Nickel & Dimed #20BooksofSummer #journalism #nonfiction

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.

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Ehrenreich sets up parameters for her inside scoop:

  1. No using skills learned from her work as an essayist or her college education.
  2. Accept only the highest paying job, stick to it to the best of her ability, and no complaining.
  3. Live in the least expensive place possible, but stay safe.

She also decides to limit the discomfort she could have with some advantages:

  1. She always had a car, which was not paid for with her low-wage earnings (except gas).
  2. She would never be homeless — “no shelters or sleeping in cars for me.”
  3. 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.

20booksfinal

#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th.

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37 thoughts on “Nickel & Dimed #20BooksofSummer #journalism #nonfiction

  1. My first thought was this book reminds me of Black Like Me. You’d think there would be articulate working poor who could write this better – Down and Out in Paris and London anyone? And where do your students go for news if not the liberal media? Don’t tell me they watch Fox News!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, the book Black Like Me is terribly problematic, and I keep thinking about it in recent days because even though people video tape police shooting black men and women, many white viewers still don’t believe it is justified….possibly because they weren’t there or it didn’t happen to a white man.

      Yes, some of my students are very conservative. I teach at a small Catholic college that is open to sharing ideas, but not all the students are. I’ve found this resistance common among freshman in any type of school at which I’ve taught, not just the Catholic ones. Students have to grow into understanding good rhetoric.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like a really informative and interesting look at life among America’s working poor. And that sort of investigative journalism can add some real understanding to our perspective. Not to mention the lessons it teaches about writing. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This does sound like a very good read. Thanks for putting it on my radar! I noticed my library has a copy, so I’ll have to grab it sometime soon. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a timely post because today I read an article about what I think is called the ‘gig’ economy which is the people who provide those services we access via Apps. Think Uber taxi services, or AirBNB for accommodation. The workers are not classed as employees so they get zero benefits and mainly work for way below the minimum wage.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I also heard a news story today about salespeople in stores like Macy’s who make commission. If an item they sold is returned within six months, the commission they made is taken back from them, so some salespeople OWE the company money at the beginning of the month.

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  5. Fascinating stuff! I think most of us ‘privileged’ types with good salaries probably did low-grade jobs at some point during our student years, but there’s a difference, isn’t there, when you know it’s a short-term thing to finance your education, rather than the way you will end up spending your entire life. I did three weeks as a chamber maid in a holiday camp, cleaning seventeen chalets a day, and I have never been so exhausted and nauseated. Fortunately I was then promoted to the coveted task of running the hot-dog stand… 😉

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  6. I’m always torn by books like this – the people who SHOULD read them, are unlikely to…

    From my own experience, my poorly-paid, casual jobs were exactly what made me stay on at school – a weekly reminder that I didn’t want to be there always (I worked as a sales assistant and later as a pool guard which, although required skill and paid a little more, still required a lot of time spent cleaning gross changerooms, hair from pool filters etc etc).

    As an aside, the author’s allowances of a car etc are a bit dubious – it’s these things that actually tip real people over the edge of ‘getting-by’ to homelessness. ie. you can get to your job because you have a car/ something goes wrong with car, can’t afford repairs, lose job/ can’t eat/ afford shelter and so on.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I feel the same way, Kate. As I said, there was a sense of wimpiness there. That, and the car that was bought with credit cards before the trip (on one trip, she has her own car; in the other states she gets what she calls “Rent-a-Wrecks.” I feel like this book would have been stronger if she’d interviewed her co-workers more AFTER she’d worked the job. When this book was published in 2001, people were shocked by what they read. Ehrenreich went undercover during a time when the United States was supposedly incredibly prosperous under Bill Clinton. Yes, everyone had jobs, according to the numbers, but they were crap jobs with low wages. I think that’s what made the book so immensely popular at the time. It’s still relevant today, but I judge her more harshly, and I’m definitely with “wadholloway” on his comment about this book being akin to Black Like Me.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. This sounds interesting, although I agree with you about her being a bit wimpy by giving herself a car. I’ve never had a car and I think people who do can’t fathom life without one, but it’s such a crucial aspect of being in a low-paid job (because public transport is generally more expensive and time-consuming in the long run).

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    1. Wow, you’re right! I can’t imagine navigating my city without my car. Then again, my city has terrible public transportation….then again AGAIN, I see people waiting for the bus all the time, so they are doing it!

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  8. What a great review! I read about half the book (assigned chapters) in a class once and so it’s great to see what I remember and what other points I missed. I do think that is was a good attempt and helped bring issues of poverty on the map for people from her circle of privilege. But as you said, why not let people tell their own stories? I find many of these works from sociologists and anthropologists problematic to say the least and prefer them to be collaborations or people coming from a context that is studied.
    Will never forget when a German tv journalist I think wanted to show what what it’s like not being white in Germany and the guy turned up in blackface. Facepalm!
    I’ve worked very few jobs like that, but enough to know my privilege cause wow that feeling when you get treated like dirt and you keep thinking you’re better🙈 Also once helped out in a shop in England for a few weeks and wow racism from the English lower classes was just a special brand of hell. So many intersections to work through.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I read this nearer the time of publication and also one set in the UK, the title of which escapes me. Interesting and necessary, but I think someone needs to do this again, now, when zero-hours contracts etc are more common. Mind you, in 1996 I had a temp job (before there were holiday and sick pay benefits to such work, which came in later) and when I asked to go home because my house had been broken into and I couldn’t stop crying, I was terminated. I had stayed there, for the money, even though I was sexually harrassed by the boss (slapping my bottom, etc – wouldn’t stand for it now. I was only 24). Then again, I used the zero hours contract and illegal working conditions at a call centre to work full time hours over 3 days and pay to live during my master’s, so …

    Liked by 2 people

  10. This sounds like a really intriguing read. Does she include any interviews, or are all her sources based on books and newspaper articles? I’d be keen to hear from the people who were working those jobs because they had to. I had my first job in 2004, so like you, I’ve only worked post-9/11. The recession didn’t hit as hard in Australia but we were definitely affected and unemployment and underemployment have been big problems for millennials here. I know plenty of people with Masters PhDs who had to work in cafes, etc. after graduating. I worked in a bookstore for a few years while I was studying and my bosses were horrible. We were expected to arrive 15mins before a shift and often had to work unpaid after closing, especially when training new staff. They also only gave us our roster a fortnight in advance, but if you asked for a day off months in advance they’d make a huge deal out of it. They had video cameras set up all over the stores and would sit at home and watch us and call if we put so much as a toe out of line. And like where you worked, they’d try and get the staff to spy on each other. Weirdly though, I made some of my best friends at that job!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow, that sounds so awful, Margot! I’m sorry to hear that 😦 No, this book, unfortunately, does not include interviews. It’s all Ehrenreich doing undercover investigative journalism, so she’s reporting HER experiences, which did include telling SOME employees to whom she felt close that she is a reporter. They were never surprised, but Ehrenreich didn’t know why (nor do readers). I followed up this book with Fire in the Ashes by Jonathan Kozol. The books pair FANTASTICALLY together. I’m teaching them both this fall in a remedial comp class. The link to my review (which is not on GTL because the book is by a male author) is https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1681810642?book_show_action=false

      Liked by 1 person

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