Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America: Barbara Ehrenreich, hardcover, 221 pages

Feb 02, 2011

Shortly after the Welfare Reform Act went into effect, Barbara Ehrenreich got the bright idea to take a series of low paid, “unskilled” jobs, see if she could actually make a living, and write about the results. The push back then was all about “welfare to work” but she wondered what sort of work was available and was it possible to prosper? So she worked as a food server in Key West, Florida, a housecleaner in Portland, Maine, and as a Wal-Mart worker in Minneapolis, Minnesota. What her book shows – and is probably not surprising to anyone who is a low wage worker themselves, or at the very least has a social conscience – is that the results of a life spent on $6 to $7 an hour sucks ass. Her book however, does not suck ass. It’s laugh out loud funny, sometimes shocking, frequently maddening, and something of a page-turner; I read it in about two days because I couldn’t put it down. She writes about the co-workers she comes to know and respect, (or not, due to the apparent uselessness of supervisors and assistant managers), the inconvenience and privacy invasion of incessant drug testing, and the plain difficulty of finding a decent place to live. The description of the employee orientation session all potential Wal-Marters must sit through – which is essentially a video presentation devoted to the evils of labor unions – is mind blowing because it makes clear just how raw and effective Wal-Mart’s corporate propaganda is. The chapter about working for a house cleaning service takes an unexpected look at class relations and documents the one time when Ehrenreich fails to keep her well-educated, lefty mouth shut and blasts her boss for blithely assuming that a worker will “work through” her sprained ankle. Ehrenreich has a flare for stating the obvious but overlooked facts about minimum wage workers: like how no job, no matter how low-wage, is truly unskilled, or how the working (even sometimes homeless) poor were (and still are) virtually invisible in the “millionaire next door” economic environment of the late ‘90s. My one complaint about the book is she offers no real solutions – not an uncommon thing in books by liberal academic types – but wraps up with a somewhat tepid “when the poor rise up and refuse to work for $7 dollars an hour there will be some real fireworks and we’ll all be better off.” On the other hand, Ehrenreich is a journalist and a social critic, not an activist, so maybe that’s not her role. -Sara Isett (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Company, 115 West 18th Street, NY, NY10011)

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