Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

July 27, 2009

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

I just finished reading this book last week. It's been on my To Read list forever, and summer has finally given me the time to dig in.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a journalist who undertakes the life the working poor for a year, taking on jobs such as waitress, sales clerk, and housekeeper for minimum wage. Some of the conditions she endures, especially in terms of housing, are appalling and often unsafe, underscoring the plight of so many trying to eek out a living in this country.

Her goal was to seek out employment in a different city each month, along with a place to stay. She had her own car, but no credit cards or, for the most part, any kind of support network in each of the cities. She actually allowed herself a small amount of start up cash, but beyond that, only relied on the wages she earned. Most places she ended up having to work two jobs to try and reach her goal of earning enough to be able to rent something more than a per-night or per-week hotel room. Considerations such as gas and travel distance to the job, as well as lack of refrigeration for groceries all played a part in both where she could work and where she could live. Commute time is, for most of us, a factor to consider, but it doesn't generally make the difference between whether or not there is enough left over after gas to afford groceries..

All of this, of course, she did unencumbered by children, or aging parents, or other dependent extended family members. She also, fortunately, did this without a major automobile breakdown or a medical catastrophe, which for many of the families existing at this level of the economic scale, makes the difference between barely making it and absolute disaster for the family. She also, she admits, did it knowing that she had an out--a fall-back plan in her real life should things become unbearable.

So what did I learn from this? Not much, honestly, but I don't mean this in a derogatory way. I only mean that Ehrenreich puts a face to what I know goes on around us daily, in our communities. We hear often that the working poor or the unemployed aren't trying hard enough, aren't working hard enough, are on drugs, are choosing to have children because they can get money from the government, or are making poor moral choices. In other words, it serves them right. Is that true of some people? Sure--of course it is. But this certainly doesn't apply to the societal class as a whole. Why do we rail at stereotypes when it come to race, or gender, but still accept stereotypes when it comes to class?

Ehrenreich doesn't offer much in the way of solutions, although she was instrumental in helping to raise minimum wage after the book was published. I'm not sure that was her intention in writing the book, actually. If anything, she highlighted the need for safe and affordable housing for the individuals and families, and how the shortage of that housing near the places where the minimum wage jobs are found contributes to the cycle of poverty that can seem an impossibility to escape.

Given the recent economic perils our country is facing, given the housing crisis and the ever-rising unemployment rate, the subject has become relevant again, and to people who might not have taken notice of it when the book was initially published. What is to be done about it remains to be seen.


  1. I loved this book. A must read for sure.

  2. If I ever have time to sit down and read, I'll check it out!