Getting Me Cheap: How Low-Wage Work Traps Women and Girls in Poverty

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Editor’s note: This marks the first in what will be an ongoing series of book reviews. If you are a reader and writer, and would like to contribute to this series, please contact me at nick@kasoff.net.

Getting Me Cheap is an up to date account of the plight of low income single mothers in America. For those of us who live in Ferguson, we are talking about our own neighbors. For our readers in more affluent areas, think of the people who check you out at the grocery store, serve you in restaurants and coffee shops, and care for your children and parents. As a middle class person from a middle class family, the difficulties faced by such people would be unfamiliar. As a landlord in Ferguson, these are stories which I hear frequently.

The numerous accounts, gathered by the authors over years of work and in several states, will move all but the more heartless. At the same time, the reader can’t help but be frustrated by the lack of solutions. Save for the occasional happy ending, this is a story of helplessness, not of hope. The reality is that without a tremendous amount of help, a poor single mother will have unending struggle. That help may come from family, though as the authors frequently remind us, poor families often lack the resources to provide help. It may also come through public assistance programs, though as the authors note, these programs tend to be designed to extend poverty rather than eliminate it.

There are a few important things missing from this series of meaningful personal anecdotes. It would have added tremendous value if, instead of general calls to provide help, the authors advocated for specific changes, and put a number to the cost. For example, a one year delay in reducing Section 8 housing subsidies when a recipient’s income increases would allow voucher holders to establish a firm economic foothold before taking away their subsidy. I’ve personally known tenants who declined promotions at work, because a lifelong entitlement to housing security was too valuable to throw away on a promotion which might not even work out. The authors also entirely overlook the economic value of marriage. Again, from my own personal knowledge, a tenant with several children who often struggled, ultimately found financial stability when she found a terrific man and married him.

It also troubled me that the prevalence of single parenthood was taken as an unalterable fact. While it is often not a choice, as the current debate over abortion brings to the forefront, it often is a choice, albeit a difficult one. The authors point out the real difficulties faced by unmarried mothers, both in employment and the pursuit of higher education. But they leave entirely unspoken the fact that one way to avoid those difficulties is to delay having children.

While it lacks the “down in the trenches” accounts of Nickel and Dimed, the groundbreaking firsthand account of low wage work by Barbara Ehrenreich, Getting Me Cheap provides a contemporary update of the terrible struggles of single, low wage workers. For that, it is worth the read. But be forewarned, when you read the last page, you’ll still want for the rest of the story.

Getting Me Cheap: How Low-Wage Work Traps Women and Girls in Poverty, by Amanda Freeman and Lisa Dodson, will be available on November 29, from The New Press. (Available at Amazon and can be requested at the Ferguson Municipal Public Library)