Sunday, May 08, 2005
Philip Greenspun's Weblog:
Philip Greenspun's Weblog: Ehrenreich notes that the official poverty line was defined in 1964 as a multiple of the cost of food (see and has barely been revised since then.  The marketplace, however, has changed.  Real estate and rents have become much more expensive and food has stayed relatively cheap.  Thus it is easy to envision a family whose income is 3X the cost of eating at McDonald's but who can't afford rent.  Ehrenreich finds that almost no unskilled worker would be able to afford rent plus a car at the same time.  If they can't team up with a spouse and they need the car to get to work they are forced to live in the car.

Ehrenreich's conclusion is that this can't last.  The workers will rebel and demand their right to at least an efficiency apartment plus some means of transportation to a job.  She predicts a Proletarian Revolution.  Six years have elapsed since Nickel and Dimed was written and yet the Walmartians and hotel and restaurant slaves seem as docile as ever.

What did Ehrenreich overlook?  Immigration!  There are plenty of people from poor countries who think that working 60-70 hours per week for $7.50/hour is acceptable, especially if there are opportunities for their children to do better.  As long as the immigrants are streaming into the U.S. it seems unlikely that wages for the unskilled will rise.

One might ask "Why do we have such a welcoming immigration policy?"  Countries that value quality of life restrict immigration.  To get into New Zealand, for example, you need to demonstrate some combination of youth, education, and wealth.  The New Zealanders don't see a need to clog their neighborhoods with development and their highways with traffic unless the newcomers are bringing something interesting.  The U.S., by contrast, is happy to grant visas and green cards to people who don't speak English and who in some cases are dedicated to the destruction of the U.S. government (the September 11th terrorists, for example, most of whom had official U.S. INS blessing).  The U.S. government puts GDP growth as its #1 priority because GDP growth enables the government to collect more in taxes and the extra tax revenue enables the government to expand.  If the population growth that is required to generate the GDP growth means that young people have to work two jobs in order to rent an apartment that's not Uncle Sam's problem.  High housing costs and the lack of guaranteed health care are both desired spurs to keep potential taxpayers getting up and going into work every day.

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