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

nickel.jpgI was very interested in this book when it came out, so was glad when one of my book club members chose it as our reading selection this month. I thought it was a great choice because there were certainly a lot of things to talk about it, even if what we talked about were issues and values more than plot and character development.

As a book I liked the construction of this–a readable story, supported by informational footnotes full of statistics and factoids. Curiously, one of my friends wanted more of the stats and the other wanted more of the story, but I thought it was a good blend and probably helped account for its massive popularity. I also liked it that was broken up into each of the jobs she held, followed by an overall evaluation.
I couldn’t help but feel an awkward blend of guilt, good luck, and comfort knowing as I read this that I am in the fortunate position of holding a master’s degree, employable, and yet having the choice for the past two years to not work. When my husband and I discuss whether or not we can afford something, it’s not groceries or a car repair, it’s whether or not we can each get a new laptop, or if we should just get one. (We each did and we love them.) It seems awful to me that there is such a disparity between the rich and the poor (and I wouldn’t call us rich, even) in our country and, while I didn’t need to read this to know it, I find myself feeling more frustrated that there’s probably nothing I, as an individual, can do about it. (except vote, people! Always vote!!)

One thing everyone in the book club agreed on was that we’d never hire one of the cleaning services described in the book (Merry Maids, etc.). I’m sure Ehrenreich didn’t intend this to be an expose on cleaning services, but we were all pretty grossed out when she decribed their mandated cleaning methods, including using very little water and not using separate bathroom and kitchen cleaning tools. Ew.

Another thing she covered, which I found personally relevant and interesting, was the disparity between the poor and rich in tourist driven areas. She found this in both Maine and Key West. I found this so interesting because for a period of a couple years I lived on Martha’s Vineyard. Consider that I was well paid professional with a steady job with good benefits. I had sick time, vacation time, and a 35 hour work week. And I still moved 3 times in the course of two years. The first place I lived was so small that when a plumber came to work on my bathroom sink his feet were literally on my bed. And ultimately that was the best placed I lived. The subsequent places had such terrifying landlords that when my roommate was away overnight I slept at my boss’s house because I didn’t feel safe in the house alone. This situation was totally common. During the summer when seasonal workers were on the island there might be a dozen kids living in a tiny apartment. I knew of families with children who lived there year round, but still moved twice a year because they depended on the rent they could get from their regular houses during the summer months. Ultimately, that is why I decided to move back to New Jersey, a place I considered more reasonable for buying a house (and if you know NJ taxes and house prices, you know that’s insane.) I thought Ehrenreich’s experiences really underscored this particular aspect of the difficulties of matching housing with income.

Definitely the most interesting section to me was when she worked at Wal-Mart. I’ve always been against Wal-Mart and do specifically not shop there. I’m sure my one person stand means absolutely nothing to the giant corporation, but I’m sticking to my guns. (To be fair, the nearest Wal-Marts are 25 minutes away, so it’s not like I am sacrificing anything.) I read In Sam We Trust some years ago and was appropriately horrified by Wal-Mart as a corporation. This was compounded when I took a trip with a friend and we drove through many charming old towns that now had depressed and horrible downtowns as all the stores and local businesses had been driven out of business by Wal-Mart. All that said, it’s hard to be on a moral high horse knowing that Wal-Mart makes it possible, given their low prices, for millions of people to clothe and feed their families. I think Ehrenreich does a good job, though, of pointing out that for all they try to promote themselves as a caring wholesome corporation, Wal-Mart does treat its workers unfairly. In fact, I read in The Week this week that Wal-Mart presently has 80 suits filed against it for not paying employees overtime, as required by law. I thought the best example in the whole book of the difficulties facing those with low paying jobs was when one of her Wal-Mart co-workers, making $7 an hour, couldn’t afford to buy a $7 Wal-Mart shirt, marked down on clearance and with a stain. That’s pretty horrendous.

In general the book club felt that most people caught in the cycle of low wage jobs, terrible housing, etc. were people who couldn’t get out of the cycle because of things they had no control over (low wages, housing market, etc.) rather than due to any personal failings. However, a couple of us had personal relationships with people who were in such situations distinctly due to lack of personal motivation (which is a polite way of saying one of them was a stoner and one of them didn’t care if he ever worked). These experiences made us feel absolutely no sympathy towards this particular group of people.
Overall, I think this is an important book and one that did deserve to be the bestseller it was, even though I felt there were no real surprises in it. As an experiment I think it was conducted as best she could, but I think she couldn’t perfectly replicate the experiences of the long term poor because there is no way she could eliminate her formative years. That is, she couldn’t forget the knowledge she had of laws and social agencies. On the flip side, she didn’t have the “benefit” of having grown up poor and learned from her family how to make food stretch and tricks of finding jobs and so forth.

Even if this book doesn’t change the working conditions of low wage jobs, perhaps it can at least help change people’s attitudes towards service workers and create a little more empathy.

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