Dan Peters English 102
1 / 21 / 07
Friction, What Friction?
Deep in the heart of America there lies a large mass of hard-working, low-wage workers. These people sacrifice day in and day out just so they can survive in this cold, harsh world, but unfortunately for many of them, there is no end to the madness of scraping by in life anywhere in close sight. Why are so many low-wage workers stuck in low-wage jobs forever? Barbara Ehrenreich offers up one possible reason in her best selling book Nickel and Dimed. In it, Ehrenreich believes that the explanation for permanent low-wage workers is due to the “friction” between the workers and their opportunities for advancement in their wages (205). There are many different reasons that the staggering amounts of friction are caused for the long term low-wage workers, and something needs to be done in order to ease the burden of the obstacles that get in the way of achieving the “economic man” theory. Through achieving affordable mass transportation in America and more of an awareness of better job opportunities, the friction that holds back the long-term low-wage workers from maximizing their wages can finally be eased.
The economic man theory is a term that states that any person can “obtain the highest possible well-being for himself given available information about opportunities and other constraints,” (Wikipedia). The friction that Ehrenreich talks about in her book is stated right in the definition of economic man. The definition talks about “other constraints” in the pursuit of maximizing economic goals. These constraints are the exact same thing as the friction that Ehrenreich describes, but what is this friction that she talks about?
First of all, low-wage workers are stuck in their jobs because they have no bargaining power. Low-wage jobs are just too plentiful, as is the amount of people who can fill them. Worker unions are commonly non-existent in low-wage jobs. Because of this, there is almost no way for a worker to complain about their wages and receive a pay raise. If they do, the employer often fires them in a heartbeat with absolutely no remorse, because they can just hire another person to do the exact same job, yet never complains about their wages. In essence, almost every low-wage worker is expendable and easily replaced by somebody else. For example, the mega company Wal-Mart does not have unions for their low-wage workers, thus they can pay them less, because if somebody mouths off about their wages, a replacement is already working the next day. Ehrenreich writes about a woman named Marlene, who has an interesting personal take on this situation. She states that, “Wal-Mart would rather just keep hiring new people than treating the ones it has decently,” (184). Friction? I would say so.
When a person’s only income is one low-wage job, they often have to work a second job just so they can support themselves financially. This is a huge time constraint for a worker. Their life consists of two things, working and sleeping. Who has the time and energy to go from place to place to find a better paying job? Certainly these people don’t. In her book, Ehrenreich searches for her jobs before she starts her living experience, but in reality, a person can’t afford to look for work unless they already have a steady job, which takes up their time and energy. As Ehrenreich said, why not stay with the devil you already know rather than go to the devil you don’t know (205). This thinking applies to low-wage jobs, and people not wanting to leave their comfort zones to take a risk.
Media and technology has a huge impact on life in America, but unfortunately for low-wage workers, it also is a huge detriment on their lives. Technology allows people to quickly find better job opportunities and quickly arrange interviews. Since low-wage workers can’t afford internet access, fancy computers, or even cell phones, they can’t take advantage of the opportunities that they provide. Instead, they are forced to scan the want-ads and hear about job openings from others. This means that the number of quality jobs available to them decreases by a substantial margin. Also because of the lack of technology, the workers are misinformed about their overall economic opportunities. They don’t get the chance to read the latest article on how to get a well-paying job, or how to raise an unfairly low wages.
