Amanda Freeman and Lisa Dodson Discuss New Book on Low-Wage Women at Hunter’s Roosevelt House

Lisa Dodson (far left) and Amanda Freeman (center left) discuss their book, “Getting Me Cheap: How Low Wage Work Traps Women and Girls in Poverty” with moderator, Ruth Milkman (far right).

On Thursday, the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College invited sociologists Amanda Freeman and Lisa Dodson to discuss their book, “Getting Me Cheap: How Low-Wage Work Traps Women and Girls in Poverty,” as part of the institute’s commemoration of Women’s History Month.

The conversation, held virtually over Zoom, was moderated by Ruth Milkman, sociologist of labor and labor movements. The event opened with welcoming remarks by Harold Holzer, the Jonathan F. Fanton director at the Roosevelt House, who mentioned in his speech how the timing of the event was fitting given that plans to unveil a memorial for the victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire later this year were just announced by the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition.

Dodson and Freeman discussed with Milkman about how they wanted to write about the ways in which low-wage working women manage their everyday lives, often without any public aid. The authors interviewed 250 women of different backgrounds that worked across several low-wage industries. According to Freeman, about 70 percent of their interviewees were single parents who were either primarily or entirely responsible for their families.

“Navigating the public system is a job in itself,” said Dodson. She said one woman they interviewed told them that “‘they really get me cheap,’ not just with wages but society as a whole.”

Women were either doing shift work (i.e. fast food) or care work (i.e. cleaning, child/elder care). Freeman said that across both, low-wage working women encountered plenty of adversity including receiving no benefits, scheduling issues, lack of flexibility, and having to work multiple part-time jobs. The pandemic worsened their mistreatment and the general sentiment – especially among immigrant women – was that even if there were protections in place, they felt those either didn’t apply to or could help them.

The authors found in their research that many young girls are being called upon to contribute a lot to their families. While they felt valued for this, they acknowledged that they were missing out on their own lives like getting an education. Women who worked for affluent families expressed how they wished they could afford the same services for their own children as their employers’ children had. Dodson pointed out that the childhood we think of is typically reserved for those with some affluence, since low income parents facing wage poverty can’t meet the basic costs of life such as childcare. 

Inaccessible childcare was a huge issue for these women, according to Freeman. Several of them feared having to leave their children in overwhelming, unsafe conditions, as it was difficult to find childcare that would take their subsidies. They would rely on a patchwork of friends and family to watch their children as they worked. Some even started running childcare out of their homes so they could care for theirs and others’ children simultaneously, certified or not. 

Milkman remarked that the growing class inequality among women is rarely discussed and needs more attention. When broaching the topic of organized labor, Freeman emphasized that many of them would participate in advocacy but they didn’t have the time. There’s also a “fear of retribution,” as many had rearranged their lives around their jobs even if they were bad. Dodson said that despite the amount of low-wage women in unions being “abysmally low,” many still had positive attitudes towards them.   

Dodson, Freeman, and Milkman concluded their discussion by urging viewers to be politically aware and for women with privilege to use what voice they have to recognize how low-wage working women benefit our lives while being exploited. “If what we’re fighting doesn’t include these women we’re talking about, then we’re not fighting the right fight,” said Dodson.


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