Book Report: Nickel and Dimed

I just finished reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and it really opened my eyes. Clevery subtitled “How (Not) To Get By in America,” the book is a chronicle of Ehrenreich’s “adventures“ in survival as a member of the low-wage workforce that serves our meals, cleans our homes, and cares for our elderly.

The book is divided into three sections, each of which finds Ehrenreich in a new location, looking for work and a place to live. Her first stop was Key West, where she took a job as a waitress at one restaurant before moving to a busier one attached to a hotel. A bit later, she tried to increase her income by picking up some additional work as a maid at said hotel, but the exhaustion (and accompanying pain) got to her and she decided just to stick with the waitressing.

In the second section, she journeyed to Maine, where she picked up a job working for a cleaning service during the week and working at a nursing home on the weekends. It was the “off season” in Maine, meaning weekly rents were far cheaper at the extended-stay motels, but she still had problems making ends meet. There’s no doubt that the tourist season would have bankrupted her or had her sharing a single-room efficiency with several other workers.

Finally, it was on to the heartland of America, Minnesota, where she was shocked to discover a severe affordable housing shortage. She took a position as an “associate” at Wal-Mart to gain additional insight into the largest private employer in the United States (possibly the world), but no matter how hard she tried, she just could not afford to live, even in the seediest of motels with assistance from local charities and the State.

In each location, Ehrenreich tried to live as cheaply as possible, often finding shelter at hotels, motels, and trailer parks that cater to those unable to afford an apartment. And, in Minneapolis, when she couldn’t even afford to do that, a local organization suggested she live at a shelter (while working full-time at Wal-Mart, mind you) until she had saved enough to afford the first month’s rent and security deposit for an apartment in the tight real estate market.

While it is arguable that she could not even hope to capture the complete experience by spending just a month in each place (and, of course, being able to return to her “real” life at any time), she was able to glean a good deal of insight into the struggles of low wage workers in this country. Her final chapter, in fact, articulated perfectly some of the thoughts and feelings I’ve had for some time. Here’s an excerpt:

When poor single mothers had the option of remaining out of the labor force on welfare, the middle and upper middle class tended to view them with a certain impatience, if not disgust. The welfare poor were excoriated for their laziness, their persistence in reproducing in unfavorable circumstances, their presumed addictions, and above all for their “dependency.” Here they were, content to live off “government handouts,” instead of seeking “self-sufficiency,” like everyone else, through a job. They needed to get their act together, learn how to wind an alarm clock, get out there and work. But now that government has largely withdrawn its “handouts,” now that the overwhelming majority of the poor are out there toiling in Wal-Mart or Wendy’s—well, what are we to think of them? Disapproval and condescension no longer apply, so what outlook makes sense?

Guilt, you may be thinking warily. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to feel? But guilt doesn’t go anywhere near far enough; the appropriate emotion is shame—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—when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently—then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The “working poor,” as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.

I highly recommend checking this book out if your a social activist interested in pushing for a living wage or are simply interested in the nature of labor and the workforce in America.

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