A couple of years ago, I spent some time in the former Soviet Union and occasionally, people ask me how I liked it and what my opinion on the countries is. Only after visiting the US, for the first time last year, did I realise how similar Russia and the US actually are. Although it took me months to understand what it actually was that made these countries so similar, I realised what it was only a couple of weeks ago: Poverty.
Both countries suffer from a large chunk of lower class people submerged in poverty. The biggest difference between the two countries is that in Russia (and some of the other former Soviet republics) poverty is socially accepted and people, mostly through extended families, manage to get by. It is believed that the 'hidden' Russian economy rivals that of the official economy.
In the US, due to its capitalist nature, poverty is hidden below the surface, swept under the carpet and seen as the sufferer's own fault. As a result, living in poverty in the US is all the worse for it: There are seldom extended families to fall back on.
The book by Ehrenreich, although not very well written, brings to the surface the trials these lower classes have to go through. These are NOT the homeless who push their own shopping cart around, these are people that work at fast food chanes, diners, cleaning agencies and so on. People you'd normally think, since they hold a regular job, should be able to manage. Well, they generally don't.
A 'living wage', the yearly amount of money one has to earn to cover basic needs, is set at around 60.000 USD. This covers a family of three. It turns out that 60 percent of people (!!!) earn less than this living wage. Half of it, 30.000 USD per year, is considered 'poverty wage' and no less then 30% of the workforce earn this little.
In the 90s, when there was a labour shortage, wages didn't go up (in fact, in the last 30 years, wages at the bottom end of the spectrum have fallen behind inflation significantly) although, in a capitalist market, demand should have pushed the prices up. The reason is that, although the companies these people work for operate within a true capitalist democracy, these people themselves, working within these companies can not act as free agents within a capitalist democracy. They can not profit from the laws of supplies and demands. Not only do most of these companies make sure they don't (union busting behavour for example), quitting a job also means a week or two with no job and no income, making it generally impossible to meet the high rent most of these people suffer from.
Ehrenreich's journey is interesting. She goes 'undercover in low wage USA' and is able to uncover interesting facts. However, I do think she's rather easy on herself: quitting jobs or places after reasonably mild setbacks. Still, this only credits the people that have no choice but to stay, no exit strategy. The hidden poor of the US of A.