Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Nickel and Dimed

Title: Nicked and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America
Author: Barbara Ehrenreich
Country: America
Year: 2001
Rating: B
Pages: 221 pgs

First sentence: Mostly out of laziness, I decided to start my low-wage life in the town nearest to where I actually live, Key West, Florida, which with a population of about 25,000 is elbowing its way up to the status of a genuine city.

In Nickel and Dimed, which I read for the Non-fiction and TBR challenges, Barbara Ehrenreich goes 'undercover', spending a few months working in various cities as part of the working poor population, one of the most disenfranchised groups in America. For a short period of time, she gives up fancy restaurants, a large home, and other measures of comfort to see what life might be like after welfare reform. What she finds, which certainly isn't news to a lot of people, is that it is exceedingly difficult to get by on a low-wage job ($6-10/hr) in an economy filled with skyrocketing housing cost and other barriers. It is a poignant portrayal of the problems facing those who help keep the middle and upper classes comfortable: gas station attendants, fast food workers, Wal-Mart employees, house cleaners, nannies, janitors.

Ehrenreich raises some very important points in her book, which is one reason I gave it a fairly decent rating. She discovers, and criticizes a state of affairs in which subsidized, low-cost housing to become so scarce that many full-time workers are homeless (here in Baltimore, it's at least a two-year waiting list for subsidized housing). She documents the daily tribulations of retail, housecleaning, and restaurant workers: daily humiliation from management, the inability to take time off for illness without docking pay, recriminations for promoting unions, company health insurance that is still unaffordable, etc. She brings to the mainstream an oppressive situation that has been festering for years.

I am personally familiar with a lot of the working conditions that Barbara faced, as I have worked at one time or another as a Sales Associate, restaurant server, and 'nurse's aide' (for lack of a better term) during college, and for quite a while afterwards. Fortunately, I had a support system in which I was able to get by on the wages that I earned (and a boyfriend that received money for rent through his med student loans).

With this familiarity, comes one of my chief complaints. Barbara barely spent two-three weeks at most of the jobs that she tried out, and sometimes lasted quite a bit less. She stayed in 3 cities for no more than a month at a time. Unrealistically, at no time did she accept help from others when it was offered, or attempt to make things easier by having a roommate or carpooling to work. She did not attempt to socialize with any of her co-workers after hours.

I feel there was a huge lost potential in this project, and wish she would have committed to it for a longer period of time. I also felt there was a certain arrogance that reared it's head, an almost 'if I can't do this, how can anyone else' mentality. "I am, of course, very different from the people who normally fill America's least attractive jobs." (p.6) With more time, she could have explored the effects of working [two jobs] with a reliance on public transportation, and all of the problems that this can cause (a job that starts before public transport does, services that are always late, etc--can you tell that I have been there, done that!). She also failed to explore an important issue that accompanies a lack of subsidized housing--the fact that the working poor are often forced to live in substandard, housing conditions that are dangerous and usually located in neighborhoods that have much higher rates of violent crime and drug trafficking.

Nickel and Dimed highlights a lot of sobering statistics about low wage earners and the living conditions they are forced into. I have dug around for some similar, but updated statistics:
- 15% of those who are homeless are employed in full-time work (National Coalition for Homelessness, 2005)
- 5.6 million people (4% of the workforce) currently earn less than $7.25/hour. More than half of those workers are engaged in full-time work.
- 59% of workers who would benefit from a minimum wage increase are women.


Bookfool said...

What an eye-opening review! I had no idea there was any such thing as a homeless person who worked full-time. That's shocking. I was hoping to eventually read this book, but I'm not sure it's my cup of tea, if only because it's written by someone who dipped into the experience instead of actually living it.

Bookfool said...

I forgot to say I like your new look!

Lisa said...

I had pretty much the same reaction to this book. I am glad I read it, parts of it were eye opening, but I thought the experiment itself wasn't very accurate (for lack of a better word.) For the reasons you listed above, she didn't REALLY experience it. It seemed like playing at being poor to me.

Dewey said...

This reminds me in a way of Self-Made Man, a book I despised and only kept reading because it was for a book group. A woman disguises herself and passes as man, seemingly only to perpetuate gender stereotypes and disharmony in an incoherent book. This sounds better than that, but still, playing at being someone you aren't and then writing a book about it is a feature of both.

Trish said...

I just finished this book for the non-fiction five as well. I have mixed feelings about the attitude she took, and also felt that her mentality affected the outcome of the project. Still not sure how I feel about this one...

Literary Feline said...

Great review. This sounds like an interesting book. Although I haven't read it, I think your criticisms are good ones. I work a lot with low income families and am familiar with some of the hardships they face. I'll have to watch out for this one.

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Anonymous said...

Though it is indeed true that she didn't REALLY experience poverty, as you put it above, Ehrenreich does explicitly state "there was no way I was going to "experience poverty" or find out how it "really feels" to be a long term wage worker.
She understood that there was no way she was going to understand what poverty was at it's core, and only sought to find out if it is truly as impossible as it seems.