Getting by on the Minimum: The Lives of Working-Class Women / Edition 1

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First published in 2002. Routledge is an imprint of Taylor & Francis, an informa company.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
For this Nickeled and Dimed$line field report, Johns Hopkinds researcher Johnson spoke to 60 white, married, Baltimore-area mothers between the ages of 35 and 52 who work in settings ranging from convenience stores and customer service centers to hospitals and beauty parlors. In general, her working-class interviewees married young, never received adequate education or career guidance, struggled to raise their children and were striving for a second chance at finding more rewarding, lucrative work. Even as these women work toward goals such as GEDs or professional training, they continue to view what many would consider to be attainable careers, such as nursing or teaching, as beyond their reach. While Johnson provides plenty of statistics and cites a wide range of secondary sources, she wisely gives her interviewees ample space to tell their own stories, and their narratives inject the book with vivid realism. They discuss not only the challenges and rewards of working life but also such family issues as children struggling with substance abuse, aging parents grown mentally or physically ill and grandchildren in need of care and attention. As Johnson addresses the influence of their upbringings on these women' s adult lives, the link between employment and their self-esteem, and related topics, she largely avoids editorializing and lets the facts speak for themselves, and her writing is compassionate without being heavy-handed. As a non$first-person-based complement to Ehrenreich' s book, this study could be recommended to anyone interested in class an gender. (Aug. 15) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Johnson (sociology, Johns Hopkins Univ.) here provides a view into the lives of working-class women by presenting the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of 63 women who participated in a work-satisfaction study. Of more significance, she also explores class distinctions among women by including 18 middle- to upper-middle-class women for comparison. Johnson encouraged her subjects to give full voice to their thoughts, and the result is an honest glimpse into their lives. The book follows a style similar to Studs Terkel's Working and Lillian Rubin's Worlds of Pain in that the actual words of the interviewees are used, giving the reader the impression of being directly spoken to. But Johnson's study is especially meaningful because she acknowledges the class distinction among working women and increases readers' awareness of these differences, as well as of all the workplace inequities women face. More in depth and insightful than Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, the book successfully lays out the complex array of reasons some women work at lower-paying jobs, from their perspective. Well documented and containing an extensive bibliography, this should be required reading for certain sociology and women's studies courses and is recommended for all academic and large public libraries.-Sandra Isaacson, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Las Vegas Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780415928014
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis
  • Publication date: 8/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Jennifer Johnson is a Research Scientist in the Department of Sociology at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She is the Co-Principal Investigator of a two-year research project funded by the National Science Foundation.

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Read an Excerpt

Getting By on the Minimum

The Lives of Working-Class Women
By Jennifer Johnson


Copyright © 2002 Routledge
All right reserved.

ISBN: 041592801X

Chapter One


Would sleep ever come? As she lay awake, Joe sound asleep beside her, Phyllis replayed her last few months on the job. It had all started, she thought, when Michael, her boss, quit his job at the supermarket. The new guy who replaced him had been baiting her for months now, harassing her when her speed dropped, forcing her to check with the office every time a decision had to be made, giving her the lousy shifts and break times no one else wanted. What had she done to annoy him? True, she was a bit mouthy, and she'd let him know what she thought of his stupid changes, but so what? Michael had liked her input-and he'd liked her too. This guy seemed to hate her.

And now, by switching shifts with Mary so she could go to her son's game tomorrow, she was about to hand him exactly what he wanted: an excuse to give her a hard time. He'd slap her with a notice, for sure, her second since he came on board six months ago. Just as well she had some new job options. Maybe now she could quit before she was fired. She was never going to make full-time staff anyway, and she was fed up with being treated like a child-a stupid child at that.

In any case, she had no choice. If she missed the game after promising she'd go, howcould she look her son in the eye? How could she expect him to trust her? Well, whatever happened, she was not about to miss that game.

Ann had been thinking a lot lately and she had to admit her thoughts were not pretty. In fact, she was downright depressed. Jack and the kids accused her of being moody, and, to be honest, they were right. But here she was, still doing the same things she had been doing for twenty years and did anyone notice? Or care? Maybe it was just menopause: don't women get more cranky and men more laid back as they get older? That fit her and Jack, that's for sure. Sometimes she wished she could go off by herself-just to think about what she was doing with her life. As if there were time! With her own four kids and two grandkids all at home, not to mention her job, thinking was a luxury she couldn't afford.

Maybe she was just tired-at work, tired of being called a bitch by customers and having returns thrown in her face, and at home, tired of wiping up the same spills on the same floors and complaining about the same careless clutter, day after day. She was tired of daughters who expected her to raise their kids, and sons who expected her to pay their way. She was tired even of herself and of all the mistakes she'd made, since way back when. Why hadn't she gone to a regular high school, for example? Why hadn't she listened when her father said a commercial school was a waste of time? Why did that have to be the only battle with him she'd ever won? If only she had lost that fight, she'd be a professional now, not just a working person. She would not be sitting here behind a customer service counter dealing with the negative attitudes and nasty dispositions of people who thought they could treat her like dirt.

