Sunday, August 22, 2010

Book Review: Nickle and Dimed

Barbara Ehrenreich is a journalist who turns sociologist for her book Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. When discussing topics with an editor, the concept of the liveability of a minimum wage position came up. Ehrenreich decided to take upon herself this challenge and record the facts.

She tried several different jobs (waitress, maid, nursing home assistant, sales associate) in various places throughout the country (FL, ME, MN). At each location, she found a place to live, claimed no or limited work history, and hired on at virtually the first jobs offered (though she does admit mistakes throughout her experience in living/working choices).

As a social commentary, the book is eye-opening. She found the living conditions that were affordable were deplorable, and often multiple individuals had to pool their resources in order to pay the rent. An apartment was almost impossible to rent because minimum-wage workers could not save up enough money for a deposit. She also found that healthy eating was practically nonexistent. Either the workers did not have time to eat anything more than a bag of Doritos all day, they could not afford anything more than canned, processed food or fast food, or they were literally too exhausted to cook anything. Of course all of this information comes through Ehrenreich's own experiences or the recitation of facts from her coworkers.

Though interesting and exposing a problem many refuse to acknowledge, Nickle and Dimed is not an unbiased selection. There is no mention of other lower-class groups, such as those on welfare, or college students working through school, or even immigrants who find a way to send money to their families back home. And the higher classes are always painted in a negative light. For example, when discussing her work as a housemaid, Ehrenreich mentions overhearing the receptionist tell a potential client that the cost is $25/hour. She is offended at this price because the maids are only making about $5 or $6/hour. However, at this moment she forgets to mention that there are at least three maids working on one house, the company provides a continental breakfast every morning and purchases the cleaning supplies, nor does she mention the overhead cost for the manager/owner.

Yes, there is something wrong with a system where an individual can work literally all day seven days a week at difficult physical labor and cannot afford simple expenses like room and board, but the "managing class" is not as far advanced as Ehrenreich seems to portray.

Another choice Ehrenreich makes that works against her is her language. Several times throughout the book, she chooses to use exceptionally strong language. I think she is trying to capture the "flavor" of the class she is trying to represent, but her language is usally unnecessary and, at the minimum, distracting.

But there is still value in reading this book. I think that it should be read with a discretionary mind, but it is a situation that I believe exists and should be addressed. However, I think that much of society refuses to acknowledge the bottom levels of our workers because they feel guilty taking advantage of those services. As Ehrenreich found, there is no job that is "unskilled;" each occupation has its own challenges, ways, and learning curve. To provide a more balanced perspective, her exploration should be compared with one in which someone who is exceptionally wealthy describes how he/she worked so hard to get there (i.e. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, etc.) in order to determine where the middle ground lies.

I live in an extremely conservative area, but I tend to think of myself as more middle-of-the-road politically. My book group all hated this selection and could not believe any of it. Their response was essentially, "This is the land of opportunity. Go to school and better yourself." They don't realize that it isn't that easy.

I also found it ironic that as practicing Christians, their response was not to "feed the poor" by improving conditions for the low-wage workers, but instead the low-wage workers have options that they should take advantage of (like school, or better-paying jobs) to improve their own lives. My personal philosophy after reading this book is more along the lines of spreading the wealth. Don't pay the higher class so much (who really needs multimillions of dollars each year), and raise the minimum wage to a sustainable living amount.

I try to see the entire picture in order to find the best course of action for everyone. Although this novel is an extreme example of one side, it is, nonetheless, a personal experience and therefore has validity (although not the sole experience). Even those who think there is no truth in this story are still affected by it. I found it interesting that members of my book group commented that after reading it, when they went to Wal-Mart, they were more conscientious about keeping their children under control and replacing items where they found them since Ehrenreich's description of being paid to basically clean up after customers all day.