Sunday, July 31, 2011

Nickel and Dimed

Nickel and Dimed: on (Not) getting by in America
Barbara Ehrenreich (Henry Holt, 2001)

The financial page picture of economic life in America is dismal these days, but in a way that strikes me as abstract. The Dow Jones is down, the NASDAQ has crumbled, and IRA investors are nervous. A look at the fine print reveals rising personal debt, and the looming threat of corporate layoffs. In Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich dives right down past those abstractions, into the lives of people who may never be able to retire
at all, let alone in Wall-Street-supported comfort.
Ehrenreich went out and applied for jobs in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota. She folded clothes at Wal-Mart, waited tables, washed dish, and cleaned houses, to see what it's like to live on what those jobs pay. No big news, in a sense--it stinks: "What you don't necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you're actually selling is your life."
Ehrenreich allowed herself a safety net. She always had a car, a place to live, an ATM card. She came with the first month’s rent; the experiment was to see if she could legitimately earn another month’s rent in the best job (or jobs) that an ordinary person could get. “In addition to being mobile and unencumbered, I am probably in a lot better health than most members of the long-term low-wage workforce. I had everything going for me.” But nowhere does the equation work out.
This is a passionate, painful book. It could not have been done as a thought experiment. “There’s no way, for example, to pretend to be a waitress: the food either gets to the table or not.” Ehrenreich is really exhausted, her knees and back really hurt--and in the end she gets to go home, back across the divide into the world of people who can reach into their wallets to buy this book.
The last chapter of Nickel and Dimed treats the economic nuts and bolts of the experiment. Market rents go up; market wages do not; and the working poor go without lunch to make up the difference. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how the lowest-paid have disappeared from the agenda of American politics and media. Our blindness is our shame.

September 2001

Broke, USA

Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. – How the Working Poor Became Big Business
Gary Rivlin (2010, HarperCollins)

Last summer I wrote about Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, which told, from Wall Street’s point of view, the story of the past decade’s boom and bust in securities based on sub-prime-rate mortgages. Gary Rivlin’s Broke, USA is the complementary story about highly profitable predatory lending, from the streets and storefronts of Ohio and Georgia, where “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday, for a hamburger today” may carry an annual rate of interest of over three hundred per cent.

Sub-prime mortgages, it turns out, are just one of the reasons it’s so expensive to be poor. People living paycheck to paycheck, who owe more than they have, make use of a shadow banking system that makes every transaction cost more. They rely on storefront check-cashing and payday loan businesses, and pay a fee for every money order they use to pay a bill. What credit cards they can get carry interest rates of 25% and more. They may buy appliances and furniture through a rent-to-own deal, making weekly payments up to twice what the item is worth. They may pawn their guitars, their jewelry, or even the title to their car. “All those waitresses and store clerks and home health-care workers might not make much, but in the aggregate they can mean big bucks. Whereas the banker seeks 100 customers with $1 million, people inside the payday industry like to say they covet a million people who only have $100 to their name. Bad credit. No credit. No problem.” Rivlin estimates the annual revenues of the poverty industry at $150 billion dollars, which would amount to $3800 a year from every American household that brings in less than $30,000 a year.

The names over the doors in the broken-down city centers and suburban strip malls are Household Finance, Advance America, Check Into Cash, Liberty Tax Service;
but the profits of the poverty industry also flow to Citibank, the Bank of America, HSBC, and other heavy hitters from the banking world. Notwithstanding the embarrassment of the occasional successful lawsuit, the money is just too good to pass up. In the early aughts, spurred by the money flowing in from Wall Street, sub-prime mortgage lending spread from the original low-income borrowers up to the middle class. Mortgage brokers who made more money on the most expensive loans pushed the process along; bond rating agencies knew what was happening, but it was contrary to their interests to express that knowledge by issuing lower ratings. When, in 2006, house prices began to stop going higher, millions of people were left owing more than their houses were worth, and the consequences are still evident across America.

Rivlin’s view of these events is not encyclopedic, but it is comprehensive. He sharpens his story by choosing a matched pair of antagonists: W. Allen Jones, the big payday lender from Tennessee, is inherently less sympathetic than Martin Eakes, the head of the North-Carolina-based Center for Community Self-Help, but they are both so zealous about how they see the world, and so aware of each other as adversaries, that they make ideal vehicles for Rivlin’s narrative.

Broke, USA, is another visit to the worlds of Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) and Joe Bageant (Deer Hunting with Jesus), both of which I will now revisit with a new perspective. Rivlin doesn’t really have an answer for the pawnbrokers and payday lenders who claim that their services are the only recourse the poor have. Plenty of people with more resources use credit for questionable purposes–how can we fault people who use it for survival? Of course, that’s no excuse for the kind of profiteering, and in many cases fraud, that this book lays bare; but the real solutions are going to require a whole new way of thinking, and the sooner the better.

