Equal Opportunity Employers

When Barbara Ehrenreich chose “Maine for its whiteness,” she was not doing so out of some sort of white upper-middle-class squeamishness about working with poor people of a different race.[1] If anything, the liberal daughter of a union man had likely set out in her research for Nickel and Dimed hoping to find some sort of racial solidarity among the proletariat of the working poor. She had no problem befriending Haitians and Carlie, the African-American housekeeper who trained her, while working in Key West. Her criteria for picking her experiment’s second location points out a troubling racial stratification in regards to lower-paying service jobs in cities with a more “diverse” population.

Although housekeepers are not always racial minorities, public perception and regional ethnic dominance of occupations feed into the stereotypes. Image from Vogue Italia, via Sociological Images (http://contexts.org/socimages/)

Ehrenreich had noticed the racial makeup of the housekeeping workforce while looking for a housekeeping job in Key West. She saw that most of the housekeepers were black, Spanish-speaking, or central European refugees. [2] Now, these distinctions could be drawn as much from linguistic reasons, rather than any racial factors. Ehrenreich does, however, point out later that any association between minorities and housecleaning is a well-established misconception. She cites a 1998 Bureau of Labor Statistics study that identifies only about 37 percent of housekeepers as Latino/Hispanic and less than 16 percent as African-American. Any dominance by a particular group is likely to be regional, but the stereotypes exist. [3] Racially and ethnically dominated minimum wage occupations actually kept Ehrenreich from selecting certain cities for her experiment. New York and Los Angeles were ruled out because “the working class consists mainly of people of color and a white woman with unaccented English seeking entry-level jobs might only look desperate or weird.”[4]As a result, Maine seemed like a good place for her to blend in with the working poor, but only because the racial demographic was quite albino, as she put it.

It would be dangerous to equate poverty with certain races or skin colors. Of course, being Caribbean in New York City does not make someone destined to work a low-wage job and barely scrape by with enough to make a living. The Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS) shows troubling numbers on poverty, however, in its Annual Social and Economic Supplement for 2009 (using 2008 data). While “White Alone, Not Hispanic” participants register an 8.6 [5] percent poverty rate, the percentage jumps with African Americans at 24.7 [6] percent in poverty and Hispanics of any race with 23.2 percent in poverty.[7] The statistics come from the CPS’s Definition 1 for poverty, which excludes capital gains.

Between the poverty statistics and Ehrenreich’s experience, we can see a disparity between whites and racial minorities in relative income and perhaps in workforce opportunities.  If we think about how difficult it was for her to find a setting where she could blend in effectively with the working poor, can we imagine the difficulty for a person of a different race to break away from jobs they are “supposed” to have to find a middle-class career?

[1] Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed, (New York: Henry Holt an Company, LLC, 2001), 51.

[2] Ibid, 29.

[3] Ibid, 79.

[4] Ibid, 7.

[5] U.S. Census Bureau, ” ‘White alone, not Hispanic,’ Table 2. Percent of Persons in Poverty, by Definition of Income and Selected Characteristics: 2008,” Annual Social and Economic Supplement, Current Population Survey, 2009, http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/cpstables/032009/rdcall/2_004.htm.

[6] Ibid, ‘Black alone,’ http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/cpstables/032009/rdcall/2_006.htm.

[7] Ibid, ‘Hispanic, (any race),’ http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/cpstables/032009/rdcall/2_009.htm.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s