Saturday, September 24, 2011

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

Barbara Ehrenreich— highly educated, financially comfortable— goes undercover to see what life would be like as a minimum-wage worker in America. How can someone survive on $6-7/hour?

Ehrenreich, a journalist by trade, spent a month in each of three locations—Florida, Maine, and Minnesota— as a waitress, hotel housekeeper, maid, and Walmart worker. (She did not inform her co-workers or bosses of her "real" life until her last day at each place of employment.) Her goal was to live like her co-workers (although with the benefit of three important tools: a car, a laptop, and $1000 in start-up funds).

Her life quickly became extraordinarily difficult. Affordable housing in all cases turned out to be barely habitable trailers, hotel rooms, tiny apartments. Her jobs were emotionally demeaning and physically hard. I'm sure that it was terribly hard for her that people didn't recognize her intelligence, although she never says this. I get the feeling that she often wanted to cry out, "You can't treat me like this: I have a PhD!"

Or maybe I'm projecting. I've worked minimum wage jobs as a college graduate. I've been that waitress in a polyester uniform, silently fuming because the boss was treating me like everyone else. Did he not recognize my ability to write A+ papers?

Yes, we are the privileged middle class, and the truth is, that while Ehrenreich's book is interesting and enlightening, she can't possibly present a picture of minimum-wage America with three short months in just three random cities. She needed to add in issues of health-care (when she got a rash from her work as a maid, she called her personal dermatologist and got a prescription) and family (as a single woman, she didn't have to face issues of childcare, etc.). She needed to give up her life for a year, not just a few months, and stay in one place—without a car and an emergency fund.

Ehrenreich tries, though, to present to her readers, presumably the privileged middle class, the life of millions of minimum-wage workers across America. It's hard. It's unthinkable to many of us that one could spend one's entire life working a couple of different jobs, 60-70 hours/week, on $7 an hour. Most people I know have worked in minimum-wage jobs at some point in their lives, but we all knew that we are working there temporarily—until we were done with college or graduate school, for the most part. Even working in those jobs for a set amount of time—with that light at the end of the tunnel—can be terribly depressing and demoralizing.

The author is condescending at times and often downright snarky, but I still think this is an important read. She doesn't offer any solutions, but she does raise a lot of questions and shed light on the plight of the poor.


Sherry said...

I haven't read Nickled and Dimed, but The Headmistress at The Common Room has a more negative perspective on this book here:

And I wrote about other book she mentions, Scratch Beginnings, which I do think is probably a good balancer, here:

Carin Siegfried said...

Yay! Someone else who feels the same way about N7D as me! I feel like the author gets a ton of praise for only doing half the job of living that life of poverty. Not that my little trip through poverty was safety-net free (I always could have called my parents) but having had to lie on my apartment application becuase I didn't earn enough money at B&N to live in LOW INCOME HOUSING, I felt like she wasn't really there with me. I had a 13+ year old car, I had to count my long distance (which I remember was an exception for her since she was away from her family) and you know, you can do anything for a few months. It doesn't truly start to gnaw at your soul for at least a year. My thought: good effort, glad she's drawn attention to this problem, but she really didn't truly experience what the working poor deal with.