Posted Wednesday morning, January 3, 2017.
“Barbara Cake cleans the counter toward the end of her J.C. Penney shift on Dec. 23.” Copyrighted photo by Dustin Franz, courtesy of the Washington Post.
This is a good story by the Washington Post’s Jessica Contrera. But it is a story. In the purest sense of the word. It’s non-fiction but still it might as well begin “Once upon a time, there was a nice sixty-seven year old woman who worked in the jewelry department of the last big department store in a failing mall…” It’s a day in the life story, like something written by Chekhov or Alice Munro, although it tries to mitigate or at least play down the heartbreak, that tells us how we live by telling us how this particular one person lives. It’s not meant as political or economic analysis. It does, however, raise political and economic questions. For instance:
Why is a 67 year old with arthritis and plantar fasciitis on her feet all day working a part-time retail job for a meager $8.50 an hour?
Based on the story---read as a story---I’d have to say, because she likes it. She’s not ready to stop working and sit at home doing nothing she regards as productive. She tried it, and gave it up for practical reasons. Barbara Cake appears to be a very practical person. Productive in her mind means improving her own lot materially. She works to make money she needs. But not just to make money or, to say it better, her lot, her life, isn’t improved only by making money. She likes working. She likes being busy and not just for being busy’s sake. She likes helping people and she likes the sense of accomplishment that comes from that.
She likes people.
She likes being among them. She likes sharing in business with them---it is business she does, they do. She and her customers are engaged in transactions to their mutual benefit. This is not just an economic engagement either. It’s social. It’s human. It’s business but it’s not simply business. It’s living in a society. If Penney’s has to let her go, if Penney’s closes, if the mall closes, what then? They tear it down to build something else, as her friend thinks they should, what else do they build? An Amazon warehouse? She could go to work there, I suppose. A job’s a job, right? Wrong. A job’s a life. She’d be miserable working in a warehouse. There she’d be a thing performing rote tasks somebody will soon figure out how to make a robot do. That’s not a life. It’s not social. It’s not human. It is purely economic, but it’s busy-ness, not business.
This is business, this is human:
Barbara showed them the “Holiday Extra Effort” deal that meant they could get an extra 30 percent off if they spent more than $500. They walked out with a $612 ring, $1,887 off the retail price.
Then came the type of customer Barbara loved helping most: those for whom a trip to the mall was a special occasion that had to be saved for, as it had been for her growing up in Shamokin, Pa. She was one of eight children. Her mother would send her to scour the Woolworths, W.T. Grant and Newberry stores to see which had the best price before they bought anything.
Now she met a 7-year-old named A.J., whose mother had given him $50 from her Social Security check, her only income, to buy her a Christmas gift. A.J. asked his grandparents to take him to buy her some jewelry.
“She likes pink,” A.J. told Barbara.
“She likes earrings that dangle,” his grandmother said.
Barbara walked them to the cases of sterling silver hoops, to the bracelets, to the pendants with 1/10 karat of a diamond on special for $25.
“Nothing gold?” the grandmother asked.
Barbara placed her hand over her brooch. “Not for $50,” she apologized.
She walked them back to the case of gold anyway, opened it and started taking out each box, scanning bar codes and adding all the coupons she could.
“His mom doesn’t have too much real stuff,” A.J.’s grandmother said.
In the corner of the case, Barbara found a $124 pair of earrings on sale for $31.79. The jewels were cubic zirconia, but the thin metal loops were 10-karat gold.
“A bargain,” she promised. A.J. gave her a thumbs up.
Still, if there was nothing else, and assuming Amazon would hire someone her age with her debilities---the assets that got her hired at Penney’s and put to work in the jewelry department, her friendliness, upbeat, outgoing personality, her ability to read people, her considerateness, the care she takes with her appearance wouldn’t matter to Amazon, they’d be looking to hire efficient drones---she might very well take the warehouse job. She likes to work but, like I said, she’s a very practical person.
