Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book Review: Nickel & Dimed

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I just finished reading this book. (And by just I mean, I read the last few pages sitting here in front of the computer taking notes on what I was going to say just seconds before typing the first sentence of the post.)

Some background...Author Barbara Ehrenreich decides to embark on a social experiment circa 2000 in an attempt to see if she can make ends meet as a low-wage worker. She spends a short amount of time in a few different locations (Key West, Maine, Minneapolis) with jobs as a waitress, maid, and Walmart associate. She details her woes of the job search, the apartment search, the second job search, the second apartment search, and difficulties with food. In the end, she pretty much proves her point: as the circumstances of the average low-wage worker lie, it is an impossible cycle of poverty to break.

While I don't think I care much for her as a writer (or her personality for that matter--how many times do we need to hear about your Ph. D?), I do agree it is a valuable read for most of America. In 2003, this book was the summer reading for the university my good friend was about to attend. My mom, always looking for an excuse to read something the kids are, decided she'd read it and discuss it with my friend. The friend found the author annoying (disliking her attitude and episode of pot-smoking), but my mom argued, and still does, that you must look past that. Which I did my best to do as I read and tried to learn.

However, I learned more from approximately four or five months of working at an assisted living center about the plight of a low-wage worker than I did from her book. Yes, the book gave me more statistics, but I had the concept already.

During two of my college summers, I decided to work at an assisted living home, just down the road from my parents. I had my CNA (nurse aide certification) and I planned to be a nurse (I now am). In order to gain experience and keep my certification active, I decided to work at this facility thinking it would be easier on me physically. My starting wage was $7.

Now for me, this was just a summer job. The first time I only worked weekends and I drove there in the car my parents bought with a nice discount from my grandfather. I went home to a large house in a safe neighborhood where my meals were provided free of cost, my rent was free, and the neighbors were quiet. I had no children to come home and take care of and every cent of what I made was mine to keep.

My job at the assisted living home was extremely valuable. I gained career experience. I gained insight into lives of women I would never have known. I worked in an undesirable job, something I'd had on my life's to-do list. However far I may go, I will always have the first hand knowledge of what is going on in the lives of those earning the lower wage. Ehrenreich points out that most college students no longer get that experience anymore in favor of internships. (A future post-degree employer is far more impressed with your internship at Ernst & Young than your summer as a Wendy's hamburger flipper.)

Nearly every other woman I worked with "stayed" somewhere. This is what they called where they lived. Because when you live a life of low-wages and uncertainty, your place of residence is just that transient. Each of them stayed with either a boyfriend of their mother. Each of them had at least one child (whose father was not the man with whom they were living--Ehrenreich does address that being alone and childless made her experiment much easier, and therefore less life-like). My life was so vastly different from these women and I knew it. I worked one weekend with a girl who said she hadn't eaten since Tuesday--when her boyfriend and father of her one month old left. Her sister wouldn't be able to watch the baby and she had no one else. How would she ever be able to work? Maybe if she changed shifts... I offered my phone number if she ever needed anything, but I never saw her again and when I went back to visit, no one knew where she was.

Regarding Ehrenreich's point about wages, I saw this discrepancy in a very real way. The very same summer I was working, a friend was working a job making (I can't remember exactly) about twice what I was making. She was filing papers in an office. I was leading Alzheimer's patients to the bathroom, prying poop-filled diapers out of their hands, cleaning urine off the floor, and struggling to bathe men who were most distracted by themselves once their pants were off. I chose my job and it was certainly more appropriate for me to be doing than filing papers. It was simply the wage discrepancy I saw and the fact that a job so much less physically demanding and paying so much more would never be available to the women with whom I worked.

