Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
Release date: 2001 / 256 pages
Synopsis(from Amazon): Millions of Americans work full time, year round, for poverty-level wages. In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that a job — any job — can be the ticket to a better life. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered. Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, she worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. She lived in trailer parks and crumbling residential motels. Very quickly, she discovered that no job is truly “unskilled,” that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you int to live indoors. Nickel and Dimed reveals low-rent America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity — a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate stratagems for survival.
Review: I’m late to the party with this one, but am so glad to have finally arrived — and mortified and enlightened by Ehrenreich’s findings. I remember when Nickel and Dimed first came out — I was teaching excerpts of Ehrenreich’s other writings in my A.P. English course and meant to read it. My friend and co-worker talked about Ehrenreich’s experiences with great passion and zeal. But somehow I just didn’t get around to it.
Then, when my friend loaned me her copy — after I mentioned my desire to choose Hidden America as our next book club book — I devoured it in days. Ehrenreich’s experiences as a waitress in Key West, a house cleaner in Portland, Maine, and a Walmart employee in Minneapolis read like the most compelling fiction and I was chagrined that it took me ten years to get around to reading this.
I’m also embarrassed to admit that I thought I might see parallels to my own young adulthood. After graduating from college (paid for by my parents, choosing to waitress only to have a bit of pocket change I truly didn’t need), I moved to Minneapolis with two roommates without a job or place to live. We quickly found a duplex with gorgeous woodwork on Hennepin Avenue, in the heart of Uptown. I had decided to “take a year off” before I began teaching and ended up working as a custodian at a temple (which involved sitting in the kitchen mostly, having many wonderful conversations and treats), a day-care temp (for which I had neither the patience or emotional fortitude and desperately counted the minutes to nap time), a deli worker (where my roommate granted me my favorite shifts with my favorite coworkers) and a substitute teacher. I lasted about a year, mostly enjoying the variety and novelty of my collection of jobs, before I gratefully found a job teaching at a high school I had subbed, and where I stayed for 15 more-or-less wonderful years.
Now, anyone who has read Nickel and Dimed knows the focus is on how nearly impossible the above scenario became only 10 years later. Finding affordable housing and humane pay is now a cruel joke, without (or even with) any higher education. I currently teach online in an associate’s program for students who are living Ehrenreich’s experiment, trying to support a family on a high school diploma. My former high school students were mostly college bound — and how I wish I could assign every high school junior Nickel and Dimed as required reading. My current students are trying to find time to wedge in education with jobs, child-rearing, etc.
Nickel and Dimed, even twelve years later, would be the perfect choice for a book club, perhaps joined with Hidden America. Ehrenreich’s writing is compelling, engrossing, and nearly impossible to put down. We lost our internet yesterday and I didn’t mind one bit — I blew through the third section on her experiences working at a Walmart in Minneapolis and was disheartened to find the quiet rumors I had half-heard about the wages and working conditions at America’s biggest big box store were as horrific as imagined.
No easy fixes are presented — or exist — for the rent-inflation that has distorted wages, but Ehrenreich’s wisdom and sensitivity are illuminating nevertheless:
“What I have to face is 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 waht you’re left with is this original Barb, the one who might have ended up working at Wal-Mart for rael if her father hadn’t managed to climbe out of the mines. 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.”
“The ‘working poor,’ as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high.”
I cannot give away my friend’s copy but if you haven’t yet had the chance, read this…