By Megan Harlan
Updated May 25, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

In this wealthy and expensive nation, how do Americans earning $6 to $7 an hour — the wage touted by welfare-to-work programs — make ends meet? Ehrenreich found out by walking in their shoes: She lived in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota for a month each, working the highest-paid ”unskilled” jobs she could find — like diner waitress, cleaning woman, and Wal-Mart ”associate.” Overwhelmed by how demanding these jobs really are, and often juggling two at a time, Ehrenreich still could not afford local rents (”trailer trash,” she reports ruefully, was ”a demographic category to aspire to”) — and, ultimately, could not stay afloat. Her account is at once a clear-eyed portrait of how the bottom third lives, and a complacency-shaking expose of the dead-end-job economy. A