Saturday, August 17, 2002

Book review: ‘Nickel and Dimed’ by Barbara Ehrenreich

Book cover: "Nickel and Dimed -- On (Not) Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich
Can a woman with every advantage in life -- affluent, healthy, well-educated, unencumbered by children -- really put herself in the shoes of someone less fortunate, someone who, unlike her, does not have the option of calling it quits if the experiment doesn’t work out?

It is to Harper’s magazine contributor Barbara Ehrenreich’s credit that she decided to have a go at it. From the late spring of 1998 to the summer of 2000, she presented herself to employers as an unskilled homemaker returning to the work force and worked at a series of low-income jobs: waitress, hotel maid and retail sales clerk.

The result of Ehrenreich’s first-hand investigation is Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Metropolitan Books, 2001; Owl Books, 2002). The book is a revealing look at the difficulties low-income wage earners face when trying to keep a roof over their heads and put food in their bellies.

Nickel and Dimed is endorsed by no less of an authority than Rep. Lynn Woolsey, the first former welfare mother to be elected to U.S. Congress. But therein lies a subtle distinction, which has to be acknowledged if Ehrenreich’s book is to be accepted for what it is intended to be, which is an in-depth look at life in society’s lower economic sectors.

Unlike Woolsey, who actually lived through it, “warts ’n’ all,” as Molly Ivins would say, Ehrenreich is an investigative journalist who was able to establish ground rules ahead of time and provide herself with financial resources to draw upon if necessary.

No matter how harrowing it became for Ehrenreich to make ends meet -- and at times it became pretty harrowing indeed, to the point that working for a national retail chain was costing her money -- Ehrenreich always had an escape hatch leading back to her comfortable, upper-middle class existence as one of society’s opinion-shapers.

Fortunately, Ehrenreich was smart enough to realize from the onset of her investigation that -- short of her customary lifestyle disappearing -- there is no way that she will ever, truly, have to (not) get by in America.

But her temporary co-workers did not have her advantages. They faced educational, geographical, economic, political and psychological barriers that prevented them from bettering themselves, and Ehrenreich writes about their struggles with compassion and more than a little outrage.

“The ‘working poor,’ as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society,” Ehrenreich tells us. “They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes can be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor to everyone else.”

Don’t look for detached objectivity in Nickel and Dimed. Ehrenreich became fully involved in her co-workers’ plight to such an extent that, when working for a national retail chain in Minnesota, she actively encouraged them to organize for better wages.

The experience also took its toll on Ehrenreich in ways that she had not expected. After a spiteful exchange with a co-worker, Ehrenreich reflects that “‘Barb,’ the name on my ID tag, is not exactly the same person as Barbara. ‘Barb’ is what I was called as a child, and still am by my siblings, and I sense that at some level I’m regressing. Take away the career and the higher education, and maybe what you’re left with is this original Barb ... So it’s interesting, and more than a little disturbing to see how Barb turned out -- that she’s meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I’d hoped.”

Ultimately, Nickel and Dimed is an uncomfortable book to read, but it is also a necessary book to read. Necessary, if for no other reason than to expose just how heavily our society depends on the toil of its poorest members -- and how little it gives them in return.

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