AUGUST 9, 2011 5:59PM

Salon.Com "Nickel and Dimed"

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How America turned poverty into a crime


"When "Nickel and Dimed" was published in May 2001, cracks were appearing in the dot-com bubble and the stock market had begun to falter, but the book still evidently came as a surprise, even a revelation, to many. Again and again, in that first year or two after publication, people came up to me and opened with the words, "I never thought..." or "I hadn't realized..."

To my own amazement, "Nickel and Dimed" quickly ascended to the bestseller list and began winning awards. Criticisms, too, have accumulated over the years. But for the most part, the book has been far better received than I could have imagined it would be, with an impact extending well into the more comfortable classes. A Florida woman wrote to tell me that, before reading it, she'd always been annoyed at the poor for what she saw as their self-inflicted obesity. Now she understood that a healthy diet wasn't always an option. And if I had a quarter for every person who's told me he or she now tipped more generously, I would be able to start my own foundation. 

At the time I wrote "Nickel and Dimed," I wasn't sure how many people it directly applied to -- only that the official definition of poverty was way off the mark, since it defined an individual earning $7 an hour, as I did on average, as well out of poverty. But three months after the book was published, the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., issued a report entitled "Hardships in America: The Real Story of Working Families," which found an astounding 29 percent of American families living in what could be more reasonably defined as poverty, meaning that they earned less than a barebones budget covering housing, child care, health care, food, transportation, and taxes -- though not, it should be noted, any entertainment, meals out, cable TV, Internet service, vacations, or holiday gifts. 29 percent is a minority, but not a reassuringly small one, and other studies in the early 2000s came up with similar figures.

The big question, 10 years later, is whether things have improved or worsened for those in the bottom third of the income distribution, the people who clean hotel rooms, work in warehouses, wash dishes in restaurants, care for the very young and very old, and keep the shelves stocked in our stores. The short answer is that things have gotten much worse, especially since the economic downturn that began in 2008. 
In 2008 and 2009, for example, blue-collar unemployment was increasing three times as fast as white-collar unemployment, and African American and Latino workers were three times as likely to be unemployed as white workers. Low-wage blue-collar workers, like the people I worked with in this book, were especially hard hit for the simple reason that they had so few assets and savings to fall back on as jobs disappeared. 

Perhaps the constant suspicions of drug use and theft that I encountered in low-wage workplaces should have alerted me to the fact that, when you leave the relative safety of the middle class, you might as well have given up your citizenship and taken residence in a hostile nation.

Most cities, for example, have ordinances designed to drive the destitute off the streets by outlawing such necessary activities of daily life as sitting, loitering, sleeping, or lying down. Urban officials boast that there is nothing discriminatory about such laws: "If you're lying on a sidewalk, whether you're homeless or a millionaire, you're in violation of the ordinance," a St. Petersburg, Florida, city attorney stated in June 2009, echoing Anatole France's immortal observation that "the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges..."

In defiance of all reason and compassion, the criminalization of poverty has actually intensified as the weakened economy generates ever more poverty. So concludes a recent study from the National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness, which finds that the number of ordinances against the publicly poor has been rising since 2006, along with the harassment of the poor for more "neutral" infractions like jaywalking, littering, or carrying an open container. 

That could be me before the blow-drying and eyeliner, and it's definitely Al Szekeley at any time of day. A grizzled 62-year-old, he inhabits a wheelchair and is often found on G Street in Washington, D.C. -- the city that is ultimately responsible for the bullet he took in the spine in Phu Bai, Vietnam, in 1972.

He had been enjoying the luxury of an indoor bed until December 2008, when the police swept through the shelter in the middle of the night looking for men with outstanding warrants. It turned out that Szekeley, who is an ordained minister and does not drink, do drugs, or cuss in front of ladies, did indeed have one -- for "criminal trespassing," as sleeping on the streets is sometimes defined by the law. So he was dragged out of the shelter and put in jail.

"Can you imagine?" asked Eric Sheptock, the homeless advocate (himself a shelter resident) who introduced me to Szekeley. "They arrested a homeless man in a shelter for being homeless?" 


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When a homeless vet can be arrested in a homeless shelter for being homeless, in my (often NOT so) humble opinion, the end is near.

Other's would say: "he's doing the best he can with the cards he's been dealt."
Yes, I see many criminals in the street - Wall Street! Let us require all bankers and traders to sleep under bridges and the working poor granted quarters of the highest order. With justice comes mercy and with mercy comes survival. There is no other path.