She had been an executive secretary for 30 years, and now, a few years into her retirement, had done the math on her savings, her mortgage payment and her grandchildren's Christmas gifts and decided it was time to return to work.
So I’m asking again. Why is a 67 year old with painful debilities working a job that requires her to be on her feet all day for a dollar and a quarter more an hour than Pennsylvania’s stingy minimum wage? Yes, she likes it. But apparently she thinks she has to. She can use the money.
It’s not clear, though, if she needs to work to because needs the money.
The story doesn’t tell us the details of her financial situation. She worked at least the bulk of her adult life. She was a secretary which is no way to get rich but it made her enough money she was able to put some away. She has savings. The story doesn’t say what form, and it doesn’t say whether she has any income, either from a traditional pension, a 401k, investments, or something else. At 67, she’s eligible for full Social Security benefits, but we’re not told if she’s collecting or if she plans to wait until she’s 70 when she can collect more. It looks like she’s married, although her husband is only mentioned once, as part of a sales pitch. Maybe he’s made up to help her make the sale, but I doubt it. Presumably he’s real and presumably he’s about her age, but we don’t know if he’s retired, if he has a pension, if he’s collecting Social Security, or if he’s working a part-time job too. All we know is that they have a house they’re still paying the mortgage on and grandchildren they’d like to spoil a little bit and she thinks they need the extra money to help with both without having to dip into her savings any more than she already has to. She plans to make those savings last. But whether she’s simply preparing just in case or whether she’s foreseeing the day when the money will run out and she’s trying to put that day off as long as she can the story doesn’t say.
So we don’t if she needs the job. We know she doesn’t feel she needs it as much as others and that troubles her conscience. Which doesn’t tell us she doesn’t need it herself. It just tells us she’s the type of person who doesn’t think only of herself.
We do know this.
There are 67 year olds who do need to work.
Even if they’re collecting Social Security and they’ve been able to put money away during their working lives, they still don’t have enough to live lives free from the fear of penury and want or even free from those actual conditions.
Social Security isn’t enough to live on. It’s barely enough to survive on. A great many of us are going to have to work in our old age until we drop. A great many of us have dropped. They can’t work.
That’s just fine with Paul Ryan and most of the rest of the Republicans in Congress.
Social Security and Medicare both need to be expanded. The Republicans are planning to cut them. They’re calling this “entitlement reform” or “welfare reform”---knowing what they think of welfare generally, the use of the word tells us what they think of Social Security and Medicare and the people who depend on them---but, fulfilling Ryan’s drunken frat boy dreams, their ultimate goal is to “reform” them out of existence.
The object is the opposite of Franklin Roosevelt’s which was to free people from want and fear. The object is make people put people in want and fill them with fear so that they will be desperate to work. At any job, for whatever pay, with whatever benefits the owner class---the rich greedy bastards who own and run the Republican Party and think they should own and run the whole country---deigns to provide.
Barbara Cake may need the extra money or maybe she could just use it. Maybe it’s neither. Whatever’s the case, she likes to work. She works for her own reasons and own satisfaction, which is to say she works for herself. She works to be herself. To be a self. She works to get herself out of the house and out among people. She works to be with people. She works to help people. She works to be part of a community. Communities. The Penney’s is a community. The failing mall is a community. The town that needs the Penney’s to survive and mall revive is a community. Barbara Cake may not think of it in exactly this way, but she works to keep her communities alive and thriving.
But that’s not what work is for, according to the Republicans and their rich greedy bastard bosses. That’s not what people are for. There are no communities, only “associations” based on mutual economic self-interest, with the interests of the rich greedy bastards deciding what’s in the best interest of everybody else.
Work is purely an economic endeavor. Work is for making money. For making the owner class money. People who aren’t part of the owner class are here to work to make them money.
That’s what they think most people are for. To work and make them money until they decide they don’t need us anymore. Then they cut us loose to fend for ourselves.
Definitely read all of Contrera’s whole story, First, this town lost its Macy’s. Then Sears. Now, all eyes were on J.C. Penney.