Any Good Books
July 2011

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Dirty Life

Any Good Books
July 2011

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love
Kristin Kimball (2011, Scribner)

In The Dirty Life, Kristin Kimball satisfies us with a story even though we know the ending. It’s the ‘how’ of it that’s so compelling: how did she go from being a city girl, who eats no meat, and thinks she’s fit because she plays a vigorous game of pinball now and then, to a farm wife who makes her own scrapple and tills the fields behind a team of horses taller than she is? It’s easy, in a way: she fell in love with a farmer. She met the farmer in question when she drove out from Manhattan to Pennsylvania to interview him for an article about organic food and the young farmers who were growing it. As an interview, it was sort of a loss, because her subject was too busy farming to stop and chat, but he sent her home with a back seat full of farm food, and a head full of Mark.

She was a Harvard-educated travel writer; he grew vegetables and lived in a trailer on rented land. She enjoyed the night life and the Sunday New York Times; he aspired to a farmhouse built without nails, and home-made buckskin clothing. Right from the beginning, though, Mark’s vision included Kristin, and he’s the kind of person the universe conspires with. He was persistent (to the point of stubbornness), and generous (to the point of unworldliness), and he was not at all surprised when, within nine months of moving in with Kristin (in a suburb neither finds very fulfilling), he was offered a 500-acre farm near the western shore of Lake Champlain, on a year’s free lease.

Essex Farm had been out of production for twenty years or more when Mark and Kristin moved there; the rats in the grain bins, the leaky buildings, and the junk strewn around represented the early stages of a return to nature. But a mature stand of sugar maples stood on the rise to the west of the farmhouse, and the fields by the road were rich, silty loam. Mark could see the possibilities, and Kristin signed on.

The town of seven hundred souls had a wary and somewhat pessimistic attitude: “The people we met kept telling us, with varying degrees of tact, that we’d fail. They said nobody in the area was interested in local or organic food, or even if they were interested, they wouldn’t be able to afford it. And if we did find people to buy our food we’d still fail, because the farm was too wet and nothing would grow.” But, in their country way, they came by the farm to say it, with a little gift of food, and anything else they thought the newcomers could use. Maybe they had some of the equipment to hitch behind draft horses in the fields; some had spare pots and pans, or expertise about metal-working or dairy cows, all offered out of a courteous sense of community that begins to revise Kristin’s world view.

For one thing, farm life put book-learning in its place. She says, “I had come to the farm with the unarticulated belief that concrete things were for dumb people and abstract things were for smart people. ... Did I really think that a person with a genius for fixing engines, or for building, or for husbanding cows, was less brilliant than a person who writes ad copy or interprets the law? Apparently I did, though it amazes me now.”

There’s also the relentlessness of the labor. “A farm is a manipulative creature. There is no such thing as finished. Work comes in a stream and has no end. There are only the things that must be done now and things that can be done later.” Milking twice a day, keeping all the livestock in feed and water, and repairing what is endlessly breaking tended to drive out lesser notions of dusting and laundry (to say nothing of wedding planning.) But early on, Kristin and Mark figured out that they owed themselves at least one good meal from the farm every day, and some time away from farming on Sundays.

And, as the book’s title suggests, she had to embrace the filth, along with the dirt and the soil. “I had never in my life been so dirty. The work was always dirty, beyond what I’d previously defined as dirty, and it took too much energy to keep oneself out of it. I had daily intimacy not just with dirt dirt but with blood, manure, milk, pus, my own sweat and the sweat of other creatures, with the grease of engines and the grease of animals, with innards, with all the stages of decomposition. Slowly, the boundary of what I found disgusting pushed outward.” But food comes from dirt, and compost returns to it. I love the image of the compost pile, “which was seven feet tall and twelve feet wide, and snaked sixty feet across the farmyard.” Its interior was hot enough to kill weed seeds, and to burn Kristin’s hand when she probed a foot below the surface.

You’ll want to give this book to the farm-and-food-minded people you know. The descriptions of meals made from what was in season and at hand are gorgeous. “I watched Mark slice [a deer’s liver] thin, dust the slices with a little flour and salt and pepper, and lay them in a pan of sizzling butter, where a handful of minced shallots had already gone glassy and translucent. He ran out to the field and came back with a handful of fresh herbs...” and so on. Makes you never want to shop in a grocery store again.

The Dirty Life would also be a fine present to the newly engaged. Not that Kristin and Mark did such a bang-up job of wedding planning: early-arriving guests were treated like family and set to work, chopping vegetables or putting flowers in jars for the tables, and they barely had the lawn mowed. But she knows what marriage entails in the way of change, compromise, and loss. “What was I signing up for? Poverty, unmitigated hard work, and a man whom, for all his good points, no reasonable person would describe as easy to be with? Objectively, it wasn’t exactly a good bet.”

Kristin feels a reasonable-enough doubt on the part of her family, who’d never imagined a life so deep in dirt; and she feels the distance she’s come in the two years between meeting Mark and marrying him. “...There was something else, too, and I don't know why nobody talks about it. Marriage asks you to let go of a big chunk of who you were before, and that loss must be grieved. A choice for something and someone is a choice against absolutely everything else, and that’s one big fat good-bye.”

What she said ‘hello’ to has prospered in the eight years since the time of this memoir. Kristin and Mark feed a hundred or so of their neighbors year round from Essex Farm; they have two small daughters; and perhaps best of all, their work crews include both neighbors and apprentice farmers, who come to learn, and move on to build farms of their own. Farming is not easy, not tidy, not simple, but compelling and fulfilling; God bless the people who do it, and who write about it so well.