Book Review: Nickel and Dimed

>> Tuesday, September 8, 2009

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

Rating: ***


In the late 1990s, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich sat down with Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's, to discuss possible future articles she could write. The conversation made its way to poverty, and Ehrenreich wondered, How do people live on the meager wages of the unskilled? Could someone really get by on $6 to $7 an hour? Lapham challenged Ehrenreich to find out.

Over the next year or two, Ehrenreich joined the ranks of the low wage worker, finding employment as a waitress, maid, and finally Walmart associate. She moved from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, searching for the highest paying available work while struggling to pay rent and afford food. Along the way, she met women who bypassed the rent problem by living in their cars. She lived for almost a month in a hotel room with a window with no screen and a door with no bolt in a room with no air conditioning or fan. And she did physical, mind-numbing labor - sometimes holding down more than one job at a time while still barely making ends meet.

At the end of her experiment, Ehrenreich concluded:

I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that "hard work" was the secret of success: "Work hard and you'll get ahead" or "It's hard work that got us where we are." No one ever said that you could work hard - harder even than you ever thought possible - and still find yourself sinking even deeper into poverty and debt.

My Opinion:

I bought my first car by doing temp work one summer at a factory - one of four factories that employed me during college. I saved up for my semester abroad by working as a maid for Motel 6. And I earned spending money during college as a sandwich artist at Subway. I have a lot of experience with unskilled labor.

So rather than opening my eyes to some hidden aspect of America, this book brought back a flood of memories of all of those past jobs. I've often compared working at a factory to snapping beans for canning. It's repetitive, dull, and requires no skill whatsoever. But imagine that instead of snapping beans in front of the TV, or with the radio on, or with a group of gossipy friends, you have to snap beans standing up in one spot for eight hours straight (or twelve hours at night, as in one of my factory jobs). There's no air-conditioning, you can't stop to pee without asking for permission, and every now and then, a manager walks by to tell you to move faster. And you do this every. single. day. all. day. long...

For years after, I went around saying that every person that worked in management should have to spend a day or two a month in the factory. Just so they would know what it was like. Just so they would give their employees a little respect.

Did I think we factory workers should have been earning wages equal to management? Definitely not. Our jobs were physically hard but took no skill and we were easily replaceable. But surely, we were worth more than we were paid. The lowest I earned at a factory was $7 an hour, the highest was $12. And we factory workers were lucky - at $12 an hour, you might be poor, but you could get by. Unlike at $5.50 an hour like I earned at Subway.

And I might have forgone any dreams of higher earnings if they would have at least let me sit down when I was doing a job that could have been done sitting down. Or installed air conditioning. Or at the very least turned on the radio.

My point is that none of Ehrenreich's descriptions of her jobs, co-workers, or bosses were new to me, and I'm sure they weren't new to many of her readers. Her experiment was entertaining, but beyond that, it was almost pointless. She didn't need to go undercover to find out if a healthy person with a middle class background could survive the physically intense demands of most minimum wage paying jobs. She could have asked me, or any number of people who've worked those jobs to get through college.

And struggling for one month to make ends meet on minimum wage doesn't shed any light on how millions of people do it every single month. Particularly single mothers with children. How do they get by? I still don't know the answer.

Overall, I enjoyed the brisk and light pace of this book. But it wasn't the expose I expected it to be.

Up next on my reading list...No Impact Man

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Cherie September 13, 2009 at 9:43 AM  

I read Nickel and Dimed several years ago. Although many of us had to work to put ourselves through school with a variety of low-paying jobs, I still found this book to be an eye opener. First because doing that as a young student is different that being an older adult, sometimes with a family to support. I think "student poor" is a different kind of poor - you have hope for a brighter future.

I also sense that younger adults in the US have grown up more affluent and don't understand what it's like to struggle to survive.

The book opened a window into a way of life that many Americans don't even realize exists. When you have no education and no safety net, it's hard, and sometimes impossible, to pull yourself out of poverty. Sometimes, even those of us who have been there need to be reminded of this fact.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper September 13, 2009 at 12:35 PM  

@Cherie - I completely agree that "student poor" is a different kind of poor, but I think that Ehrenreich's experiment had more similarities to student poor than to real poverty - she pretended to be poor for a short time but always new that eventually she'd be returning to a comfy middle class lifestyle. And because of that, she was always an outsider looking in, making the same kinds of observations about poverty that any middle class person who experienced poverty for a short time might make.

I would have preferred if she had better befriended some of her coworkers and learned more about their histories and how they truly live. In fact rather than trying to do it for herself, I think it would have been more journalistically valuable if she had studied and worked with poor people over a long period of time and then written about their experiences rather than hers.

But that is just my opinion based on my past experiences. You're right that fewer young adults seem to understand what it's like to live in poverty. I read recently that more college students are choosing to spend their summers doing internships and gaining other professional experiences rather than doing the kind of unskilled labor I did in college. Good for their careers but I think those alternate kinds of experiences are important for developing empathy and a desire to make the world a better place.

Cherie September 14, 2009 at 1:34 PM  

Erin, I agree that she was more like a college student - she knew she would return to her safe, middle-class world. And it would have been more educational had she learned and shared the stories of those who are truly the working poor. Knowing how they got there could give insight into how to help individuals pull themselves out of such dire situations.

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