I am Barack Obama, President, and I approve this post.
Thank You, President, and I support Your most recent proposal 100%.

Thanks for stopping by to visit poor, little, old(e) humble me.

It shows that You care.
Nice to see You around, again, Toritto. I, rarely, post twice in a day, for a variety of reasons, but when I read Ehrenreich's piece, it, even shocked me.

It is rare that a day goes by, when Yahoo news doesn't report a mass shooting. This news, quickly, fades (replaced by another) except within the community in which it occurred.

I think all signs point to a REAL man of principle and morals; one who doesn't think principles run schools, and morals are a genus of mushroom to appear on the scene.

Maybe NO lesser of two evils, a blog post of mine, several down this time.

My hopes, currently are on Kucinich, Feingold, and, long shot Sanders to mount a credible primary challenge to the liar-in-chief.

We desperately need some of the caliber of the late Mark Hatfield (may He r.i.p), who a fellow blogger wrote so eloquently of, only days ago.

Thanks for stopping by.
Anatole France deserves a blog post of his own, Toritto, and not just for his defense of Dreyfus
I think that veteran in on G & K Street you mention who is in a wheelchair ...
If I'm not confused?
I observe street folk.
I watch hubris/lowly.
The veteran do
He's the same one?
He does wheel`ies.
He has hugged me.

I always share coin change.
Whenever I share change`
He's stands-up and smiles.
He sure can do maneuvers.
He's a jolly veteran to me.
He rides via the DC traffic.
He does wheelchair tricks.
He do a wheelchair popup.
I scribble in a hurry to say:
If your spine is blow away:
You still have a`Spirit Life.
He's animated and Beauty.
I can't figure those politicos.
They assemble to get drunk.
After sitting in DCs cubicles?
They rush to buy bad booze.
The veteran...
He's viewed as waste to them.
In their waste basket I sense?
Their heart is waste/void duh!

No doubt - Politico is de' trash.
Who's the bad depraved ones?
The vet in the wheelchair isn't.

I've no eloquent reason nor ask:
Who experience vast sorrows?
I discern an enormous lostness.

Politicos can't even smile at awe.
The war mongers are total losses.
I sense desperate misery's pains.

To cover their misery they drink.
I see these sad jokers on K & G. St.
I wonder the DC street and speak.
Veteran speak back kinds` to me.
They are more secure and know.
They know about `Immortality.

No doubt - Politicos are Pathetic.
I see a radiance and big old smile.

I rarely sense joy in the politicos.
On Thursdays I wander G & K St.
A smile radiates from homeless.

Of course, there is the derelict.

The arrogant are so depraved.
They smirk. They fear. Panics.
Always a special privilege to see the one I consider OS's poet laureate on my page.

Thanks for taking the time to visit, Art.
Previously, RW, I had listed the growth industries in america as:

A. War: six, now seven if You count the raging drugs wars of South America.
B. Arms sales, we ARE #1, and don't mind selling to both sides in a conflict.
C. Prison industrial complex, we a ARE #1, there, too, with the highest percentage of citizens behind bars, such that, we now, outsource the job, much as we outsource many other things, and Your prescience leads us to:
D. Removing dead bodies of the starving (don't want such disturbing images to be seen by the impressionable)

Thanks as always, for the value you add to my posts, RW.
Yes this book had quite and influence on me.
Thanks for coming by, SnarkyChaser. It's ALWAYS a special privilege to see new faces here.

I'd read Ehrenreich, before, but somehow, I missed this one, amidst the chaos of 2001.

Another line to add to my to do list.

Thanks for stopping by, SnarkyChaser, and I hope to see more of You whenever I post something of interest.
Didnt he write, Penguin Island?
I know that You like Anatole France, Snoreville, but Ehrenreich and he are of different genders!

Thanks for stopping by, Snoreville.
Maybe, She's a fraud; much like the Easter Bunny claims Santa Claus is.

Stick around Snoreville -- maybe we can draw a crowd, (or prepare a new career in Vaudeville).
I wish I could say this were a recent development in the moral decline of the U.S... but I remember, too well, all of this (live and in person) reaching back at least thirty years or more. It has always been too easy to be considered a nobody in that culture, in which the person, the human, is valued for less than are his "accoutrements". And you don't have to be "not white" to find that out.

An interview with Barbara Ehrenreich by Amy Goodman, yesterday.
Forty years ago, Amy was a volunteer at Pacifica WBAI radio in NYC. I had no doubt that she was headed with greatness, along with Laura Flanders, and me; a life of obscure activism.

