Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
published by Holt Paperbacks, 2008 (originally published in 2001)
Nickel and Dimed was written by a famous essayist, so right away she has credibility. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote 14 books of nonfiction before Nickel and Dimed, and she has a PhD in biology (though many of her books are not about science). Nickel and Dimed started out as a simple question during a fancy lunch: why doesn’t someone do one of those old-fashioned investigative journalism pieces on the working poor? Basically, she accidentally nominated herself.
Ehrenreich sets up parameters for her inside scoop:
- No using skills learned from her work as an essayist or her college education.
- Accept only the highest paying job, stick to it to the best of her ability, and no complaining.
- Live in the least expensive place possible, but stay safe.
She also decides to limit the discomfort she could have with some advantages:
- She always had a car, which was not paid for with her low-wage earnings (except gas).
- She would never be homeless — “no shelters or sleeping in cars for me.”
- She wouldn’t skip a meal, “cheating” if necessary to eat.
Ehrenreich acknowledges that being a single white woman in excellent health with no kids is not how the working poor exist. There’s not much she can do though, because no one’s going to loan her a kid, and she can’t take back years of health insurance and The Stair Master to make her fifty-something body reflect the deteriorating health of the working poor. I didn’t think it fair for her to have reliable transportation, but she claims that no one wants to read nonfiction about waiting for the bus.
Actually, I had the audacity to challenge what I thought of as Ehrenreich’s “wimpiness.” Would sleeping in her car one night kill her? Is one missed meal really a big deal? Then I remembered, oh yeah, it’s actually pretty dangerous to sleep cars due to criminals and police. And yes, Ehrenreich is working so hard at her low-wage jobs that missing one meal actually might cause her to pass out instead of suffer a rumbly tumbly. That was the biggest problem with this book, to me: I wanted her to really, really live like the working poor, but it’s impossible. Therefore, I wish Ehrenreich had further interviewed her co-workers once she completed her time at each job. Why not let them speak for themselves?
Nickel and Dimed is broken into three sections: “Serving in Florida,” “Scrubbing in Maine,” and “Selling in Minnesota.” The goal was to make it through a month and have enough money to make rent a second month. I found the most illuminating part of Ehrenreich’s story to be the housing issue. First, the working poor don’t have enough money to pay a deposit on an apartment, the first month’s rent, and that annoying application fee. Thus, they’re all living in pricey yet sordid motels that rent by the week in which people double and triple up in single rooms. Secondly, weekly motel rooms should have some sort of kitchen area because it’s serving as home. Most don’t. As a result, the working poor eat fast food or convenience store junk that doesn’t require refrigeration or cooking. People wonder why the poor are so fat; Ehrenreich’s book makes it easy to see why. If you think you know about being poor (and haven’t been poor yourself), Ehrenreich’s book still has something to offer.
Ehrenreich’s language is a lot harsher than I would expect from a journalist. I read Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America a while back and remember a clear, unbiased voice through the whole thing. Not true in Nickel and Dimed. This may be that Bright-Sided was not investigative journalism, which requires the writer to get out there, get dirty, and take some big risks. Here is a passage from Ehrenreich’s time as a maid in Maine:
The first time I encountered a shit-stained toilet as a maid, I was shocked by the sense of unwanted intimacy. A few hours ago, some well-fed butt was straining away on this toilet seat, and now here I am wiping up after it. For those who have never cleaned a really dirty toilet, I should explain that there are three kinds of shit stains. There are remnants of landslides running down the inside of toilet bowls. There are the splash-back remains on the underside of toilet seats. And, perhaps most repulsively, there’s sometimes a crust of brown on the rim of a toilet seat, where a turd happened to collide on its dive into the water.
How are my composition students, to whom I’m assigning this book, going to take this passage this coming fall? And at a Catholic college, no less. Sure, it’s unprofessional. It lacks all pretense of an unbiased attitude. But Ehrenreich’s passion creates an honesty that’s meant to make you angry for her — and the millions of other maids who do this job day in and out in the United States — and realize how dehumanizing low-wage jobs are.
The odd thing is that when Ehrenreich isn’t using angry language, her vocabulary can be complex. She often chooses a more complicated word over the simpler one. Is this her education showing? Should she have chosen more simplistic language and think of the low-wage earners as her audience? Then again, they already know what their lives are like… Essentially, the audience for Nickel and Dimed is the upper-middle class.
Another thing Bright-Sided led me to expect was sources — a lot of sources. Nickel and Dimed relies quite a bit on The New York Times (which I can already hear my students calling “that liberal media”) and a book about Sam Walton, the creator of Wal-Mart. Other sources include local newspapers from the three cities in which she worked, the National Coalition for the Homeless, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are a few books about maids mentioned, which emphasize that the services the big maid companies provide are to make your house look clean; almost no disinfecting happens. Therefore, readers must really rely on Ehrenreich’s experiences to be described fairly and honestly. Photos also would have increased Ehrenreich’s credibility, especially of those motel rooms that she describes.
My copy of Nickel and Dimed has an afterword in which Ehrenreich recounts some of the individual responses to her book. Many middle class people were surprised; the working poor felt like they finally had a voice. While the book’s 2001 publication doesn’t make it outdated, I’ve spent my entire adult life surviving a recession. And here are some fun facts:
- I’ve had four low-wage jobs of note:
- direct care worker, meaning I took care of mentally disabled adults
- front desk clerk at a campground, which means checking in campers and selling day passes
- pushing carts and bagging groceries at a grocery store
- front desk worker at a college, which literally requires just sitting at a desk
- Three of these jobs required me to show up 10-15 minutes early to work (unpaid). This can amount to a few hours of free labor per two-week pay period.
- Three of these jobs provided zero paid breaks. I simply used the restroom or ate food whenever I wanted (which was allowed for 5 minutes at a time), but if someone needed help, I would be scolded by management, customers, or fellow employees for having been unavailable immediately.
- My husband had a part-time low-wage job at Best Buy on the Geek Squad that gave him very few hours each week. Instead, they would randomly call and ask him to come in immediately, which meant we never left our home for fear of being too far away for him to get to work — otherwise, he would lose those hours.
- I was once yelled at for clocking in at my grocery store job before putting my purse in a locker. I cost the company 30 seconds and thus was reprimanded.
- My boss in direct care work would purposely pull employees aside and tell them lies about the other employees so none of us would trust each other. For an entire summer, my co-workers thought I was a spy for the owner of the company, whom I had never met.
- The grocery store (and many low-wage job employers) only provided the schedule two weeks at a time, so you couldn’t plan anything.
When the majority of your adult life is lived post-9/11, poverty doesn’t surprise you, nor does low-wage work (if you can get it). While Ehrenreich’s jobs didn’t surprise me, I have a feeling her book will still shock my students this fall. I don’t know if there are more contemporary investigative journalism books on the working poor, but Nickel and Dimed is the cornerstone, and a must read.
Note* Thanks to this book, I intent to read Wal-Mart: The Bully of Bentonville (How the High Cost of Low Prices is Hurting America) by Anthony Bianco, which looks at employee treatment. There are numerous books on Wal-Mart, many dealing with economy, environment, and history, but I want more about the workers in particular.
This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th.