She Works Hard for the Money

So I’m back in my hometown of Jersey City for the next two months, staying with my family, working some unpaid summer internships in New York City. Next week will begin my work at Boosey and Hawkes, and at New Amsterdam Records in publicity/promotions. Pretty exciting stuff.

Yet two pieces of media have recently come together to confound my excitement. First, I’m reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, where the journalist goes “undercover” to figure how millions of Americans make ends meet working full-time, year-round, for poverty-level wages of $6-7 an hour. She spends a few months moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, taking the cheapest lodgings available and accepting work as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing home aide, and Wal-Mart salesperson; exhausting mind, body, and spirit, and barely making rent. From the Amazon.com review:

So, do the poor have survival strategies unknown to the middle class? And did Ehrenreich feel the “bracing psychological effects of getting out of the house, as promised by the wonks who brought us welfare reform?” Nah. Even in her best-case scenario, with all the advantages of education, health, a car, and money for first month’s rent, she has to work two jobs, seven days a week, and still almost winds up in a shelter. As Ehrenreich points out with her potent combination of humor and outrage, the laws of supply and demand have been reversed. Rental prices skyrocket, but wages never rise. Rather, jobs are so cheap as measured by the pay that workers are encouraged to take as many as they can. Behind those trademark Wal-Mart vests, it turns out, are the borderline homeless. With her characteristic wry wit and her unabashedly liberal bent, Ehrenreich brings the invisible poor out of hiding and, in the process, the world they inhabit—where civil liberties are often ignored and hard work fails to live up to its reputation as the ticket out of poverty.

Second, a few weeks ago some friends and I were joking around about this website Stuff White People Like, a blog written by Christian Lander that takes satirical aim at “left-leaning, city-dwelling, white folk” and touches on everything from #1, “Coffee,” to #94, “Free Health Care.” #105 on the list is “Unpaid Internships“:

The concept of working for little or no money underneath a superior has been around for centuries in the form of apprenticeship programs. Young people eager to learn a trade would spend time working under a master craftsman to learn a skill that would eventually lead to an increase in material wealth. Using this logic you would assume that the most sought after internships would be in areas that lead to the greatest financial reward. Young White people, however, prefer internships that put them on the path for careers that will generally result in a DECREASE of the material wealth accumulated by their parents. For example, if you were to present a white 19 year old with the choice of spending the summer earning $15 an hour as a plumber’s apprentice or making $0 answering phones at Production Company, they will always choose the latter…White people view the internship as their foot into the door to such high-profile low-paying career fields as journalism, film, politics, art, non-profits, and anything associated with a museum.

Meanwhile, it’s become increasingly difficult to hang out with some of my closest friends from high school because they’re running low on free time. They’re busy working (waitressing, retail, babysitting), so that they can afford college. Or, at least, enjoy an independent lifestyle in a place away from home.

I guess in this blog post I don’t really have a particular question I’m posing. Just a little slice of life that’s been making me uncomfortable. Thoughts?

3 thoughts on “She Works Hard for the Money

  1. philmusic

    There is always a tendency especially as a student to see yourself through the lens of others. Not to mention the difference between what you do and how others might chose to interpret your actions. Power issues that can develop from this can be explicit or implicit voluntary or coerced.

    Yet for all the possibilities of you you do get to decide. Even if its just for yourself

    Phil Fried Philosophical Phil’s Page

    Reply
  2. paulhmuller

    Internships
    Well you are right to be mindful of the fact that you are about to embark on unpaid internships in two fading industries. But that said, you are at a point in your life where you can afford to take a chance. There won’t be a better time to do something like this, so follow your heart before responsibilites crowd their way into your life. Paying jobs are scarce now anyway! Good luck.

    Reply
  3. jonrussell20

    There was an article in the Times recently on the recent proliferation and questionable ethics/legality of some unpaid internships: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/03/business/03intern.html?scp=1&sq=unpaid%20internships&st=cse

    There’s also been some interesting speculation by some academics lately on whether a college education, at it’s current ridiculous price, is, in fact worth it, in economic terms. I think it probably is, but I also think many of us ought to be far more careful about what we agree to pay money for or do for free. If what you are doing is creating value for someone else, you should be paid for it.

    Reply

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