Of course, it wasn't all bad. She liked her job. It was like family. Monday mornings everyone asked how the kids were, and did she have a good weekend? Time off was no big deal. Really, it was a good job. It just wasn't where she'd like to be at this stage of her life. That's all.

Phyllis and Ann are two of sixty-three working-class women whose thoughts, feelings, and experiences of work and family are explored in this book. All but six of these women had remained solidly working class throughout their lives and now at midlife were employed in working-class jobs-as grocery store cashiers, assembly-line workers, school bus drivers, secretaries, clerks, cleaners, and cooks-married to working-class men, and living in poor, working- or lower-middle-class neighborhoods. Also in the book, for purposes of comparison, are eighteen middle-class women whose origins were middle or upper middle class. These women were married to middle-class men, lived in middle- or upper-middle-class neighborhoods and, with one exception, worked in professional or managerial jobs, as teachers, social workers, attorneys, physicians, and entrepreneurs. The book uses the experiences of these two groups of women to explore the difference social class makes in women's lives.

We know that as a group, women have come a long way, but have some women come farther than others? Do shampoo girls at an upscale day spa obtain the same benefits from their work as the clients who come to be pampered? Do secretaries enjoy their jobs as much as attorneys and businesswomen? Do day-care providers feel satisfied with their work? Do waitresses?

Addressing questions such as these is the first purpose of this book. The second is to make the point that social class still matters. In a society whose discourse emphasizes race more than class, it is easy to lose sight of the wide class differences among women. The book explores these differences, with the goal of discovering which problems are common to all women, which not, which rewards are available to all, which restricted to some.

The book has a third purpose, which is to allow the voices of poor and working-class women to be heard as they talk about what they consider important. For this reason, throughout the book there are extended passages in which women talk about their past and present lives with very little interruption or interpretation. By listening to their voices, I hope the reader will come to know these women-at least a little-as individuals and will come to discover what matters to them.

I can't pretend to have approached the study on which this book is based or the daunting task of writing it with the calm detachment and disinterest of a natural scientist; the subject is too close to my own life, the fragments of their lives, thoughts, feelings, and memories too much an echo of my own. When, for instance, Doreen said, about growing up poor, "No one else was any better off than we were," when Judy said, "We always had warm clothes on our back and food on the table," or Phyllis said, "We might have been poor, but if we were we didn't know it," they chose the same words I might have chosen. Like them, I compared my family with others in our community, most of whose members, including my parents and two of my four siblings, left high school early to earn a living in unskilled or semiskilled jobs. Like a number of the women I interviewed, it was only as an adult living in a very different world that I realized that there were times when we were quite poor.

Like those of many of the women in the study, my own work history is a long and winding road with twists, turns, and dead ends that were not the result of careful planning or "career preparation." My first venture into the world of work came when I was seventeen and took an office job in a factory, a small nail-making concern. I was the only worker in the office, which was a small, dirty shed in the yard behind the factory itself, and there was not enough office work to keep me busy, so I was given halls to sort into boxes. Soon it became clear that my office job was really a nail-sorting job. I hated it, not so much because sorting nails was so terrible, but because I was sentenced to solitude for eight hours every day. Even my lunch breaks were solitary because the men workers lunched in the bar of a nearby pub to which I was never invited (I could not have gone anyway because in those days women were legally not permitted in bars). I had no car and there were no shops in the industrial wasteland surrounding the factory, so I wasn't able to enliven my boring days by window shopping and chatting to salespeople. Later, when women told me that what they liked most about their job was "the people at work," I remembered this job and knew exactly what they meant.

My next job, also clerical, was better. The Australian government was computerizing all its social security files, which required coding basic information onto standardized coding sheets that would later become punch cards. To accomplish this end, about eighty workers sat at long tables in a large room with bundles of files between them. As the day progressed, the files moved from the left to the right of each workstation. The work was repetitive, but had its rewards. One was watching the pile on the left shrink, while the one on the right grew. The other was that my coworkers and I soon devised strategies to while away the hours. There were two main strategies. The first was to talk and tell jokes, keeping only a small part of our minds on the job. The other was to race to see who could earn a beer after work by completing the most files. Even though the rewards of this job were what psychologists and sociologists of work call "extrinsic," it was really not a bad job at all. The conditions were good: the office was air-conditioned, the tea lady came around with tea and cookies at 10 A.M. and 3 P.M., there was an excellent cafeteria, and we were in a downtown building close to the shops.