The last and most substantial impact on the friction with low-wage workers would be transportation, or lack there of. Transportation costs continue to skyrocket in today’s gas-guzzling society due to the continued rise in gas prices at the pump. Currently, gas prices are hovering over $2.00 per gallon, which in turn raise the cost of riding the bus. Public transportation is in limited supply all around the country because it does not allow a person to go everywhere that they need to go. For example, Margy Waller writes that, “while many new jobs are located in the suburbs, public transit rarely takes central city residents all the way to the door of suburban employers,” (The Brookings Institution). Outside of some of the big cities, public transportation is almost non-existent. Long-term low-wage workers are on such a limited income that they often can not afford to buy a car, let alone keep it running with the current high gas prices. This means that these workers must rely on public transportation or friends to get around. If either of these is unreliable, they have to walk or ride a bike, which immediately shrinks the size of their possible employment and housing situations. Also, this shrinks the number of good job opportunities, which also shrinks the possibility of finding a well-paying job. Ehrenreich is forced to move to a higher priced living situation when she gets a better job, because she can’t afford the driving costs, and she had a reliable car and no kids to drive around. She has to pay $100 more per month than her old but comfortable apartment to live in a smaller, crappier trailer because it is closer to her new job at Jerry’s (38). Ehrenreich’s coworker Tina is forced to pay $60 a night at a Days Inn because she has no car and it is within walking distance of her waitressing job (26). Also, many low-wage workers have children, so they are forced to take jobs that are close to their children’s schools and daycare centers. The mobility of a low-wage worker shrinks with every new variable added to their situation.
Something must be done to ease all of these frictions that prevent the economic man theory from applying to every worker, not just the middle and upper class workers. I think that the mass transportation system all around the country should be united into a series of subways, high speed rail cars, monorails, and easy to use bus routes. Smaller towns and rural areas should also be a part of the mix, and serviced as well, unlike the current system that only is in a few big cities, like New York City and San Francisco. Buses should be in more organized and have straight-shot routes to reduce travel time for everybody. Also, they should have longer routes that stretch even as far as the suburbs. Europe is a great example of how to properly use mass transportation. Most people in Europe use some sort of mass transportation, buses or high speed trains, to get around to places like their workplace. A reliance on cars is nowhere near as plentiful in Europe as it is in America. As an added bonus, mass transportation is better for the environment by leaving a cleaner air than cars do, and they use less oil.
The problem with redesigning the mass transportation system is the overall cost for the consumer as well as the government. In order to pay for a mass transportation makeover, it takes billions of dollars, which is likely raised through taxes and higher purchasing prices. Billions of dollars are being spent on the Iraq War, if the government took just a small piece of that money, the new mass transportation system could be paid for without even raising taxes. Even with a new mass transit system, the current costs are still relatively high, which is one reason that only 4% of current Americans use public transportation to commute to work (Opinion Journal.com). If it is made more affordable, isn’t a little bit of extra money out of your pocket worth the cost, in order to help the low-wage workers.
Another important step into easing the friction would be to give more of a sense of job awareness to the low-wage workers. This could be achieved through technology, but technology that the low-wage workers can afford. Something like a public television channel dedicated to helping low-wage workers by showing stories that relate to their lives would make a much bigger impact than going to the local Worksource and standing in line. A majority of the rest of the problems are solved when better mass public transportation is achieved. The area in which a person can afford to work in will greatly increase, as will the area in which to find affordable housing. With a wider range of area for everybody, the number of good job opportunities with higher wages will increase, so people will not have to work two jobs as often. This opens up more free time to look for an even better job.
In the end, almost all of the problems with the friction will be gone. Finally, the economic man theory is achievable for everyone. With a fantastic mass public transportation system all around the country and an increased awareness in job opportunities, long-term low-wage working will no longer be an option, unless a person wants it to be. If the transportation system is connected in every area of the country, than the people of the country will be more connected as well. Through hard work and dedication, anybody can achieve their realistic financial and career goals. The friction for low-wage workers as described by Ehrenreich in her book Nickel and Dimed would be all but vanished. I don’t think that there is one true way to end poverty and long-term low-wages, but this is one logical step towards trying to achieve economic prosperity for everybody.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed. New York: Henry Holt and Company,
Opinion Jornal.com. 16 March 2005. Wall Street Journal. 21 January 2007.
The Brookings Institution. Margy Waller. 15 December 2005. The Brookings
Institution. 25 January 2005.
Wikipedia.org. 19 December 2006. Wikipedia. 21 January 2007.