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Invisible lives of the working underclass - In the Shadow of Leaves
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Invisible lives of the working underclass
Invisible lives of the working underclass
April 20 2003


It is not only the highly successful who work 70-hour weeks, writes Liz Porter.

Bowling for Columbine, Mike Moore's Academy Award-winning agitprop documentary on America's love affair with the gun, reveals some shocking details of the working life of the mother of a six-year-old boy who accidentally shot and killed a classmate at his school. The woman, we hear, was away at work, 60-70 hours a week. But the madness of her work schedule wasn't the kind you might read about in a newspaper lifestyle-supplement "work diary" piece, full of days starting with 6am meetings with personal trainers and finishing with 9pm goodnight calls home to the children- and the nanny - from the sanctuary of the Qantas Club lounge.

Instead, this unfortunate woman's work arrangements, part of a "Welfare to Work" scheme run by the military hardware supplier Lockheed-Martin, meant that her day began in darkness, with a long early morning bus ride from a working-class area of Flint, Michigan, right across town to an exclusive shopping mall. There she would begin the first of two jobs she was doing in return for her welfare payments. She was, according to fellow employees interviewed by Mike Moore, a reliable worker, but, because she didn't get home until after dark, she had her young son minded at her brother's house - where he found the gun he took to school...

Anyone imagining that Americans in this situation simply aren't trying hard enough, should be compelled to read Nickel and Dimed, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich's account of her journey through the underpaid and overworked world of minimum-wage, working-class America...

Ehrenreich's book is even more horrifying than a book that conservatives should read as a companion piece to it. Hard Work - Life in Low-Pay Britain is journalist Polly Toynbee's account of moving into a ghastly council estate flat and working in telesales, a cake factory, as a hospital porter and as a child minder. Toynbee's co-workers are also doing it very tough. But their struggle is taking place against the background of the remnants of a welfare state...

In Britain, however, the state still has something to offer the lone middle-aged, impoverished and unemployed woman whom Toynbee is impersonating. In the US, Ehrenreich is alone and at the mercy of heartless and flinty-eyed "market forces". If I were broke and unemployed, I know where I'd rather be.
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