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Book Review: Nickel & Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

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I caught myself ranting about the problems with the minimum wage today as I rode in the car with my father. I’ve always had problems with the minimum wage, being a good bleeding heart liberal, but for a variety of reasons the issue has been on my mind a lot lately, and Barbara Ehrenreich just reinforced my sense of injustice when it comes to how much we1 pay people to do the work that we think of as beneath us: maids, customer service clerks, waiters. These are people who exist to take care of our basic needs when we can’t (or don’t want to) do it ourselves. They’re paid to clean our homes, to make us feel important, to be nice to us, to feed us &#8212 and essentially, their careers often impede their own ability to meet those needs for themselves and their families.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America was released in 2001 and received a fair amount of fanfare for its examinations of these issues. The basic premise sends Barbara Ehrenreich, a PhD-holding professional writer, to spend a month in each of three different cities, where she would work the kind of job that people entering the workforce post-welfare reform would be likely to get. The book chronicles the difficulties and demeaning moments in the jobs themselves, in finding affordable housing and in generally trying to exist on minimum wage.

Ehrenreich winds up working as a maid, a waitress, a housekeeper and a Wal-Mart associate. At one point, she is working seven days a week; at another, she briefly works two consecutive shifts in the course of a day. Whether these choices would be something that could be maintained for longer than a month is an unspoken question.

If you hump away at menial jobs 360-plus days a year, does some kind of repetitive injury of the spirit set in?

Ehrenreich herself doesn’t manage to keep up with the double shifts, but the people whose lives she is emulating don’t necessarily have the luxury of choice. We are reminded of the advantages Ehrenreich has that simply don’t exist for her temporary colleagues. After a particularly bad day at work near the end of a month’s stint, for example, Ehrenreich simply walks out.

And the surprising thing is that you can walk out without permission, that the door opens, that the thick tropical night air parts to let me pass, that my car is still parked where I left it…I had gone into this venture in the spirit of science, to test a mathematical proposition, but somewhere along the line, in the tunnel vision imposed by long shifts and relentless concentration, it became a test of myself, and clearly I have failed.

Of course, if walking out means that your children and you will have no home, the opening of the door, the parting of the air, are not going to be the items that you worry about.

This raises the biggest, most obvious criticism of the book, and the exercise itself. As with Down to This, there is a difference between the author and the people whose company she keeps: the author has a life preserver. The author doesn’t actually have to sink or swim. That is more true here than with Bishop-Stall, who had half-tumbled, half-walked in to Tent City. Ehrenreich, on the other hand, is experimenting, and she can go back to her normal life at any time.

The conclusions Ehrenreich draws seem to be fairly foregone. There is no doubt from the beginning of the book what the conclusion will be &#8212 and it seems that that might be the point of the project. It’s possible, I suppose, that this is a confluence of biases at work. I’m not sure my own biases could handle the cognitive dissonance of reading a book that says that everything is fine for people making $7 an hour; I went into the book expecting to be told I should be outraged and ashamed. The book preaches to the choir and I do wonder if it had any influence beyond those already predisposed to listen.

One point where her biases and mine didn’t line up is on the issue of weight and class. The issue comes up several times while Ehrenreich is working in a Minnesota Wal-Mart. She describes her customers:

All right, everyone knows that mid-westerners, and especially those in the lower middle class, are tragically burdened by the residues of decades of potato chips and French toast sticks, and I probably shouldn’t even bring this up. In my early-shift, Dr. Jekyll form, I feel sorry for the obese, who must choose from among our hideous woman-size offerings, our drawstring shorts, and huge horizontally striped tees, which are obviously designed to mock them. But compassion fades as the shift wears on. Those of us who work in ladies’ are for obvious reasons a pretty lean lot — probably, by Minnesota standards, candidates for emergency IV nutritional supplementation — and we live with the fear of being crushed by some wide-body as she hurtles through the narrow passage from Faded Glory to woman size, lost in fantasies involving svelte Kathie Lee sheaths.

The breezy tone of this, the us-and-them of it, bothers me, especially since it glosses over one of the reasons that weight and class often correlate, something that Ehrenreich discovers first-hand when getting food aid. She details this issue in a footnote, rather than the main text, saying that:

Middle-class people often criticize the poor for their eating habits, but this charitable agency seemed to be promoting a reliance on “empty calories.”

Food box items Ehrenreich received included cereal, candy, barbecue sauce, cookies, crackers, juice mixes and other sugar-heavy, light on nutrition, items.

In spite of the artificiality of the scenarios and the frequent reminder that Ehrenreich is only playing pretend at being poor, it is interesting to watch as she nonetheless finds herself caught up in the moods of these workplaces. Occasionally, she tries to stir up worker solidarity, but mostly she matches the mood of her coworkers. In fact, Ehrenreich is surprised by how quickly she becomes complacent, failing to stand up when people are treated unfairly.

Something new &#8212 something loathsome and servile &#8212 had infected me, along with the kitchen odors that I could still sniff on my bra when I finally undressed at night. In real life I am moderately brave, but plenty of brave people shed their courage in POW camps, and maybe something similar goes on in the infinitely more congenial milieu of the low-wage American workplace.

