The Working Poor in Nickel and Dimed

/ 1 October 2010

As I’ve had to look up exactly what blue-collar and white-collar workers are the positive and negative stereotypes are less my own than they are those of the research I’ve done.

Blue-collar workers are members of the working class who typically perform manual labor and earn an hourly wage. That gives me a good enough place to do some explanation of the stereotypes… So let’s begin:

The clearest negative stereotype of these workers that I have in my mind is the danger they’re put in up against the lack of compensation (both in wages and in overall job support) that they get. Some are construction workers, others are miners, but both are definitely in positions of harm on the workplace. We have all seen news reports of mine explosions or seen accidents at construction sites to show the immense reality of this negative stereotype (actually not just stereotype but fact in my understanding).

The clearest positive stereotype of workers doing manual labor is that they are attaining more skills in the areas of their work than most office-based employees will. I’m sure they themselves may not consider this such of a positive stereotype, but if the industrial-and-corporate world ever falls it is these workers who’ll be the best off.

White-collar workers are salaried professionals or educated workers who perform semi-professional sales coordination tasks. The jobs of these workers aren’t nearly as dangerous of those of blue-collar workers, but they are jobs that may be quite boring and repetitive. The combination of both white and blue-collar workers makes up the working class, or working poor.

I’d say that one stereotype of white-collar workers I have is that they’re more likely to be the ones we would call “telemarketers” than anyone of a higher status in the same companies. These workers are generally handed tasks to do sitting in front of computers at a desk all day, and don’t really have much say in what they do, lest they resign.

As with blue-collar workers, a negative stereotype of white-collar workers is that their jobs are, to put it bluntly, boring. Most of these workers probably want to get themselves into the middle-class, and out of the drudgery of their current work situation. However, for most of these workers that is a far off, if not downright impossible, dream. Maybe some of these workers are high school dropouts, or never went to college. Some of them may be college dropouts. A small portion of these workers (especially these days with the recent recession) are educated employees who’ve gotten laid off.

The next book I’ll be reading in First-Year Seminar is Nickel and Dimed, a book whose author is writing about her experiences exploring the working poor’s work situations the best way she could: by joining them. So the last half of this blog post will be me guessing what challenges the author (Barbara Ehrenreich) will face in the work experience of the first chapter and then after reading the first chapter of the book talking about what surprised me in her experiences and what didn’t surprise me in her experiences.

Based on my definitions of these kinds of workers as well as my listed stereotypes and knowing a very little bit about where Ehrenreich may be coming from I can assume that she’ll be quite overwhelmed with the quality of life that blue-collar workers have. I’m taking a guess when I say that being the author of 12 books Ehrenreich has had no previous experience as a working-class employee. Being an author is worse off than most careers, but it still isn’t the working-class.

Therefore I need to decide where to start when explaining the challenge’s she’ll encounter. Being on an hourly wage will put higher constraints on speeding potential. She’ll likely have less if not no growth in savings accounts. Sales will suddenly look like a great deal, instead of just a somewhat good deal. As a manual labor-employee she’ll get more tired out faster, and count it good or bad, she may lose weight. If she was used to any luxury you can name, from eating out to extra clothes and other wants to cable TV, she’ll need to drastically cut back on the purchasing of those middle-class luxuries. Benefits (health insurance, retirement funds, etc.) are unheard of in the working-class. The list can go on forever, so I’ll stop it here.

After reading the first section of Nickel and Dimed I’ve come up with some conclusion as to what did and did not surprise me about the working conditions for the working poor in Florida. Here are some of those conclusions:

It didn’t surprise me that much that they all struggled on the edge to make ends meet, as this is a common trait for almost all working poor. There’s always going to be that sense of servitude in these working positions, a mean or downright evil manager, and very poor to no opportunities mid-shift for breaks. All the sets of managers Ehrenreich had in Florida exercised the structure-given privilege to keep their subordinates literally on their feet.

Even with Ehrenreich’s family background, I was a little surprised that she didn’t seem to ever melt down, or otherwise give up on the project. She stuck through the hard tasks at hand and came out with a solid understanding of the working-class citizens’ livelihood. This enabled her to do the best research, but it was still kind of surprising to me that she stayed so externally calm throughout the whole Florida section of the book.

One final thing that surprised me was the details of the workplaces she worked in. I was a bit surprised at just how bad the managers were, and how little they seemed to care for their subordinates. Lack of appropriate breaks, even for as little as using the restroom, seemed like way too many violations were being broken, even though a footnote said otherwise. Lastly, it was somewhat surprising to me that so many of Ehrenreich’s fellow sufferers had as stable living situations as they seemed to have. It made sense that those were the hardest part of working poor living%2