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

Millions of Americans work for poverty-level wages, and one day Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that any job equals a better life. But how can anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 to $7 an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich moved from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, taking the cheapest lodgings available and accepting work as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing-home aide, and Wal-Mart salesperson. She soon discovered that even the "lowliest" occupations require exhausting mental and physical efforts. And one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors. Nickel and Dimed reveals low-wage America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity -- a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate strategies for survival. Instantly acclaimed for its insight, humor, and passion, this book is changing the way America perceives its working poor.





Ohhh, where to start with this one. It sure left me with mixed feelings on Ehrenreich's work here, since I live the life she "experiments" with ... and while some of her observations were thought-provoking, others were laughably off-base and, well... if I'm being honest... kinda offensive to us "regular workin' folk" class. 


The cringe factor starts on the very first page with Ehrenreich sharing how the idea for this book came about -- enjoying a "sumptuous $30 lunch" (no joke, that's where we start), she conversationally suggests the idea to her editor that someone (not necessarily her, but someone) should do "old fashioned journalism" (ie. getting out there in the trenches) on the very bottom of the working class... people trying to survive on minimum wage and / or welfare. When her editor proposes she herself take on such a project, at first she has a mountain of objections but then starts to like the idea of being in a scientist role again (she has a PhD in biology). Too bad she didn't take this whole thing more seriously because her idea had the potential to be quite the eye-opening expose! 


But how do we start Chapter 2 once she's agreed to take on this work? I quote, "Mostly out of laziness, I decide to start my low-wage life in the town nearest to where I actually live..." Not a great start, but I decided to hear her out. Ehrenreich lays out the plan: over the course of many months, she will travel to various towns across the U.S. and work undercover in a number of low-paying positions. These positions include a waitress job in Key West, FL; "nutritional aide" (aka dishwasher) at a nursing home, and a position on a home cleaning crew in Maine (where company policy, in the interest of time alloted for each job, emphasized the appearance of clean rather than the reality of it, with truly disinfected surfaces), the company a competitor of Merry Maids. She also tries out working at a Mennard's (she describes as a "Home Depot-like chain", if you don't have one in your area) in Minnesota. While working at this Mennard's, she's also hired on at a Walmart. In the final pages of this book, discussing this final job of the project (at Walmart), she relays how she found her inner Norma Rae. Here, Ehrenreich does offer some interesting work on the topic of "time theft" and the little footnote on the history of lawsuits with the company was jaw-dropping!


So I said I had mixed feelings.


Here's a rundown of what DID work for me:


* Having worked in retail myself for a number of years, I can commiserate with her stress over store layout changes and just the general, deep, full-body fatigue that comes with that work. 


* Having also worked in the hospitality industry, I got MAJOR nostalgia when she talks of housekeepers turning on the tvs while tearing through 19 turnovers (cleaning rooms). I so remember doing that!


* It was interesting to read that statistically, Minnesota seems to be kinder to the impoverished / those on welfare than many other states in the nation. 


* I also didn't realize that Walmart was the largest retailer in the WORLD and the largest private employer in the US! 


* Her thoughts during the Walmart job were especially thought-provoking, the experiences that should have us collectively saying "why are we doing this to ourselves?! why are we allowing others to suck our lives away like this?!"


What bugged me:


In short, the constant contradictions!


* In the last chapter of the book, she seems to knock the presence of modern day unions in the workforce -- "such fiends as these union organizers, such outright extortionists, are allowed to roam free in the land" --  yet in the first chapter of the book she throws out that her own husband is "an organizer for Teamsters".


* Outwardly, she seems strongly fixated on race but really doesn't go out of her way to actually get much perspective from any minority communities. And then admitting that she chose Maine as one of her locations for the projects because of "its whiteness." WHAAA?! And intentionally avoiding NYC and LA? Okay, just listen to this: "I ruled out places like NY and LA, for example, where the working class consists mainly of people of color and a white woman with unaccented English seeking entry-level jobs might only look desperate or weird." For having a PhD and bringing up her intelligence as much as possible, I can't help but feel the point was missed on our author.


I, myself, am a college-educated white woman who speaks "unaccented English" (unless you count my slight Cali-Carolina tinge to my everyday speech) who has worked and lived in more than one ethnic neighborhood in my day. I have, at various times in my life, applied for these jobs that I guess, in her eyes, would make me look "desperate"... because I was! I had bills to pay and ego doesn't get you anywhere when you're looking down the barrel of near-homelessness. That's what it means to live every day in the class she is supposedly investigating. I feel like it would have brought a lot of staggering reality to the work to illustrate just how real the struggle is even in some of the most expensive cities in our country! One of her own statistics she rolls out proves my point: Across the nation, 67% of requests at food banks are from people with steady jobs (but just too-low income)!


* While some of what she discovers is interesting, I'm not sure why I understand the sky-high praise I've heard for this book over the years. Not only that, but it also reads a bit dated. I was a little confused at the sudden time warp when I read passages where she talks about getting off a shift, going home and crashing in front of episodes of Titus, 3rd Rock, or "the new sensation Survivor on CBS." Then I recalled that there was a line at the beginning of the book that mentions this project was first started in 1998, with the book itself being published in 2001. 


* I feel like she was a little dramatic regarding the laws about drug-testing for employment. Seems like her reasoning was reaching just a bit. Just go in the dang cup, it's not that big a deal. 


*She makes some fair points on democracy vs the sort of dictatorship environment of many workplaces, but this whole "I've never personally come across a slacker, thief or drug addict, so I argue their existence" idea near the end... can she really be that far under a rock? And I call BS that she's worked all these jobs and never met anyone that, at the very least, wasn't pulling their weight. So no, I can't agree that all these rules about "time theft", drug testing, etc are just "the man keepin' us down" and all that. 


For those interested in the exact breakdown of Ehrenreich's expenditures during this project, she has a whole closing chapter entitled "Evaluation" where she reveals just how much everything cost in each location. All in all, I closed this book with more than a little disappointment. She was on the road to something impressive a number of times but kept veering off back onto #FirstWorldProblems terrain of the privileged. Yes, she mentions coming from blue collar roots herself but I don't care what she writes here, there's plenty in her tone to tell me she gladly left that history in the dust once she achieved the cush life. This book's another for the list of had potential, had moments that momentarily delivered but largely missed the mark. It ends up feeling like she piggy-backed off the hardships of the lower classes to write a book and make more bank to make her already comfy life that much more plush.