Found at a local garage sale last summer, I finally got around to reading Nickel and Dimed – On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. The description from Better World Books:
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.
Based on the underlines and margin-notes that abruptly ended after only a few pages, I’m guessing that the previous reader either got bored or offended and stopped reading, or became so consumed by the story as to forget their note taking altogether. After reading the book myself, any of the above reactions seem plausible.
Granted, this book was written over 10 years ago (it’s still timely, believe me), and Ehrenreich is a trained journalist with a PhD, but in this “fast food culture,” you better start your story off with a bang or you’ll lose more than half your audience before page 10. As wordy and technical as the beginning is (Ehrenreich wanted to make sure it was understood how/why she chose her locations, and the “rules” that she made for herself to follow), I managed to get through it and onto the juicy undercover operation. Her deciding to go undercover isn’t exactly innovative – every journalist grad student does it – but there really wouldn’t have been any other way to obtain the info on the day-to-day struggle of the minimum wage worker.
Now how would this report manage to offend anyone? Well, if you believed the majority of the “reviews” at Better World Books, Ehrenreich is a “classic bleeding heart liberal” whose only purpose in life is to make things harder for rich Republicans. On a more helpful note, the 1-star reviews at Amazon point out that donning a “poor suit” for a month doesn’t really give her the right to pretend like she experienced the plight of poverty. I also found Ehrenreich’s tone condescending at times, but how could it not be? She’s talking about people she’s not really “one of” to people who probably couldn’t care less (I highly doubt her coworkers at Merry Maids picked up her book – this was written for the NY Times “hippie” crowd). She fully acknowledges the monetary cushion that she starts out with, the car that she’s able to rent and the fact that she has no dependents to worry about, but that doesn’t subtract from the fact that her situation is only a temporary predicament. She gets to go home at the end of the day, to a life that many of her coworkers could only dream about. But even with that knowledge, she interestingly has moments of feeling worthless, invisible and unappreciated. I guess it doesn’t take long to have an identity crisis once you’ve left a sense of entitlement behind in favor of the everyman’s 9-5.
I found Nickel and Dimed to be an engrossing read, if only because I’ve been a little torn on this work-related identity issue myself: While I didn’t grow up rich by any means, I was better off than many of my friends. I worked hard all through college and beyond only to have the recession rip the rug out from under me, giving me the (possibly rash) idea to work my way up from the bottom of a new career. Butch and I both currently make more than minimum wage and are now living comfortably in our own house – a house we never could have afforded if I hadn’t cleaned out my retirement savings (collected from when I worked well-paying jobs) for the down payment. But even if I occasionally feel like I’m living paycheck-to-paycheck, there’s no way I can fully understand true poverty – I had a head start, whereas most aren’t so lucky. There are times when I think “I’m working at a flower shop in the middle of nowhere” and it’s not the most pleasant thought…just like there are times when it seems peacefully simple. I’ve always been the type of person who likes to feel like there’s meaning in my daily life (including at work), but sometimes, in the middle of a stressful day, purpose can seem hard to find. I’m well aware that I am where I am today because of decisions I made – decisions I had the right and power and will to make…Which helps to remind me that no matter how bad (or good) the circumstances, there’s always meaning that can be found.
Book cover from Better World Books