My friend's father was a VP at the company where she worked. My friend was attending a prestigious university, my friend had professional clothes to wear. Which brings me to my next point: circumstances. I would never be where I am today if I hadn't been born into such good circumstances. Let's talk about transportation. I mentioned before about driving my car that I didn't buy. This was something Ehrenreich did point out: she rented a car everywhere she went. When I got married I was financially on my own for the very first time. My husband and I had one car. A car his parents had bought. I frequently think about those who must rely on public transportation. Every time I went to the grocery store in Atlanta I saw dozens of people waiting for the bus with groceries, or waiting to be picked up by a friend or a cab they'd had to splurge on. I saw people using the bus I was on (simply to visit my boyfriend in college) to get to work. A bus that was regularly late. When we got married, we both had college educations. That our parents had bought. I had a nursing license that would afford me good job. He had a degree and experience that got him into a graduate program that paid him to go to school. We had monetary gifts from family and friends. Circumstances are hard. Rising from them is hard. I think. I've never had to do it.

While my job as a nurse in a hospital was certainly far better pay, it's not without its similarities to the low-wage job. In fact, many hospital employees are the low-wage worker. Our techs on the floor often had struggles. I've seen the same situation in the hospital that Ehrenreich describes in the book for why low-wage workers do not leave for higher-paying jobs: how will they get to work? A co-worker with a car drives them here. It's close enough to take a bus, etc. They will need to start over, learn all new rules, make all new friends. Perhaps buy all new uniforms. Maybe take a cut in pay from what they have worked up to here.

Ehrenreich spends most of her evaluation on the discrepancy between wage and rent or affordable housing. She does spend some time on food, but not much. From the information she cites, there is not as much of a discrepancy. But let's talk about that for a minute. She mentions going to some form of social assistance and the process taking hours on the phone and a trip to an agency with a lot of questions. She finally receives a bag full of what I think must have been a mis-directed bag from the ladies at my church for a college student: sugary cereals, barbecue sauce, bags of candy, hamburger buns (no meat), Rice Krispies Treats, get the idea. Empty calories out the wazoo. We know that eating poorly is cheaper. I saw dozens of carts on food stamps day at the Walmart in Atlanta full of cheap, processed foods. The patrons were also overweight--but what are they going to do? Obesity leads to poor health, no healthcare.... Problems, problems...

I have often felt guilt for shopping at Walmart or loving Disney World (no housing accesible to anyone who works there anywhere near the park), but Ehrenreich's quote puts it well: "When someone works for less pay than she can live on--when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently--than she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life."

I don't have the solution. I am too young and inexperienced to claim that I do. But I'll keep doing what I can, and that includes writing something that might make us think a bit more.


  1. Thought this was very well written. I had the same critiques of the writer as you did and I had similar experiences while employed at Enterprise (where you see the major difference between being a Car Prep and an office Sales Rep) and when I worked for the Student Union with the janitors who almost all worked full-time there and in the cafeteria.

  2. I read this book many years ago and have encouraged others to read it. I think you and I might have similar backgrounds as to the privilege of having parents that could provide a college opportunity (I paid for my college but was given a car and encouragement and a place to live). I am also privileged to be married to someone who had college provided for him too and we are able to provide a parent at home with our children now. I work for "fun money" at our local YMCA and sometimes feel guilty for that because for many of the moms I work with, this is their grocery money, their gas money, their "to get by" money. Many times I tell my husband that I couldn't imagine having to use my Y money for essentials like food -- we couldn't possibly keep a balanced diet on minimum wage!
    I don't know the solution either but the book was eye-opening to me and I try to see things from a more "social" side since I tend to be conservative in my thoughts and actions. As a former public school teacher I do think the education system tries very, very hard to give people (students) an opportunity to rise out of their circumstances but it is extremely difficult (and even that is an understatement) without family support. MONEY is *not* going to solve most of these problems. Changed thinking, hard work, family support and dedication will. I live in an area with many illegals. . .no one cares much because you know what? They work HARD, don't steal or cause trouble for fear of being "caught" and understand the value of an education and make sure their children are in school and taking advantage of those resources. "They" seem to have a tight family structure and I think that makes all the difference.
    Anyway, I found another post of yours over at Home Sanctuary and when you linked to this book I was very interested in what someone else had to say about it (and isn't it funny. . .I didn't like the author much either but did want to hear what she had to say). So. . .thanks for the good read and for letting me comment :) Have a blessed weekend. . .
    ~ Jenni


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