At Duke University, the school at which this important exhibit is to be constructed, one of 12the school’s most popular and well-known programs for civic engagement and community service both domestically and abroad, Duke Engage, boasts the motto “Challenge yourself.  Change your world.” Changing the world is a common goal for many… But is it a just one?

We, the makers of this exhibit, begin by searching for a level of understanding – the outside information, statistics, economic conditions, and day-to-day-struggles concerning Americans who don’t make enough to live let alone live comfortably. In her famous bestseller Nickel and Dimed, author Barbara Ehrenreich speaks of the “hidden costs” experienced only by our nation’s least wealthy. The example she gives is of not being able to afford the security deposit for an apartment; you ultimately pay more to live temporarily in a hotel. There is essentially no ground for many to get their footing, and as she observes the lives of others, there always seems to be more room to fall; one “rock bottom” after another. Other costs of poverty Ehrenreich speaks about aren’t measurable and can’t be addressed by public policy – they include the cost of one’s mental health, physical health, and sense of personal worth.

Being a low wage worker in America, and more specifically in North Carolina creates a microcosm of sorts that Robert Reich speaks on and shows in his documentary, Inequality For All. It is a downward “vicious cycle”. Reich illustrates that the stagnant wages of laborers cause them to buy less, causing companies to downsize and lay off workers, and so on and so forth until every aspect of the U.S. economy is struggling and in turn working against the well being of low-wage workers. In the same way the costs and day-to-day struggles of being a low-wage worker compound upon each other, placing workers in a cycle that ultimately dashes any semblance of a chance of the upward mobility that supposedly characterizes the “American Dream.”

In our group discussion last Friday, we sat around discussing and contemplating the surprising revelations Ehrenreich had come to concerning the lives of low-wage workers. Another Duke professor, Nicholas Carnes, wrote an article just last week on entitled “The class war in American politics is over. The rich won.” The title is self-explanatory. It describes what we already know and discussed on Friday: The rich keep getting richer while the poor get poorer.

In a class I took last semester, a professor of mine had us play an online “game,” called “Spent.” The game invites students to experience the difficulty of trying to make it through a month as a low-wage worker. This game was created by a local charity, Urban Ministries of Durham. Durham, a North Carolina city stricken like so many others by poverty, is also full of ignorance on the part of many who live here comfortably. I remember the remarks my classmates and I made on how difficult it had been to make it through the game, how it had allowed us to understand better what a life of a person mere dollars away from homelessness experienced on a regular basis.

I have to wonder if there is hypocrisy to it all. Our class is full of people who likely shake their heads in disgust at the American system that forever favors the already rich. And within the same conversation, we can sit around a table and discuss “what can be done” to help the problem. We, who probably experienced the closest thing to being a low-wage worker as we sat playing a simulation while in the comfort of our dorm rooms or apartments.

But perhaps it isn’t hypocritical, and perhaps the paternalism I’m so afraid of perpetuating isn’t as important as making sure issues are at least addressed.  Maybe it is important. Either way, I’m glad to know that this project, unlike many offered here at Duke, isn’t about us. This isn’t to say I don’t care to or expect to get a lot our of this. I hope that the members of this course and project will grow close, and that together we’ll experience immense personal growth as we learn new things and be exposed to new points of views throughout this process. But in the end, what we will have created is a project carrying nothing of us but our names. The stories, the tribulations faced on a daily basis about those people, those are what viewers of our exhibits will see and remember and will just begin, just as we have in these first three weeks of our fall semester, to understand.

Written by Autumn Carter, Duke ’17

Duke Engage – Main Page

N. Carnes – The class war in America is over. The rich won.

Spent – Urban Ministries of Durham

Barbara Ehrenreich – Nickle and Dimed

Inequality for All