Conformity and Perspective in Nickel and Dimed
By Bryan Caplan
As you might expect, Barbara Ehrenreich didn’t like working at Wal-Mart. Why not? Low pay is a big part of the story, but it’s the demand for conformity that really rubs her the wrong way:
With competence comes a new impatience: Why does anybody put up with the wages we’re paid? True, most of my fellow workers are better cushioned than I am; they live with spouses or grown children or they have other jobs in addition to this one. I sit with Lynne in the break room one night and find out this is only a part-time job for her-six hours a day-with the other eight hours spent at a factory for $9 an hour. Doesn’t she get awfully tired? Nah, it’s what she’s always done. The cook at the Radio Grill has two other jobs. You might expect a bit of grumbling, some signs here and there of unrest- graffiti on the hortatory posters in the break room, muffled guffaws during our associate meetings but I can detect none of that. Maybe this is what you get when you weed out all the rebels with drug tests and personality “surveys”-a uniformly servile and denatured workforce, content to dream of the distant day when they’ll be vested in the company’s profit-sharing plan. They even join in the “Wal-Mart cheer” when required to do so at meetings, I’m told by the evening fitting room lady, though I am fortunate enough never to witness this final abasement.
But if it’s hard to think “out of the box,” it may be almost impossible to think out of the Big Box. Wal-Mart, when you’re in it, is total – a closed system, a world unto itself. I get a chill when I’m watching TV in the break room one afternoon and see … a commercial for Wal-Mart… Even the woods and the meadows have been stripped of disorderly life forms and forced into a uniform made of concrete… The only thing to do is ask: Why do you – why do we – work here? Why do you stay?
I’m sorely tempted to recite the First Law of Wing-Walking: Never let hold of what you’ve got until you’ve got hold of something else. Ignoring this Law is arguably the biggest flaw in Ehrenreich’s experiment, which requires her to keep quitting her jobs and finding others in distant cities. On further reflection, though, Nickel and Dimed doesn’t even leave time for a given job to improve:
So when Isabelle praises my work a second time (!), I take the opportunity to say I really appreciate her encouragement, but I can’t afford to live on $7 an hour, and how does she do it? The answer is that she lives with her grown daughter, who also works, plus the fact that she’s worked here two years, during which her pay has shot up to $7.75 an hour. She counsels patience: it could happen to me. Melissa, who has the advantage of a working husband, says, “Well, it’s a job.” Yes, she made twice as much when she was a waitress but that place closed down and at her age she’s never going to be hired at a high-tip place. I recognize the inertia, the unwillingness to start up with the apps and the interviews and the drug tests again. She thinks she should give it a year. A year? I tell her I’m wondering whether I should give it another week.
The sarcasm puzzles me. For perspective, imagine someone proposed cutting food stamps by 10%. How would Ehrenreich react? I’m confident that she’d consider this a major blow for low-income families. So why doesn’t a 10.5% raise after a year or two of steady employment count as a major improvement? Why?