AUSTIN — What a glorious year for the summer reading list! Enough gems to stock any list — fiction and non-, funny and tragic, sometimes both simultaneously; plus a perfect plethora of peppy public policy books.

But there are two books I especially want to recommend, both by women I admire and know slightly: Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich and Washington by the late Meg Greenfield of The Washington Post. If you read them in conjunction, it more than doubles the strength of each.

Ehrenreich’s book, it seems to me, is the stronger of the two. She did what reporters used to do before they became so unbearably self-important: She reports what the society actually looks like from the bottom. Starting in 1998, she went out and got successive and sometimes simultaneous no-skills, close-to-minimum wage jobs and tried to make it from one month to the next. She couldn’t do it. As she so painfully shows, the joker in the deck for low-wage workers is the cost of housing.

The reason you don’t hear much about it is that the official poverty rate has remained, as Ehrenrich puts it, “at a soothingly low 13 percent” for several years. Trouble is, the official poverty rate is calculated by the cost of food, which is relatively inflation-proof. The living-wage movement — to establish a minimum wage based on the true cost of living — puts the true minimum at about $14 an hour. Ehrenreich was working for between $6 and $7, living in everything from trailer parks (an upscale option), to not-so-low-rent apartments, to a dorm.

This is where the system is seriously gamed against low-income workers. Ehrenrich observes: “It did not escape my attention, as a temporarily low-income person, that the housing subsidy I normally receive in my real life — over $20,000 a year in the form of a mortgage-interest deduction — would have allowed a truly low-income family to live in relative splendor. ... If rents are exquisitely sensitive to market forces, wages clearly are not.”

She points out that when the rich and poor compete for housing in the same market, the rich always win — thus we get fancy downtown condos, McMansions in the suburbs and golf courses galore, but nowhere for low-income workers to live, especially since they are clumped in inner cities and the new jobs are in the Edge Cities.

Ehrenreich allowed herself a car, so she started with a strong advantage over other workers, but even that was not enough. (When was the last time you used a city bus to get anywhere?)

The increase in the cost of housing has been neatly matched by a simultaneous drop in government support. Expenditures on public housing have fallen since the 1980s, when that prince of social services Ronald Reagan was president.

Those trained in the hard sciences tend to make excellent reporters. I assume it is because they are taught to observe under the rules of the Scientific Method. Ehrenreich was trained as a biologist and retains the trait of observing precisely what is there, adding her own evaluations in a separate section. Working more than 40 hours a week at $6-to-$7 an hour in variously priced markets (including a faintly hilarious stint with the Merry Maids housecleaning service in Maine), she found she could not make a no-frills living. She thinks she might have done so in Minneapolis had things fallen out so that she could work weekends as well.

The classic of this genre is George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris. Ehrenreich’s experiment was a more limited excursion into working poverty. She mostly sticks to the literal nickels and dimes in this world, including the effects of the common practice of withholding the first week’s wages.

One review of this book dismissed it contemptuously, saying more or less: “Hey, we all know there are lots of people in this country who work terrible jobs at worse wages. What’s the big deal?” Ehrenreich has some astonishing information on the extent of economic segregation in America.

Forty years ago, Michael Harrington dubbed the poor “invisible.” Today, when those at the top of the heap are so much farther removed from those at the bottom, “invisible” barely begins to cover the extent to which they don’t get it.

In theory, the working poor have some weapons in what is in fact class warfare in this country: They can organize, and they can vote. Why, in reality, they A, can’t, and B, don’t, is part of the degeneration of democracy.

For a fascinating read on how this works at the other end of the power scale, try Meg Greenfield’s posthumous book, Washington. Greenfield had a great b.s. detector. Her central metaphor for the Capital of the World’s Only Remaining Superpower is high school, and it is eerily apt — the same cliques, rivalries, obsession with popularity, peer pressure and eternal presidents of the student council.

Like Ehrenreich, Greenfield is reporting what she knows, and pomposity, hypocrisy and self-delusion make wonderful targets. The two books together constitute a stunning portrait of what is not-just-a-chain-store in this country — The Gap.

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.