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100 Books in One Year: Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

By fff | Books | March 25, 2009 |

By fff | Books | March 25, 2009 |

After years of hearing people praise Nickel and Dimed — both in conversations about books, and in conversations about homelessness/housing access and poverty — I finally sat down and read it on a Sunday afternoon. It’s an easy read, not great writing, but competent. The book chronicles Ehrenreich’s adventures slumming it in blue collar jobs. For about a year, she applied for jobs that required no training or education, and attempted to make ends meet. She set out with some ground rules — she had some cash to start out with for deposits on rental units (which most poor folks do not have), but would not dip into her savings unless it meant sleeping on the streets or going hungry, and she did not mention any of her training in journalism or her education. She started out in Florida, and waitressed in a small town restaurant; next was Portland, Maine, where she worked for a cleaning service; and in Minneapolis, she took a job at Wal-Mart, and her constant struggle to find affordable housing finally broke the experiment.

The most strong impression I have from the book, that so many people praised because it revealed to them the realities of the working poor, is: what the hell? You had to read a book about some rich white lady’s experience to learn that some people end up staying in motel rooms that cost twice as much as an apartment, because they can’t scrape together the money for a deposit? You had to hear it from her to know that some folks are barely surviving, working through not only aches and pains, but bones they have broken that same day on the job? Really? I am pretty disgusted, not at the book itself, but from the reaction I have heard from middle-class folks that this book is so eye-opening! So shocking! It’s pretty much the same reaction I had to watching Crash, which is dismay that a piece of work with a message so glaringly obvious could be passed off as profound, despite the also glaringly obvious flaws in the construction of the work - in addition to the condescending and patronizing attitude that got it made in the first place.

But I digress. Ehrenreich is actually incredibly forthright about the fact that her experience does not mimic what it is actually like to live in poverty - -it merely shows the difficulty of living from day-to-day on low wages. She always has the option of pulling out and returning to the home she owns in New York — and of getting emergency medical care, dipping into her savings renting a hotel to avoid being on the streets — and doesn’t have the same long term worries, such as having no benefits, no retirement funds, or inadequate medical/dental care. Even though she acknowledges this, it still feels incredibly insulting and patronizing. This might have more to do with the target readership than the book itself; seriously, do people not know these things? Have they really never heard what it’s like to live poor, or do they just need someone who is actually rich to tell them to believe it? Do people not believe the firsthand experience of someone who lives this reality day to day? I know I am asking a lot of rhetorical questions, but I am doing it because I am truly incredulous.

Setting aside my amazement at the reaction to the book, I will say that it is decently written. Ehrenreich is clearly not meant to be a novel writer, and the fact that she usually writes in a much shorter form shows. Part of that is the writing, and part of it is the fact that real life — especially in this tale — does not necessarily make for a compelling, conventional book-length story. It is mostly just a narration of her personal experiences, that ends not with a bang, but a whimper, as she leaves Minneapolis due to the constricted rental housing market. Ehrenreich’s description of her experiences is forthright — very journalistic — and works just fine. It’s when she tries to get into commentary that she falters. For example, when she starts describing the plus-size section at Wal-Mart, she refers to the clothes as tent-like and uses a few unflattering remarks to describe the customers. This just plays out, to me, as bashing an easy target. Likewise, when Ehrenreich relays her frustration at getting her co-workers at Wal-Mart to unionize, or her coworkers at the maid service to demand better working conditions, I think, no shit, dumbass. You’re surprised that people who are actually living paycheck-to-paycheck and not just faking it for a journalism assignment don’t want to risk the jobs that barely keep them afloat? She doesn’t have anything to lose, but they do. She’s doing an experiment to see how the other half lives, but they are actually living it — and while she acknowledges in the introduction that her experience is different, she doesn’t seem to grasp how it makes it different from day to day; how an almost identical experience has wildly different repercussions for two different people; and how something that seems blindingly obvious to a tourist is not so easy for a resident.

Ehrenreich’s account is also useful in recording the exact ways that her various employers screw over their employees. Her boss at the maid company tells her that he is sick of the high turnover rate, but won’t give his workers better benefits or wages because he thinks the hours are a benefit (it’s 8 hours a day, but they are done by about 3:30 or 4) and doesn’t understand that his workers should get paid for all the time they put in on the job, not just the hours he bills out to clients for their work. Wal-Mart and Home Depot take the employee straight from being an applicant to telling them what time to come in for training without any mention of hours, benefits, or wages — taking away any chance for negotiation, and leaving all but the most assertive workers without a clue as to what they are getting into. The restaurant in Florida fires an employee who is suspected of stealing, without any warning or questioning — and yes, this is a common scenario, as most employment in the U.S. is classified as ‘at-will,’ such that an employee can be fired at any time for any or no reason (other than race, gender, age, etc.) — and yes, an ‘at-will’ policy is not necessarily bad in and of itself, but can be, and is sometimes abused.

I would recommend this book only if you are interested in these anecdotal facts of low-wage employment in the U.S., with the caveats I have already expressed — the commentary can be weak and/or patronizing, and it expresses amazement at a lot of things that I would hope would be common knowledge. If the things I mentioned that irked me are new knowledge to you, it might just be the perfect book for a long weekend.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. Details are here and the growing number of participants and their blogs are here. And check here for more of fff’s reviews.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.