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Poverty: Learning, survival and low-wage America

My son passed on an interesting book to me that afforded a different perspective on how people learn. He has become quite interested in the issue of "corporate responsibility." We often speak of such notions as "authentic" learning or more when we wish to add a greater degree of mystery to the phrasing, "learning by doing." Yet what we consider to be authentic, or the things we "do" in order to learned, are often emotionally and spiritually sterilzed in educational settings. That is, the nature of authenticity or doing rarely takes us to the edge of living, or more to the point, surviving. Yet it is often through narratives of survival that the most profound opportunities for learning arise.

In Nickel and Dimed: On (not) getting by in America Barabara Ehrenreich (2001) shares her undercover experiences trying to survive in low-wage America. A book like this has a great deal to reveal about the nature of learning in difficult (an understatement) circumstances. Whether we like to admit it or not, our society marginalizes some people while providing ridiculously extravagant lifestyles for others. This reveals an inability, or perhaps more accurately our lack of willingness, to do something concrete and practical for people in oppressive and exhausting circumstances that we have created. But, in educational settings, our awareness of authentic real-life circumstances often seems to take a back seat to the primacy of data, facts and information, especially those aspects of information that are intimately linked to financial and economic undercurrents.

The basic question Barbara pursued in her investigation was, "How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled?" More specifically, "How, in particular, we wondered, were the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labour market by welfare reform going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour?" And, of course, the best way to learn the answers to these questions is to go out and experience it...

"You might think that unskilled jobs would be a snap for someone who holds a Ph.D. and whose normal line of work requires learning entirely new things every couple of weeks. Not so."
- Nickel and Dimed: On (not) getting by in America Barabara Ehrenreich

I agree with Barbara's conclusions that the idea of "unskilled" is a misnomer. In fact, it is arrogant to think that these people are unskilled. People in low-wage lifestyles are far from unskilled, and in fact, it may be that they have life skills that extend far beyond the bland and often abstract skill sets we tend to promote. These are people that have to deal with problems of survival on a daily basis:

  • Where do I live?
  • How do I provide basic necessities with an income that is less than required?
  • How do I maintain a sense of dignity in the face of oppressive circumstances?
  • How do I manage my emotional and physical exhaustion in order to stay healthy?
  • How can I afford basic medical assistance when I or my family needs it?
  • How do I retain an optimistic outlook toward the future?
Typically, many low-wage earners attempt to balance two jobs in order to literally scrap by. And it is all too commonly known that the large corporations, notably the big box stores and fast food chains, remain aloof of their basic responsibility to provide enough income for their own employees to live on.

"... but I learned something that no one ever mentioned in the gym: that a lot of what we experience as strength comes from knowing what to do with weakness."
- Nickel and Dimed: On (not) getting by in America Barabara Ehrenreich

Although Barbara is referring here to the demanding physical requirements of low-wage lifestyles, this statement can easily be applied to the mental and emotional requirements as well. In fact, it is a statement that each of us can apply to our own learning regardless of our circumstances.

"It's not just the work that has to be learned in each situation. Each job presents a self-contained social world, with its own personalities, hierarchy, customs and standards."
- Nickel and Dimed: On (not) getting by in America Barabara Ehrenreich

One of the places that Barbara worked in for a while was Wal-Mart, so I decided to go to a local store myself, not to shop, but to see if I could pick up on some of the ideas she presented in her commentary. Yes - I was listening in on conversations I should not have, but sure enough after listening in on some of the off-to-the-side conversations going on between employees I could see the world she described opening up right before my prying ears. It is obvious that any working environment will have its own culture, if you will, but is was interesting to go into a store to see what I could pick up about it.

"But the real question is not how well I did at work but how well I did at life in general, which includes eating and having a place to stay."
- Nickel and Dimed: On (not) getting by in America Barabara Ehrenreich

It's clear that a single low-wage job is not enough to survive on. The numbers simply don't work out even in attempting to live at a minimum. And many corporations seem to lack any sense of responsibility to provide their own employees with enough of an income to live on - to survive on. The rhetoric defending this position is substantial, yet transparent:

"One of these is the co-optative power of management, illustrated by such euphemisms as associate and team member... What surprised and offended me the most about the low-wage workplace was the extent to which one is required to surrender one's basic civil rights and - what boils down to the same thing - self-respect."

As a society, we need to questions why we allow this kind of inequality in our "communities." I have met many so-called "unskilled" people who have tremendous insights into living and learning. I have met many so-called "skilled" people who seemed to know an incredible amount about very little that mattered. Our education systems need to re-visit the issue of what "skilled" really means. Too often, the idea of being "skilled" is simply an empty reference to notions about employability. The gap between skills formally acquired via teaching and those skills required to live a successful and rewarding life is wide.

It is not unlike the issues of how high-school dropouts" here in Ontario have been marginalized by our own system. Perhaps "system" is the wrong word, it may be a form of "blindness." They have dropped out of school so are they "unskilled?" Absolutely not. Yet we only have one path for everyone, and that is you must have an "education" before you gain access to "skilled" jobs. It's a mis-guided notion and we need to work on providing more flexible and adaptive opportunities for learning other than education.

The other side of the equation is this: There is an entire universe of learning taking place in the world that is absent in education. If education is to be of greater value, then why not focus on strategic issues such as the elimination of poverty-level wages? This is not something that needs to be left to university academics and government committees, but can easily proliferate throughout the education system at a wide variety of ages. Would it not be beneficial to be graduating students from education that have experience in an issue like this? And there are many other issues as well. If education is going to adapt serious approaches to "authentic" learning and "learning by doing" then they are simply going to have to take the information blinders off, face authentic experiences that are happening in the world head-on, and find ways to become part of the "doing."


  • Barbara Ehrenreich: Official Site
  • Barbara Ehrenreich: Weblog
  • Wikipedia: Barbara Ehrenreich
  • Stories By Barbara Ehrenreich

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