Tuesday, January 22, 2013

If you work hard, will you get ahead?

I've just finished my third day as a cashier at a very busy grocery store in downtown Tupelo, Mississippi, birthplace of Elvis. My legs are killing me, the pay is lousy, but I have a curious feeling of gratitude to finally have a job.

Any job.

It's an interesting bit of psychology. After applying for numerous jobs and being overqualified, or lacking the right experience, after searching a job market that relies heavily on the good old boy network to find workers, after being too liberal and uncomfortable with in-your-face religion in a firmly Red State where people have signs in their yards declaring that Jesus is King, after indicating my willingness to work any shift, any day, anytime, for any wage at all, desperation had me grasping at straws.

When an offer came along for a part-time job offering $7.35 an hour, it was like winning the lottery.

But isn't that exactly the way Big Business wants us to feel? Never mind my thirty years of work experience. Never mind my college degree. Never mind my management and supervisory stints. Never mind the maturity that comes with age, that doesn't have to be told to show up on time, to dress cleanly and properly, to treat customers with respect. Never mind all that. Just be glad someone offered you a chance to make $7.35 an hour.

So, even as I'm quite happy to rejoin the workforce, even as I tell myself that I work for a large corporation and there will be opportunities for advancement after my pay my dues, I'm still left with the reality that I won't make enough money to pay the bills. I still have to contend with the fact that Big Business has me over a barrel -- has so many of us over that same barrel. And while they take home tremendous profits, the workers don't share in those profits. The workers are anonymous, faceless worker bees who are used up and all too easily replaced with a never-ending stream of desperate job-seekers to choose from.

Like many of my co-workers, I will now have to look for a second minimum-wage job in the hopes that two of them will be enough to pay for a small apartment. Until then, I'm still at 130 percent of poverty level, so I can continue to use food stamps to supplement my income.

I'm not ashamed of my new job. I believe very much in the dignity of both work and workers, and like so many of society's cast-offs and those who have been left behind in America's brutal form of Capitalism, I would much prefer to work -- any sort of work -- than to remain idle.

That I've fallen on hard times does not anger me. Look at the numbers. About half of Americans are either living in poverty or very close to it. I'm just one more, just another casualty of economic policies that are "business friendly" and not worker-friendly, policies that ensure vast profits for the elite at the expense of the poor.

My books are full of the riff-raff of society -- the poor, the marginalized, hookers, murderers, drug addicts, folks who have been washed out by life because they can't keep up, or don't fit in, or can't find a place at the table.

The writer part of me looks very carefully at my current situation, trying to piece it together, puzzle it out, connect the dots. How did I arrive at this juncture in my life? Should I remain at a job that I don't like just for the security of it? Was a wrong to "follow my dreams" and try for something better? And if this current situation in my life simply preparing me for something much better? Will it open doors to opportunities I have never considered?

How do any of us arrive at this situation? Why do we support, with our votes, economic policies that make this a reality? Why is it that so few people know that minimum wage in France is $11 an hour, and $15 an hour in Australia? Why is it so difficult to persuade American workers that we deserve better? Why have we allowed Big Business to convince us that minimum wage cannot and must not be raised? Why do we so willingly participate in a system that is so obviously not in our best interests?

I am getting glimpses of the answers in the faces of some of my co-workers and customers. Tired. So many people look so tired. Like the woman who came late in the evening to shop for groceries, kids trailing behind her, looking frazzled and harried, shyly swiping her EBT card, exhausted on her feet no doubt from working all day and now coping with kids and food and dinner and the whole business of life. She asked me to total her order item by item because she only had $63 left on her card. She was tired. Too tired to care about what goes on in Jackson or Washington.

I also see a lot of grandparents taking care of their grand kids. Where's mom and dad? Who knows? Perhaps living at home because they can't afford anything else. Perhaps they've run off and left the kids behind. Perhaps they're working two or three jobs and don't have time for their kids.

Some of my younger co-workers stand at the register all day then leave for evening classes at the community college.


Restless, busy, on your feet all day, running from one thing to the next, pinching pennies, using coupons, relying on mom and dad, or food stamps, forcing a smile for customers -- it's a strange world that I've landed in.

I've said it often: I've never seen people work as hard as they do in Mississippi. Say what you want about Mississippi being a redneck Red State, the fattest, the least educated, the poorest - say what you want, but the people work hard. The politicians they send down to Jackson or over to Washington have failed them miserably, over and over, decade after decade. Mississippians are fiercely independent and proud. They don't want food stamps. They want jobs. They want a governor who will bring jobs, not spend all his time trying to close down the one remaining abortion clinic.

As a writer, I want to know all about this world. I want to explain it to myself, and to my readers. And although I worry a great deal about my future - what sort of future can I have working at a minimum wage job? - I remain an optimist.

There is a basic promise in America: If you work hard, you will get ahead.

Are those just words?

Stay tuned.


  1. I also want to know how America has come to this.. how is it that a degree, experience, and maturity don't count for more in a shrinking job market? And, more importantly, who in the hell can live on minimum wage? No one..

  2. I read recently that there is no city left in America where you can rent a two-bedroom apartment if you're making minimum wage. I often wonder why we are deliberately creating a society like this. We're competing with Big Money, which hires slick PR types to craft campaigns to convince us that it's all in our own best interests. And we believe it.

  3. It's America's caste system, Rex.