Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Non-fiction?  Who let non-fiction into the reading pile?  Well, it was bound to happen, my little Random.org trick that I use to choose my next read finally chose for me a non-fiction book from my collection.  What's more shocking, though, is that I didn't cheat and say "eh, not that one, maybe I'll just try and draw another number.  No one has to know."  Nope, I actually read the non-fiction book Random.org chose from my LibraryThing.  And I read it relatively fast.  And it was really good, if a little outdated because I should have read it years ago (but probably still truer than ever).  Thanks to Barbara Ehrenreich for showing me, yet again, that there's a non-fiction lover lurking within me!

Nickel and Dimed is a work of investigative journalism in which author Ehrenreich travels to a few different American locales under contrived circumstances to discover what it's like to live on the almost poverty-level wages many American workers earn at their occupations.  During stints as a waitress in Key West, a maid in Maine, and a Wal-Mart "associate" in Minnesota, Ehrenreich discovers that even given an edge of a lump sum of cash to start with and a car, living on the poverty-level wages millions of Americans are expected to subsist on is no easy feat.  Lodged in pay-by-the-week motels, suffering from the prodigious aches and pains that accompany low-wage labor, sometimes with hardly enough food to get by, and often even in fear for her safety, Ehrenreich offers a very enlightening look into the lives of the working poor.

The book itself is compelling.  Ehrenreich's writing style is extremely engaging and has such a great flow to it that it's actually hard to put down, a quality I'm always looking for in non-fiction and rarely finding.  The book is also peppered with footnotes elaborating on Ehrenreich's experience in the low-wage world with hard data related to low wage workers both in the locales in which she works and across the United States.

As for the content, some of it is truly eye-opening while some of it is borderline offensive to anybody who is working or ever has worked a low-wage job.  Ehrenreich exposes the pitfalls that come with having to take a job that is nearby even if it pays peanuts because you don't have a car (and likely never will at the wage you're making).  She reveals that many low-wage workers, because they don't have a month's rent and security deposit can't ever get a real apartment and are forced to rely on flea-bag pay-by-the-week motels, sometimes cramming whole families into a motel room or even a car if funds for the motel run out.  She shows how hourly employees are subject to the whims of mostly useless middle managers who demand a level of work that is practically slavish.  She delves into the demeaning world where drug tests are required, there is constant (often unwarranted) suspicion of worker drug use and theft, and worker belongings are subject to search when they are on the premises all for a paltry $7.00/hour, if that.  Ehrenreich discovers that low-wage workers are virtually invisible to the people they're serving as waitresses or maids and almost hopelessly trapped in a hamster-wheel of never having enough to get by, much less any savings to rely on in times of crisis.

On the other hand, PhD-holding Ehrenreich seems to need her book as much as any of the rest of us privileged folks.  If you've ever had to take a job as a waitress or a maid or a big-box store employee in your life, you might find yourself more than a little offended by Ehrenreich's surprise at the fact that "even" low-wage workers are smart, capable, and take pride in their work.  While it's easy to relate to Ehrenreich's bewilderment that a co-worker is continuing to work despite injury, she's obviously looking at it from the perspective of someone who has a cushion to fall back on rather than a worker who faces the very real possibility of being out on the street if she can't recover enough to keep her job.  Especially irritating to me, however, is Ehrenreich's account of her time working at Wal-Mart, where she flounces in, attempts to stir up some pro-union sentiment, suggests that low-income women all have the same sad haircut, engages in some vaguely patronizing speculation about the lives of the customers who frequent her department, and then seems to more or less glibly return to her life of privilege.    

Despite its flaws, though, Nickel and Dimed is a very compelling book and one that everybody in a America whose income allows them some measure of comfort and safety needs to read. If nothing else, it will make you think twice about leaving that bigger tip, not taking the maid that cleans your hotel room for granted, and maybe not wreaking thoughtless havoc on the shelves of the store where you're shopping.  More than that, Ehrenreich's book helps us to become re-acquainted with the people our incomes allow and encourage us to ignore and is the kind of book that can and should drive change in a "prosperous" country that is leaving a huge segment of its population behind.

 (No disclaimer required - I bought it!)  


  1. This sounds like an interesting book, one I might like. I imagine I would find take note of the same flaws you mention, especially given how much my parents, especially my father, struggled to put food on our table when I was growing up. My husband and I have struggled at times, but nothing like my parents did.

  2. I bought this a while ago and have a feeling I will find it compelling too, even though it sounds like the author is on her high horse some of the time.

  3. I have this on my shelf and keep meaning to read it. You have inspired me to move it further up my TBR pile!

  4. I remember reading this one a good few yeas ago on a bookring. An interesting read :)