It's unsurprising (and serendipitous) that she would have Barbara on, yesterday, as AMY does her homework and knows who she schedules and why.

Thanks for the link, Inverted Interrobang -- I do all the cooking, here, and I'm TOTALLY up to date on my radio shows. I need something to listen to, while cooking today.

Your link is serendipitous, too, and I thank You for it.
I've actually read this book. Thanks for the post. I could have guessed.
As Your identity comes more into view, Koshersalaaami, You never fail to surprise me with Your erudition.

Thanks for visiting.

homelessness in America is a non-political non-media non-national conversation subject tragically. (although the population hasn't been included in the political or media conversations for a good long time!) i honestly think not addressing the homeless crisis was a major part of our moral desensitization program and how ripe we were to be economically raped by the saturated with corruption three dimensions of society, pols, corporatists and self-aggrandizing academcis. politicians assuming non-homeless citizens should not be considered "citizens" ... they so easily exclude the bottom-line poor and mentally/emotionally challenged, from their supposed birthright as citizens. it makes it all the easier for them to expand the legions of the "nouveau poor" (my comment phrase of the week).

Christ's haunting comment about what you do to the least of us, you do unto me! now we are all sliding down to deeper poverty. will it enhance empathy among us or will stress make us all the more narcissistic?

my own near bottom of corporate food chain job is becoming more and more psychologically oppressive. ridiculous power and control shenanigans. the buyer's market and the "lucifer effect" among management at all levels. sustaining personal dignity and trying to survive. a challenge!

thanks for your spirit, wisdom and messaging! [r] libby
I doubt we will ever see the levels of indignation the eviction of the homeless evoked during the Thompkins Square Park riots of '88.

It's just too convenient to blame the plight of the poor and homeless on themselves.

Even, here on OS, I hear a refrain of I made it through adversity why can't they. Hello, the jobless rate hovers near 20% at least.

americans have become a nasty, retribution, it could never happen to me, bunch of sheep, without realizing the apocalyptic future being offered them.

Thanks for stopping by and allowing me to express my disgust, LibbyLiberalNYC.

I'm known for crankiness, but I just saw Your film rec. "Inside Job" and I'm furious, infuriated and despairing, AGAIN.

One more "doing the best he can with the cards he's been dealt," and I might bust (which likely would delight many here).

Sh*t, I'm a radical and I support obama - ROTFLMAO! What a group of idiots.
Mark, there has been a non-stop War on Empathy in America. The War on Drugs, the War on Terror are jokes. But the War on Empathy they (Dems and Repubs) won't admit to, that they have really done a massively good job on. The corporatists have Obama behind the amiable mask to lead it and the party that was known for being for the common good has devastated a sense of mutual responsibility to each other. That ship has sailed.

I don't know what to say about the lack of community among the citizenry. I think the media is evil in focusing always from the perspectives and with empathy for the power brokers, not real people. It makes the viewers identify with their own oppressors. It flips critical analysis into coldly watching a game, without embracing the consequences of said game. And games are about admiring power and winning, not about empathy and spiritual wakefulness.

CNN is all excited about what the jobless statistics, etc., will do to poor Obama's election in 2012, as if people drowning in poverty is not the important reality but what Obama will have to do next year. It is awesomely callous. Gamesmanship of the big guys, the hell with the plight of the people .... ANY people ANYWHERE, except if it is really titillating for a few minutes! Some exploitative human misery up close and personal. Then off to find some other titillation without ever helping people see the big evil picture or even followup on the blasting initial coverage of tragedy.

I can't access what is going on at OS. Personally, I am grateful for the hits I get sometimes, but the precious number of ratings (from allies like you) reveal the hits are not necessarily endorsements of the thinking. But at least people are reading some of the stuff I am putting out.

But I think there is a shift taking place, though I have not been here long. I think Obama is Captain of the USS Titanic and more and more people are wanting off before the 2012 crash and want a better option than him or the rabid rat bastard Republicans. It is a false choice, but learned helplessness and US political fatigue has made people cynical and passive, along with the distractions of the harsh reality of our personal economic lives.

We deserve a better choice than the political blackmail perpetrated for so long from front-stabbing but please don't notice it Dem Party.
LibbyLiberalNYC, I haven't gotten an EP, other than a gratuitous one, welcome to OS in my earliest days and doubt I'll ever get another, but as You point out, what IS crucially important is: "hits are not necessarily endorsements of the thinking. But at least people are reading some of the stuff I am putting out."

I, also, agree with You that a, now silent, but tectonic shift in sentiment is taking place.

Thanks for the return visit.
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