Former White House correspondent recounts the stresses of working retail

Joseph Williams, a former Politico reporter who covered the White House, took a minimum wage job at a sporting goods store after unemployment forced him on to rely food stamps. He wrote a first-hand account of his experience for the Atlantic. Said Williams:

I had no idea what a modern retail job demanded. I didn’t realize the stamina that would be necessary, the extra, unpaid duties that would be tacked on, or the required disregard for one’s own self-esteem. I had landed in an alien environment obsessed with theft, where sitting down is all but forbidden, and loyalty is a one-sided proposition. For a paycheck that barely covered my expenses, I’d relinquish my privacy, making myself subject to constant searches.

**ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS JUNE 11-12, WITH TV LOOKOUT**This undated photo supplied by the FX Network shows Morgan Spurlock and his fiancee Alexandra Jamieson in the first episode of a six-week reality series "30 Days," which premieres Wednesday night June 15, 2005. In the opener of the FX series they set up housekeeping, land minimum-wage jobs, and struggle to get by while trying to live on the minimum wage -- $5.15 an hour --for 30 days in a Columbus, Ohio, apartment. Spurlock, a filmmaker whose hit 2004 documentary "Super Size Me" chronicled his monthlong McDonald's-only diet, also hosts the other episodes on the 30-day struggle of other participants. (AP Photo/FX,Craig Blakenhorn)
Morgan Spurlock and his fiancee Alexandra Jamieson in the reality TV series “30 Days,” (AP Photo/FX,Craig Blakenhorn)

Williams enters a genre occupied by Barbara Ehrenreich (“Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America”), and Morgan Spurlock (“30 Days: Minimum Wage”). His approach is vaguely similar to members of Congress who took the SNAP challenge to call attention to proposed cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. There’s one big difference: he was really unemployed.

Being poor, Williams found, can get expensive, just as the Post’s DeNeen L. Brown detailed in “The High Cost of Poverty: Why the Poor Pay More.”

Workers’ rights are a high-profile subject now, from striking fast-food workers, to wage theft, to the clamor to raise the minimum wage. Now, more than ever, the retail sector is filled with workers who are over-qualified, over-educated, and underpaid. Williams said he deliberately dumbed himself down to increase his chances at getting hired.

President Obama announced in his State of the Union address that he would sign an executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for federal contractors, and will sign another expanding overtime pay for the same group.

Williams eventually left the sporting goods store to take a temporary job as a communications director for a non-profit.

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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