February 23, 2014

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

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read this book several times before, but it's always instructive to take it out again, as it deals with some very pertinent universal human truths. Particularly in this day and age, when the powers that be in Washington are arguing about income inequality, working class people, and raising the minimum wage.

To summarize: in 1998-2000, Barbara Ehrenreich, a white, upper-middle-class journalist, conducted an experiment. She worked a series of low-wage jobs (waitress, Merry Maid, and irony of ironies, Walmart associate) to see how long, or if, she could survive on the wages offered. She worked in Key West, Florida, Portland, Maine, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. This book details the people she met, the conditions she worked under, and the general living on the edge she endured, which of course is nothing at all like the stories of people (many with children, which she did not have) who dance on the edge of that low-wage cliff for months on end.

What's most instructive about this book is comparing then with now. Back then, Ehrenreich could walk into a restaurant and a Walmart and get an interview right away, with a good shot of being offered a job. In Minneapolis she had two jobs to choose between. Sure, the wages were still low, but the jobs were there. Now? As we all know, the job market is horrifying, especially for someone of Ehrenreich's age, over 50. (I escaped this by the skin of my chinny-chin-chin myself; I was laid off in August 2008, just as the stock market was tanking, and I was EXTREMELY lucky to go to another pharmacy where I knew people and get in three weeks later. This is why it enrages me to hear conservatives prattle on about "bootstrap" bullshit. For a lot of people, the bootstraps simply don't exist, and I know full well that one of the maxims of my life is "There but for the grace of [deity] go I.") Nevertheless, she makes it quite plain that with the combination of low wages and high rents, and the eventual necessity of working more than one job (she actually worked two jobs, seven days a week in Maine), she simply could not have survived. What would have happened if she'd had children? Or, as would most likely have been inevitable, she'd injured herself on the job, or her car had broken down? (Especially if she'd had the same crappy older car as most working poor people.) She talks about cutting back on her food, and the rotten places she had to live because she couldn't save up the money needed to rent an apartment. No one working full time should have to do that.

This book is a wonderful argument for raising the minimum wage and unionizing service workers, even more now than when it was written. It's also good, I think, for testing out your own attitudes towards the less fortunate among us. Hopefully as you're reading it you'll feel empathy for these people, as I did, and want to work to improve their lives. If not...well, you'd fit right into Walmart culture, I guess.

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