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Nickel and Dimed author calls for minimum wage increase at UI

BY NICK HASSETT | SEPTEMBER 25, 2012 6:30 AM

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Barbara Ehrenreich has a message for Americans: Stop kicking those who are down.

The author, activist, and journalist spoke at the Englert Theater, 221 E. Washington St., Monday night, presenting her views of the labor system in the United States. She’s a registered member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and she has written about her belief that America should raise the minimum wage for workers, among other topics.

“You can’t live on $7.25 an hour. It just doesn’t work,” she said during an interview with KRUI. “The fact that Nickel and Dimed, written 10 years ago, is still relevant, is just sad.”

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. The Iowa minimum wage is the same, and it will be replaced automatically by the federal minimum wage if it increases, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Ehrenreich had firsthand experience with living on minimum wage when she wrote Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. She moved across the country while writing the book, working as a waitress, hotel maid, and other low-paying jobs. She believes that it is often necessary for minimum-wage workers to take two minimum-wage jobs to pay for housing.

“They’ve created these traps [for minimum-wage workers],” she said. “With ordinances and city codes it’s essentially illegal to be homeless, yet that’s what many have to do just to make ends meet.”

However, some at the University of Iowa doubt her message.

Nicolas Ziebarth, an assistant professor of economics, said he doesn’t believe raising the minimum wage will benefit the poor significantly.

“Raising the minimum wage won’t make a big difference in affecting poverty,” he said. “A lot of times how the poor do is determined by how the aggregate economy is doing. There are more effective methods available [than minimum wage], like the earned income tax credit, in terms of putting money back in the pockets of the poor.”

John Solow, a UI associate professor of economics, said he thinks the issue is complicated and that raising the minimum wage would have repercussions both positive and negative.

“It’s great for those who can hold on to their jobs,” he said. “However, somebody has to pay for [increasing the minimum wage], and employers may lay off more workers to cover the cost.”

Ehrenreich also discussed what she saw as money taken from the poor in America.

“Corporations are engaging in wage theft,” she said. “They’re withholding money, forcing workers to come in early and stay late without pay, and it’s unacceptable. We need to stop this fleecing of the poor.”

The audience seemed to be in agreement with her views, applauding loudly after Ehrenreich discussed issues of poverty.

UI junior Sydney Johnson said she decided to go to the lecture after reading Nickel and Dimed, and she agrees with Ehrenreich about raising minimum wage.

“Personally, I’ve only made minimum wage before, so I’m all for it,” she said.

Not all in the audience were there because of the books.

UI freshman Paul Puglisi said he went to the lecture to receive extra credit in his rhetoric class.

However, he said he agreed with Ehrenreich’s view that the minimum wage should be higher.

Ehrenreich closed the lecture by giving one final message to the audience.

“We should reach out a hand to those who are hurting, and if we can’t do that, then can we please stop the meanness?” she said. “Poverty is not a character failing or a problem with lifestyle choices. Poverty is a shortage of money. That’s my theory.”


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