Ehrenreich tells the reader that she developed the idea for this book over an expensive lunch with the editor of Harper’s, Lewis Lapham. Ehrenreich wondered how unskilled workers survive on such meager incomes; particularly, she was interested in how the 4 million women who were about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform were going to make it at $6 or $7 an hour. Ehrenreich was not thrilled about undertaking the task herself. She remembers that even in the 1960s, when her fellow college students sought jobs in factories to organize the working class, she was not interested. Ehrenreich has witnessed various loved ones pull themselves out of the misery that can be associated with low-wage work. Ehrenreich decides to consider the project a scientific experiment, as she has a Ph.D. in biology. She learns that in 1998, 30% of the workforce worked for $8 an hour or less. She cannot imagine how these people survive, and wants to uncover their tricks.
Ehrenreich decides on some rules for her experiment:
1. she can not fall back on
any skills derived from her education or usual work
2. she has to take the highest-paying job she is offered and do her best to keep it;
3. she has to take the cheapest accommodations she can find, with a reasonable consideration for safety and privacy.
Ehrenreich says that while she tried to stick to the rules, at some point she broke them all. She decides to present herself as a drastically stripped-down version of who she really is: a divorced homemaker reentering the workforce after many years. Regarding education, she says that she had three years of college at her real-life alma mater.
She also gives herself limits to what she is willing to endure:
1. she will always have a car
2. she will never allow herself to be homeless
3. she will never go hungry.
Ehrenreich realizes that she will never really experience poverty, since this is only an experiment for her. Moreover, she has the advantage over many low-wage workers in that she is a native English speaker and she owns a car. Her aim is simply to see if she can match income to expenses as the poor try to do every day.
Notes - The introduction to this book begins on an ironic note--while eating at an over-priced restaurant, Ehrenreich considers how women entering the workforce due to welfare reform are going to make it at the dangerously lowwages available to them. Ehrenreich proposes and old-fashioned journalistic approach to answering the question. This notion of investigative journalism is certainly not new, but it is not typical of academics. A relatively recent example of this type of writing is Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic (1998), in which Horowitz experiences what it is like to be a Civil War re-enactor along with visiting many places important to the War in order to uncover its legacy. However, Horowitz is an experienced journalist who has undertaken this sort of task before.
From the outset, Ehrenreich admits that she will never truly know what it is like to be impoverished and makes it clear that she is only trying to learn if she can match her income to her expenses. In making this statement, Ehrenreich avoids any potential criticism regarding authenticity.