Thursday, June 25

Considering Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed" and Fr. Gary Smith's "Radical Compassion"

I like to think that in my one-and-a-half-years at House of Charity I have learned a little something about homelessness and the people that live it and the varied solutions to the whole sordid affair. As much as anything, I think this is due to my ignorance upon entering the job. I had no personal experience with it seeing as how my northern Minnesotan hometown of 1,000 wasn't able to attract a homeless population of any regard. That might have had something to do with the sustained periods of sub-zero daytime temperatures in the winter. Neither had I any particular interest in the topic when I was flipping through the folder of local organizations which offered State Work Study positions. House of Charity just seemed like the most exciting of the placements and the one that that offered the greatest opportunity to do good. So I came in with only the most general stereotypes and prejudices, all drawn from popular media.

But that's better now. Seeing people struggle to get off the streets and out of the House of Charity and into a place of their own, seeing some succeed and others fail, seeing some not try at all, and, perhaps most importantly, seeing the professionals and organizations and systems that have helped and hindered them has given me some insight and understanding into this mess.

This was hardly enough, however. My experiences working the front desk were only the slightest part of the greater issue. I still needed to get out from behind my limited perspective and find the words of those who have approached it from a different angle. This mission led me to read Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and Fr. Gary Smith's Radical Compassion: Finding Christ in the Heart of the Poor. While a direct comparison between the two would be unfair as Nickel and Dimed focuses upon the working poor and Radical Compassion is more concerned with the chronically homeless and jobless, the difference in their approaches and ultimate conclusions is worth noting.

Responding to welfare reform in the late 90's, Ehrenreich took a series of low-wage jobs across America in the summer of 2000 in an attempt to discover whether it was possible to make a living on jobs which paid only $6 or $7 per hour. A month at a time she worked as a waitress in Key West, an employee of Merry Maids in Portland, Maine, and a Wal-Mart clerk in Minneapolis. Her modus operandi was to come into town with only $1000 and minimal belongings, search for low-income housing and generally try her hardest to live like her co-workers. Nickel and Dimed is the product of this investigation and features a long series of condemnations. A pox on the cleaning franchise for not using proper disinfecting methods and its suspicious clients. Fie on the low-quality living conditions of the poor. A giant middle finger to a certain world's largest retailer for not allowing its employees to unionize. Understandably, Nickel and Dimed is a highly personal account. Ehrenreich's personality and politics are infused with the reporting, and the two are near impossible to separate. Which is a pity. When Ehrenreich's press cap is on, Nickel and Dimed is at its strongest. She easily explains how a job and a salary are not enough and the compromises the working poor must make to survive. She writes facts of poverty that many of the middle and upper classes never before paused to consider. The poor only get poorer as they are unable to pay the deposit on an apartment and end up paying more to pay the weekly and monthly rates of hotels. Without health insurance, the poor push through pain and illness until the condition compounds and becomes debilitating. This is important and necessary reporting. It reveals how poverty persists even when jobs are available. When Ehrenreich turns her attention toward herself, however, she struggles. She fetishizes her jobs. She notes with interest when she begins to take pride in her work. She complains that no one ever tells her good job. She attempts to live the shift in a state of Zen calm where the work has meaning in and of itself. When that fails, she turns to bitterness against the bourgeoisie, one of her favorite topics. At this point Nickel and Dimed is no longer about the working poor. It's about Barbara Ehrenreich doing menial labor jobs, something of much less interest.

Radical Compassion is incredibly personal, too. More than anything else, it reads like Fr. Smith's diary of his time working in Portland, Oregon's Old Town, the neighborhood that is home to the homeless, but the two could not be more radically different. While Ehrenreich focused upon the business and economics of poverty, Fr. Smith turns his attention toward the people. Stories of people who touched his life and memorable incidents are loosely grouped together by themes like mental illness, love, prison, addiction and death. He writes about the chronic alcholic who gave Fr. Smith five dollars at a baseball game to buy himself a hot dog and beer. He remembers the long death of a man with HIV. Spontaneous prayers are interspersed. There are no numbers or calls to action in Radical Compassion. All Fr. Smith offers are his humble memories and how the heart of God, the poor, committed companions and friends have allowed him to keep going in this work.

I wrote earlier that it is unfair to directly compare these two books. Afterall, their purposes are entirely different. Ehrenreich wants to change the world or, at least, the economic systems which undergird it. Fr. Smith wants to be a better person. Both messages have their value, but I prefer Fr. Smith. Not all of us are going to be in a position to improve the lot of the working poor or homeless. If they come up on the ballot, we might vote for change, but we won't be running for office or managing campaigns ourselves. We can always use Fr. Smith's compassion and humility, however.

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