How much courage-fuelling self-worth can you muster when you are, as Ehrenreich puts it, “constantly reminded of your lowly position in the social hierarchy” and are paid at a rate that says you really aren’t worth very much? ($14 an hour is considered the break-even point for a family of one adult and two children; 60% of Americans earn less than that.)

Even beyond the issue of pay, low wage earners face other strikes against their egos. How does your soul survive in a workplace where you need to pee into a cup and complete a psychological profile before being deemed worthy to hang clothes or scrub toilets? As Ehrenreich notes, “It is unsettling, at the very least, to give a stranger access to things like your self-doubts and your urine, that are otherwise shared only in medical or therapeutic situations.”

These are among the conclusions and larger issues discussed at the book’s end. One interesting revelation, for me, was the fact that poverty is calculated based on the cost of food, a cost which has borne inflation well, particularly compared to the cost of housing. This is part of why poverty sometimes seems on the decline, in spite of lower relative wages and many increased living expenses. The “disappearing poor,” are not achieving more wealth but simply vanishing from the sights of those in other economic brackets:

Among the reasons… cited for the blindness of the affluent is the fact that they are less and less likely to share spaces and services with the poor…. People who can afford to do so send their children to private schools and spend their off-hours in private spaces &#8212 health clubs, for example, instead of the local park. They don’t ride on public busses and subways. They withdraw from mixed neighborhoods to distant suburbs, gated communities, or guarded apartment towers; they shop in stores that, in line with the prevailing “market segmentation,” are designed to appeal the affluent alone.

The Canadian dream and the American dream aren’t all that different. Canadians might be a little more likely to help you get up via bootstraps, but we still believe in the idea that people get what they deserve and that if you work hard, your life will benefit from your toil. Even without medical expenses, even with a more generous social safety net, the issues, I suspect, are not that different here. As a society, I think we have a serious obligation to ask ourselves: If we believe that people are fundamentally equal, why are we allowing people to work 35, 40, 60 hours a week for paychecks that don’t allow them to sustain themselves or their families? If the work has value, don’t the rest of us have an obligation to ensure that those doing it can make a living?

The appropriate emotion is shame &#8212 shame at our own dependency, in this case, on the underpaid labor of others. When someone works for less pay than she can live on &#8212 when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently &#8212 then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The “working poor,” as they are appropriately termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society… To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.

The most telling sentence in the whole book is this, which wraps Ehrenreich’s naivity and idealism and activism in a single package:

What you don’t necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you’re actually selling is your life.

If that is the epiphany, the question the book begs us to ask is this: As a society, how much do we think a life is worth?

1 By “we”, I mean those of us who are lucky enough to be in the middle classes, where we might fret about our bills, but it’s because our wants are bigger than our means, not our needs.

(More book reviews can be found at Fourth-Rate Reader.)
ed/pub:NB Edited: PC

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About Bonnie

  • http://philobiblion.blogspot.com Natalie Bennett

    Excellent first post, thanks Bonnie. It left me thinking that what is really needed is someone writing from within the underclass. I can think of some historical examples of the genre, but not any recent ones. Can anyone supply any suggestions?

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    There’s something creepy about an elitist pretending to be poor so that she can write about how hard the poor have it. I agree with Natalie that it would be nice to see someone who was actually living a minimum-wage lifestyle (not that anyone actually earns minimum wage) writing about their experiences – I bet their attitude would be a hell of a lot more positive.

    Dave

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    Excellent post, Bonnie

    Dave, there have been numerous examples of people writing ‘from experience’ – a Dickens-style perspective. I assume you mean a specific, updated view of ‘How the Other Half Lives’ The attitude might be positive (or not), but the daily struggle to pay tomorrow night’s bill, or the week’s food costs, grinds one down to make creative writing somewhat of a challenge, I think.

  • http://thereconstruction.com Bruce Joyner

    I read this book..and being poor…literally
    (this computer I am on belongs to a friend)..I felt left out …You don’t need to be a liberal to
    believe that a living wage should be in place for the people who work to provide us with the essentials of life.Our looks,shapes,eating habits,and attitudes have nothing to do with the fact we need to be treated like human beings.This book reflects the society we live in and in our society people today we blame the poor for being poor…That makes me angry…Maybe I’ll write a book…I am a cripple with one eye,in a wheelchair
    at times when i cannot walk with my canes…and the only money i get is a disability check..so i guess i’m poor..but better off than the people in this book working for minimum wage..

  • http://avalon_landing.blogspot.com Cass

    I liked this book, but the author gave up too easily. She quit when it got too tough for her. I did think the book was eye-opening. Even in poor rural areas where jobs are scarce, you can’t get by on minimum wage. It takes at least two incomes, and sometimes three jobs to make ends meet.

  • michelle

    Id like to know what Dave meant by (nobody actually earns minimum wage) were you being serious when you wrote that? I hope not. There are MANY people working for minimum wage. Shameful!!