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Director's program notes

By Dr. Brian Cook

Nearly every day I see a news article discussing income inequality. It’s been two years since the Occupy movement brought widespread attention to the difference between the 1% (the wealthiest Americans) and the remaining 99% that includes the rest of us, but there’s been little practical change as a result. Currently, the amount of money the 400 richest Americans make every year is equal to the combined yearly income of the lowest 50% of all American workers. Some efforts at change have been thwarted: in August, the Washington, D.C. city council voted to require a $12.50 minimum wage for all businesses with $1 billion or more in global sales, a move specifically designed to prevent Walmart from opening new stores in the District and hiring workers at a rate which would burden the city’s social welfare programs. The city’s mayor vetoed the law. Other efforts to raise the minimum wage, including fast food workers in over 60 cities walking off the job in an effort to raise their pay from minimum wage ($7.25/hour) to $15/hour, but the companies they work for have successfully resisted these calls for change. 


I first read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By In America ten years ago when I was living in Philadelphia. My day job at the time was as an assistant manager for a retail chain, and the company I worked for regularly started its new employees at minimum wage.

 I always had employees for whom the less-than-$10/hour wage they earned was the major source of their income. Then, as now, it didn’t make sense to me that in the U.S., the country with the biggest economy in the world, millions of people who work 40 hours per week regularly have to make a choice between feeding their children and paying their rent.  

Ehrenreich’s book really opened my eyes to a much wider problem, namely that poverty is a system that is incredibly difficult to break out of. How do you find time to “improve” yourself if you’re working two bone-wearying jobs for 80 hours per week so that you can feed your children? When you’re already straddling the line between making everything work and not, what do you do if you can’t work because you get injured or one of your kids is sick for a week? The 40-plus characters you will meet tonight (based on the real-life people Ehrenreich met while doing the research for her book) are representative of the millions of people who face these questions every day while working to clean our hotel rooms, make our food, scrub our toilets, and cater to our whims at stores like Walmart. 

In Britain, there’s a genre of play called the “state of the nation play,” where a playwright offers a window into an issue for the audience to witness, his or her play asking the question “if this is how things are, what are you going to do about it?” The adaptation of Nickel and Dimed we present tonight is a window into the state of our nation: multiple viewpoints on the issues around income inequality and business ethics are presented here for you, the audience member, to weigh. What are you going to do about it?

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