rights at the door.”

“You can be fired at the whim of employers,” Ehrenreich continued. When it comes to constitutional rights, freedom of speech and privacy, “there’s no protection unless you have a union contract.”

Why this story is underreported is no mystery to Ehrenreich. She chalks up the absence of poverty coverage to a series of New Economy blinders. Blinder No. 1 might be called The State of the Media. “So many media outlets are pitched to affluent consumers,” Ehrenreich argued. “They really do not want low-income viewers and readers because it harms their demographics. Rather, they want to tell advertisers how wealthy their audience is.” One editor of a national news magazine gave her the green light to write a piece on women and poverty only if she “made it upscale.”

Blinder No. 2, according to Ehrenreich, stems from class bias and ignorance. “Editors and media decision makers,” she said, “are often from a fairly insular world. I remember pitching a story to an editor — actually at a quite liberal magazine — about how the so-called man shortage could be solved if women dated blue-collar men, and her response was, ‘But can they talk?’”

Nickel and Dimed offers no economic proscriptions, no blueprint for a fairer labor market. Yet embedded in the descriptions of low-wage life is a call for the re-evalution of the government’s definition of poverty, which since 1960 has been based largely on food costs.

A family of four with an income near the current poverty line, $17,229, is still poor, according to Ehrenreich’s assessment. “Today’s definition of poverty doesn’t take into account rent inflation and things like health care,” she said. The other major problem in assessing poverty, argued Ehenreich, is the long-held idea that full employment is the chief solution to poverty. It is an idea she calls a “liberal myth.”

Ehrenreich ends her book predicting that low-wage workers “are bound to tire of getting so little in return, and demand to be paid what they’re worth.” But during the interview, she admitted, “I’m not sitting around feeling smug and happy about the prospect [of significant change] until it happens. The guys in Washington are very scary and I’m waiting for resistance on all fronts.”

Ehrenreich said she takes heart in the demonstrations against corporate influence in politics that have taken place most recently in Quebec City, even though it seems the bulk of the participants are college students. In the end, she is not surprised that so many low-income workers — and those more economically fortunate — have tuned out: “Politics seems very remote when you don’t see a candidate working for you.”

With Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich has written 11 books in between reams of op-eds and investigative articles for publications ranging from the Progressive to Time magazine. Her book-length subjects have explored the sexual politics of sickness, the inner life of the middle class, the origins of war, the flight from commitment by American men. And she even has written a novel, Kipper’s Game, based loosely on her early years as a scientist (Ehrenreich earned a Ph.D. in biology before becoming a journalist).

But Nickel and Dimed is her most personal book. She connects to her low-wage co-earners by summoning her late father, who worked himself out of the copper mines of the Union Pacific into a middle-class life. “In my own family,” writes Ehrenreich, “the low-wage way of life had never been many degrees of separation away … So to me, sitting at a desk all day was not only a privilege, but a duty: Something I owe to all those people in my life, living and dead, who’ve had so much more to say than anyone ever got to hear.”

This sense of responsibility and good fortune has led Ehrenreich to what she calls “a question-driven life driven in part by a commitment to social justice.” It also has led her to a sustained outrage against inequality. Asked to describe the most striking experience during her low-wage investigation, she responded:

“What sticks out the most was how much pain we choose not to see everyday, we who are middle- and upper-middle-class people; how much discomfort, actual suffering there is behind what we take for granted.”

Ehrenreich said this was made very vivid during the time she worked for The Maids cleaning franchise in Maine. “I was working next to sick women polishing up some McMansion,” she said. “And the people who would return would have no idea that during the day there were tears shed while their butcher-block counters were being cleaned.”

But would those people, even if they were to read Ehrenreich’s book, care?

They should. Living in a sharply divided world hurts well-off people just as much as the poor, Ehrenreich said in response. It frightens us all.

But then she took a deep breath, as if confronted by her own demons.

“Well, I guess I would drag out the Bible,” she said. “Though I’m not a religious person, the Bible makes it pretty clear that you turn away from the poor at your own moral danger. I didn’t say that. They did.”

Tamara Straus is a consulting editor and staff writer for AlterNet. E-mail

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