After a year or so, when most of the files were coded, I went to work in an employment office. It was here that I began to learn about the wider world of work. Trying to match unemployed workers with sales, clerical, and factory jobs taught me more than I could have imagined about what went on behind the blank walls of industrial buildings-that metal was filed, glass was cut, bricks were laid, forklifts were driven, wood was turned, and pallets were loaded, and that this work was performed by process workers, assemblers, laborers, lathe operators, fitters and turners, and machinists who all had complex jobs about which I had known nothing. Later, when I moved on to work only with disabled workers, I needed to delve deeper, gathering every last detail about each job that came into the office. Did the job involve heavy lifting, bending, or reaching? Did the worker have to stand all day, did she need muscle strength, a steady hand, good eyesight? How many different activities were involved? How clearly were directions given? How often was the task changed? What were the job's stresses? Were the bosses and coworkers supportive and understanding? Were enough time and instruction given to learn new tasks? Did the worker have to work too fast? What kinds of performance pressures were there?

This job had intrinsic rewards that I hadn't experienced in the previous two jobs: it involved dealing with people, not files, every day brought something new, and the satisfaction of finding a job for someone who needed it was of a different order from the satisfaction of coding three hundred files. I now realize that I experienced the difference between being satisfied with a job and feeling fulfilled by work-a distinction that I found to be important in this study.

During my years working for the employment service, I learned about the importance of work in people's lives, and about the despair of being unemployed. And although I didn't realize it at the time, I learned about the complicated division of labor in industrial society. The agriculture-based economy of my childhood had not prepared me for this new world, whose complexity has been wrestled with by social theorists since Adam Smith. There were no factories in my small home town; the jobs consisted mainly of farming and its support services. People worked in stores, they repaired cars and machines, they painted and repaired houses, and they installed plumbing-all jobs that were visible and whose purpose was clear. The division of labor was simpler, and the division between home and work was less clear-cut; storekeepers, for example, often lived behind their own shops and opened up any time a customer came around back. Compared with this rural, small-town way of life in which the division of labor was relatively simple, the industrial giant I came to know, its working parts largely hidden away behind factory walls and office doors, seemed complex beyond belief.

Many jobs in the twenty-first century "post-industrial" division of labor are also invisible. Most of us have no idea what, exactly, a software designer does when she goes in to work in the morning, of a statistician, of an economist. Nor is it entirely clear what a human resources specialist does, of a sanitation engineer, of a systems analyst. As industrial areas become more separate from residential, and more products are produced in foreign countries, work becomes even more remote from home and we know less and less about the human labor that goes into creating the products and services that we use every day and take for granted.

Some service jobs, especially those filled by the least educated workers, are visible; we see bored young people flipping hamburgers at McDonald's, for instance, and grocery store cashiers checking us out and bagging our groceries. But we have no idea what these jobs are like for the people doing them. What does the counter salesperson at the 7-11 do when she is not taking our money? What are the main job hassles for women who work in the bakery department of the supermarket? Who chops up the lettuce, fruit, and vegetables that endlessly refill the stainless steel containers at the grocery store salad bar? What is it like, doing this day after day?

We also know little about the strategies these workers use to make their jobs more enjoyable or just to get through the day. My coworkers and I, when we were coding files, made the day go by faster by racing one another, or we socialized. What strategies do other women adopt to make their jobs more enjoyable? What strategies do they develop to fight back when they are faced with obnoxious customers of bosses? What compensations do they find when their jobs lack intrinsic interest? What jobs are most satisfying? These are some of the questions I will address beginning in the next chapter.

The problems of professional women-mommy tracks, glass ceilings, dual-career families, and commuter marriages-have been the subject of countless books and articles in both the popular press and academic journals, but only a handful of studies have focused on working-class women and these studies have concentrated on women in factories or in "non-traditional occupations, who represent only a small minority of working-class women. Too often, working-class women are viewed from a social distance, and through a middle-class lens that filters out differences among them and between them and middle-class women. Because of this social distance and distorting lens, working-class women are often seen as homogeneous, when, in fact, they come from a wide range of economic, cultural, and social backgrounds ranging from prosperous working class to underclass, from nurturing, supportive families to dysfunctional ones.

Also, not all working-class women have the same strengths and abilities or want the same things but their diversity and the complexity of their motivations are rarely appreciated. As Herbert Blumer, the eminent sociologist, points out in his introduction to symbolic interactionism, in all our studies, sociologists need to recall that we too are shaped by our past and by the social and historical context of our lives. We all "have our share of common stereotypes that we use to see a sphere of empirical social life that we do not know.... We must say in all honesty that the research scholar in the social sciences who undertakes to study a given sphere of social life that he does not know at first hand will fashion a picture of that sphere in terms of pre-established images." Blumer perceptively observes that the scholar who lacks firsthand knowledge is "highly unlikely to recognize that he is missing anything."


Excerpted from Getting By on the Minimum by Jennifer Johnson Copyright © 2002 by Routledge
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction 1
2 The Meaning of Work and Class 8
3 Life on the Job 32
4 Can't Get No Satisfaction 66
5 What Work Means 89
6 Work (f)or Family 121
7 The Work of Caring 144
8 Growing Up Poor in Postwar America 158
9 Dropping Out 185
10 What Will I Be? 203
11 Getting By on the Minimum 220
Notes 228
Bibliography 249
Index 261
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