Our relation to the working-poor…

Our relation to the working-poor… September 3, 2009

Guilt, you may be thinking warily. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to feel? But guilt doesn’t go anywhere near far enough; the appropriate emotion is shame–shame at our own dependency, in this case, on the underpaid labor of others. When someone works for less pay that she can live on–when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently–then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health and her life. The “working poor,” as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else. As Gail, one of my restaurant coworkers put it, “you give and you give.”

Someday, of course–and I will make no predictions as to exactly when–they are bound to tire of gtting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they’re worth. There’ll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption. But the sky will not fall, and we will all be better off for it in the end.

Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed.  (New York: Henry Holt, 2001) p. 220-21

"If I am only now scaring you, I need to bring my A game. :-)"

Holding Hands During the Our Father: ..."
"I've lived through this in another direction: a pastor who hectored his congregation to join ..."

Holding Hands During the Our Father: ..."
"Given what some of the Father of the Church said (I am thinking it was ..."

Holding Hands During the Our Father: ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Matt Talbot

    Let that day be soon, for the sake of both the working poor and the souls of those for whom they toil.

  • Matt Talbot

    Let that day be soon, for the sake of both the working poor and the souls of those for whom they toil.

  • Liam

    Actually, people are *not* bound to tire of it. The capacity of human beings to endure that which they do not imagine they have much chance of changing is remarkably durable, sad to say.

  • I’ve never quite understood the lust for cheap labor and cheap goods. And yes, LUST is what it is, too.

    Anyone recall this list?:

    1. Pride
    2. Envy
    3. Anger
    4. Sloth
    5. Gluttony
    6. Avarice
    7. Lust

    Yep … there they are … the Seven Deadly Sins. And what is sitting right there amongst them? Why, its our old friend LUST!

    Question: How much of American Capitalism has to do with LUST? Could it survive without LUST? Does it really matter? Does anyone care?

  • ben

    I think we need to work on changing hearts and minds. Surely an uprising isn’t the answer.

  • markdefrancisis


    You are right. With the inability to imagine things really otherwise is the survivalistic(sic?)capacity to endure things as they happen to be.

  • ben,

    I definitely agree … we need to change hearts and minds.

    When we are finally finished, and human consciousness has evolved morally and spiritually, what we see today will no longer be. Then we can give praise to God!

  • markdefrancisis


    But should these workers not seek to unionize and/or collectively seek legitimate political leverage in the meantime?

  • Mark,

    How about curtailing the demand for cheap goods? Isn’t that demand behind the success of Walmart? Isn’t that demand behind the destruction of community after community in America? Isn’t that demand behind the demand for cheap labor?

  • Great book.

  • markdefrancisis



    If consumers were educated to see what they are actually ‘buying’ with their Walmart purchases, then real change would become more possible.

  • Smith

    Actually I didn’t care for the book. I don’t think the woman truly allowed herself to experience poverty, and it cheapened what she had to say for me.

  • Liam


    Because the odds against unionization are stacked very high in practice, and workers in the trenches know that. The fact that the main form of unionized worker that the American people encounter in day to day life is governmental (and UPS delivery people) doesn’t help to expand their imagination much in that regard.

  • markdefrancisis


    Again, you raise very sobering points.

    Additionally, I’ve worked in low-wage settings after college, during the early 90s recession, in which the mere whiff of union consideration sent management into a well-orchestrated effort to put a stop to things and weed out suspected moles/agitators.

  • B.C.

    “..an uprising isn’t the answer.”

    Why the hell not !

  • Kurt

    A report in the paper today of a Montana employer having workers sign a paper renouncing any future request they might make for union recognition.

    Beyond belief!