Monday, August 23, 2010

Nickel and Dimed (2001)

by Barbara Ehrenreich
221 pages

Now popular for study, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America" documents a well-to-do writer experiencing the low-wage world hands on. In 2010, you might call her effort Morgan Spurlock-like. Setting some ground rules, Barbara tries moving into a town and finding work that will sustain her expenses, from housing on down. The key rule is that she can't use her prior professional experience. She's left with a spotty resume, trying to find work in hotels, restaurants, and retail stores.
The book takes place in the late 90s, and only feels just slightly dated.

There's a distinct lack of science in the process that may discourage readers who come off of "Super Size Me" and other more definitive projects.
But the book is a true page-turner, and that's ultimately what matters with regards to the score here. Ehrenreich's toiling is something that makes me, and I'm sure many others reading, raise their hand and say "me too." Her humor is evident throughout, even causing a belly laugh or two from this reader. The hard facts come in the conclusion. It serves to support the observations made through the body of the book.

In fact, where the "rules" go disobeyed, something else emerges. For example, when cleaning products at one job give Barbara a terrible rash, she calls her doctor back home to prescribe something sight unseen. It doesn't cheapen the experiment so much as it makes you dwell on what somebody actually living check-to-check would have to do.

And what they do in this book is pretty sobering. Sustainable housing comes more often in the form of weekly hotel rooms, sharing limited space, or even their own vehicles - if they're lucky enough to have one. Staying above water is rarefied air.

Barbara shows us several times that wages don't measure a person. "Unskilled worker" turns out to be a misleading term. As somebody still going back and forth from the hourly sector, it's a welcome observation on a stage where more can see it. My colleagues in retail have their talents, and they're not stupid. It's popular logic to assume others' plight is always their own doing. With these wages and housing costs up against them, not everybody with ambition can fight the current.

She also talked about the hidden pride workers like this develop, which I can attest to. The most disgruntled employee, years in to their demands for raises, will still work at above-average levels, if only to defend their own dignity against a customer who looks down on them. In this sort of climate, management's demands can get in the way of how workers see their job and how it's best performed.


"Nickel and Dimed" reads quick. Unfortunately, respect for the people who clean and serve for us won't be. The solution provided by Ehrenreich calls for an organizing of the workers. For many reasons, that simply can't happen, and won't work. Perhaps the book's best service is to give others a glimpse as to what goes in to their Big Mac and fries, or their next purchase at the discount store. At one summer engagement in such employ, it always brought me a touch of sadness to see the salaries and benefits these 40-and-50-somethings were fighting for, after a decade-plus "career" with the company. The same can be said here, and hopefully it pays dividends of kindness for the customers of the 9-to-5 servant.

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