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Tomgram: Peter Van Buren, Minimum Wage, Minimum Chance

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

To say that we live on a 1% planet isn't just a turn of phrase. In fact, it would undoubtedly be more accurate to speak of a .1% or a .01% planet. In recent years, wealth and income inequalities have grown in a notorious fashion in the United States -- and, as it turns out, globally as well. In January, Oxfam released a report on the widening gap between global wealth and poverty. It found that, between 2010 and today, the wealth of the poorest half of the planet's population fell by a trillion dollars, a drop of 41%, while that of the richest 62 people (53 men and nine women) increased by half a trillion dollars. Put another way, those 62 billionaires were wealthier than the bottom 50% of the world's people, while the richest 1% owned more than the other 99% combined. The direction in which we're heading is obvious. Just consider that, in 2010, it took 388 of the super-rich to equal the holdings of the bottom 50%; now, that number is 326 people smaller.

Keep that trend line in mind as you read about TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren's latest adventures in the minimum-wage economy. Back in 2014, he described for this site how, having lost his State Department job for being a whistleblower on the Iraq War, he fell for a time into the low-wage world. As he wrote, "And soon enough, I did indeed find myself working in exactly that economy and, worse yet, trying to live on the money I made. But it wasn't just the money. There's this American thing in which jobs define us, and those definitions tell us what our individual futures and the future of our society is likely to be. And believe me, rock bottom is a miserable base for any future." His experiences in a big-box retail store inspired him to write his novel, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent. As last year ended, he returned to the minimum-wage world, now -- thanks in particular to Bernie Sanders -- part of the national conversation. And here's what he found. Tom

Nickel and Dimed in 2016
You Can't Earn a Living on the Minimum Wage
By Peter Van Buren

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When presidential candidate Bernie Sanders talks about income inequality, and when other candidates speak about the minimum wage and food stamps, what are they really talking about?

Whether they know it or not, it's something like this.

My Working Life Then

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A few years ago, I wrote about my experience enmeshed in the minimum-wage economy, chronicling the collapse of good people who could not earn enough money, often working 60-plus hours a week at multiple jobs, to feed their families. I saw that, in this country, people trying to make ends meet in such a fashion still had to resort to food benefit programs and charity. I saw an employee fired for stealing lunches from the break room refrigerator to feed himself. I watched as a co-worker secretly brought her two kids into the store and left them to wander alone for hours because she couldn't afford childcare. (As it happens, 29% of low-wage employees are single parents.)

At that point, having worked at the State Department for 24 years, I had been booted out for being a whistleblower. I wasn't sure what would happen to me next and so took a series of minimum wage jobs. Finding myself plunged into the low-wage economy was a sobering, even frightening, experience that made me realize just how ignorant I had been about the lives of the people who rang me up at stores or served me food in restaurants. Though millions of adults work for minimum wage, until I did it myself I knew nothing about what that involved, which meant I knew next to nothing about twenty-first-century America.

I was lucky. I didn't become one of those millions of people trapped as the "working poor." I made it out. But with all the election talk about the economy, I decided it was time to go back and take another look at where I had been, and where too many others still are.

My Working Life Now

I found things were pretty much the same in 2016 as they were in 2012, which meant -- because there was no real improvement -- that things were actually worse.

This time around, I worked for a month and a half at a national retail chain in New York City. While mine was hardly a scientific experiment, I'd be willing to bet an hour of my minimum-wage salary ($9 before taxes) that what follows is pretty typical of the New Economy.

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Just getting hired wasn't easy for this 56-year-old guy. To become a sales clerk, peddling items that were generally well under $50 a pop, I needed two previous employment references and I had to pass a credit check. Unlike some low-wage jobs, a mandatory drug test wasn't part of the process, but there was a criminal background check and I was told drug offenses would disqualify me. I was given an exam twice, by two different managers, designed to see how I'd respond to various customer situations. In other words, anyone without some education, good English, a decent work history, and a clean record wouldn't even qualify for minimum-wage money at this chain.

And believe me, I earned that money. Any shift under six hours involved only a 15-minute break (which cost the company just $2.25). Trust me, at my age, after hours standing, I needed that break and I wasn't even the oldest or least fit employee. After six hours, you did get a 45-minute break, but were only paid for 15 minutes of it.

The hardest part of the job remained dealing with... well, some of you. Customers felt entitled to raise their voices, use profanity, and commit Trumpian acts of rudeness toward my fellow employees and me. Most of our "valued guests" would never act that way in other public situations or with their own coworkers, no less friends. But inside that store, shoppers seemed to interpret "the customer is always right" to mean that they could do any damn thing they wished. It often felt as if we were penned animals who could be poked with a stick for sport, and without penalty. No matter what was said or done, store management tolerated no response from us other than a smile and a "Yes, sir" (or ma'am).

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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