Just Getting By in America

I do have to admit writing this paper made me feel a little dirty inside.

The recent controversy about illegal immigrants covered a wide range of issues, but when I read the newspapers, watched the news, or listened to talk radio, I heard one theme that repeated itself again and again: jobs. Americans seemed most concerned about the loss of what they deemed “their jobs” to those who were living on American soil illegally.

What struck me most is that the jobs held by illegal aliens are typically the kind that Barbara Ehrenriech writes about in her book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Most work the jobs that are lowest paying, often physically demanding, with little, if any benefits—the types of jobs that most Americans say they would not want to work themselves. So, why is there so much societal anger over immigrants taking these jobs?

I submit that the reason is simple. These so-called undesirable jobs serve an important function in our economy, as evidenced by the circumstances of Ehrenriech’s Merry Maids co-workers, and given that they are willing to work a difficult job for so little pay. Ehrenriech writes,


“While I wait in the inner room, where the phone is and Tammy has her desk, to be issued a uniform, I hear her tell a potential customer on the phone that The Maids charges $25 per person-hour. The company gets $25 and we get $6.65 for each hour we work? I think I must have misheard, but a few minutes later I hear her say the same thing to another inquirer” (Mulvaney 418).

When I first read Nickel and Dimed a few years back, I felt the same incredulousness that Ehrenreich conveys in the above passage. I thought that the company was exploitative and that the low wage rate was a gross injustice. But three years and a handful of economics courses later, my mind has changed. While I still feel a bit uncomfortable with the low wage and feel that the employer is exploitative to a degree, I understand more about why. I understand that the market dictates both the wage the employer pays and the rate he charges his customers.

The author goes on to say, “[T]he only advantage of working here as opposed to freelancing is that you don’t need a clientele or even a car. You can arrive straight from welfare or, in my case, the bus station—fresh off the boat” (Mulvaney 418). She says ‘only’, as if this were a small obstacle to be overcome, but this factor is the key to why the wage is only $6.65 an hour, as opposed to $15. A freelancing maid is thought to have human capital that these others lack. She has at least a car, as well as the social capital to secure a clientele. She knows people, how to talk to them, and has the business acumen to run her own single person company.

The typical Merry Maid is just as Ehrenreich describes—just off welfare or the boat, without a car and without many choices. In short, she is a low skilled, or no skilled, worker. If she quits, she is likely to get another job with about the same pay rate; she simply does not have the skill set to get a higher paying job. And when she does quit, her employer can easily replace her with another willing to take $6.65 an hour. He has no economic incentive to pay his workers a higher wage. In fact, he has an economic disincentive to do so. If he pays his employees more, he simply loses profits, for nothing in return. He is not going to get a higher quality worker. As the passage tells us, there really is no skill or quality involved in the job, The aim is to simply make things look good, with the least possible work done. That is not to say that the employees don’t work hard. The problem is that most anybody can do it.

Furthermore, if the employer were to pay his employees more, he would probably cut his workforce down in order to make up for the loss of profits. While the wage increase would benefit those who were not laid off, it would do far more damage to those who were. Those who lost their jobs would prefer $6.65 an hour to nothing at all, which is why they are willing to work in the first place.

Much has been said by sociologists like Ehrenreich about the injustice of working so hard for so little. And while I sympathize with the hard life facing those who work these low paying jobs, I know that those same jobs fill a real need. Paying higher wages may seem like the easy solution, but that is the problem. It seems so easy, but it would hurt those it aims to protect most.

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