Almost 15 years ago, the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich went undercover in Portland, Maine, as part of an investigation for her soon-to-be-bestselling book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Her goal: discover how unskilled workers in America live off the extremely low wages they earn. Her strategy: Hide her professional credentials (including a PhD in Biology), move to a new place, and try to find a job and a home as an unskilled worker without any substantial resources or contacts. At the time, the federal and state minimum wage was $5.15, and President Bill Clinton had recently signed the Welfare Act of 1996, which pushed millions of poor Americans off government assistance and into jobs that would pay about that much. Ehrenreich wanted to understand the circumstances of those workers by finding out if she “could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day.”
In Maine, the best she could manage was a gloomy room at a motel in Old Orchard Beach, one weekday job cleaning McMansions for $6.75 per hour, and a weekend job as an assistant at a nursing home earning $7 per hour. Long hours of exhausting and often demoralizing work earned her just enough to scrape by, but only after seeking food assistance and briefly breaking the rules of her experiment to seek help for a medical problem. In other words, she found that the wages being earned by millions of hardworking Americans during a period of unprecedented prosperity, when the tech boom was in full swing, were hardly enough to keep them from sinking into poverty—for those who weren’t there already.
Ehrenreich picked Portland, among several other cities, for her economic experiment because it offered a typical environment for American workers (and because her whiteness wouldn’t count as an advantage in an especially white state). Portland has become a lot less typical since then. It’s evolved from a gritty port city perceived as long past its prime to an increasingly prosperous tourist magnet and foodie hub that’s regularly featured in “best of” lists and glossy magazines. The city’s economy, and especially its real estate market, is booming, and gentrification is a potent force reshaping many neighborhoods.
But it’s striking how much is the same for low-wage workers. There’s been lots of talk about the scarcity of affordable housing on the Portland peninsula lately, but 15 years ago the only housing Ehrenreich could find in the city limits were condos and “executive apartments” with rents higher than $1,000 a month. And something else that hasn’t changed much is wages. When you take account of inflation, Maine’s minimum wage today is only slightly higher than it was in the late 1990s. And recent census data show that the 2013 median wage for housekeepers in the Greater Portland region is basically the same, after taking account of inflation, as what Ehrenreich earned cleaning homes when writing her book.
This continuity in the circumstances facing workers is worth keeping in mind as a local conversation builds about how to make Portland an affordable place to live for people of all economic backgrounds. Rent used to be cheaper, but the struggles of low-income residents have deep roots, and are tied to national trends just as much as local ones. The main reason that workers are barely scraping by today is that costs associated with education, health care and child-rearing have exploded over the last couple decades while wages have stagnated throughout the nation during the same period. Last year the median wage for American workers hit its lowest level since 1998, even as wages for the top earners soared.