|Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
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The bestselling, landmark work of undercover reportage, now updated
Acclaimed as an instant classic upon publication, Nickel and Dimed has sold more than 1.5 million copies and become a staple of classroom reading. Chosen for “one book” initiatives across the country, it has fueled nationwide campaigns for a living wage. Funny, poignant, and passionate, this revelatory firsthand account of life in low-wage America—the story of Barbara Ehrenreich’s attempts to eke out a living while working as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing-home aide, and Wal-Mart associate—has become an essential part of the nation’s political discourse.
Now, in a new afterword, Ehrenreich shows that the plight of the underpaid has in no way eased: with fewer jobs available, deteriorating work conditions, and no pay increase in sight, Nickel and Dimed is more relevant than ever.
- A New Perspective
As a working-class American, I simply was not aware of how badly we treat those who work long hours in our service. After reading this book, I will not fail to extend my thanks, and a monetary reward, for people who serve food, attend to hotel/motel rooms and work for employers who do not acknowledge their sacrifice by paying a fair, livable wage. We talk about inclusion and equality but those are mere, hollow words. Those who are willing to work at these jobs deserve a share of the profit....more info
- Everyone should read this.
It should be noted that this book is not, nor does it claim to be, a definitive and expansive report on the plight of the working poor. It functions as a personal memoir and a slice-of-life, an undercover view of a life that is intentionally made invisible to most members of the middle-to-upper classes.
And the view it offers is harrowing.
Ehrenreich allows herself a safety net not available to many of the places she lives among, including a car and a way out if things become threatening to her basic safety. That despite these allowances she finds it difficult to survive causes one to truly wonder about those who, for example, have to rely on systems of public transportation.
Her co-workers live in hotels and trailers, unable to make the first and last month plus deposit that would allow them to move into more cost-efficient, safe, and comfortable housing on their hand-to-mouth wages. This effects everything else in their lives: how close they are able to live to their workplaces is dictated by economy, which in turn effects the time and cost of their commute and how much sleep they can often expect to get in a night. The lack of a stove or refrigerator means they lack nutritious food and are forced to live on overpriced fast foods and processed foods, often on the edge of starvation.
Yes, Ehrenreich is an educated liberal. No, she doesn't miraculously come up with easy solutions. Given the material, she shouldn't have to apologize to anyone with a conservative bias for either of these facts. The information she gives has not been covered at this level and in this detail anywhere else, and that alone is commendable. "Nickel & Dimed" allows the realities of the invisible people who handle our food, clean our homes, and ring up our purchases to be brought to the attention of those who might want to look away....more info
- From the perspective of a tourist
Nickeled and Dimed has an interesting premise: an upper middle class woman tries to live on wages of an unskilled jobs in three different locations in the US. Here Ehrenreich describes her experiences doing just that and tries to relate these experiences to a larger frame of reference by laying out statistics about the US.
From having done this and that over the summers while in college and having spent the past year earning 3.85/hour plus room and board I can sort of compare my experiences in accessing Ehrenreich's book. Two things that made Ehrenreich's experiences harder than they probably would be for a person who was living the life that she was trying to visit are that she moved around frequently and she wasn't as frugal a shopper as she could have been. The moving around means that she was always starting fresh. From my experience after about 2 months in a city I know where to go for this and that and my expenses drop. Also she wasn't the most frugal person. When she had to get khaki pants on short notice for a waitressing job, she spent 40$ on pants with a stain from a discount store. In Florida (the same state) at about the same time I had to get khaki pants on short notice and found them for 15$. I'm kind if fat and so there was less of a selection for me than for someone in a more common size. I doubt that normal people in such jobs would spend 40$ on pants. 15$ felt like alot to me. From Ehrenreich's description she didn't bat an eye at 40$
Ehrenrich's descriptions of co-worker's plights are more realistic. While it isn't so hard to get by at poverty level (unless you get sick like missing work sick) I have trouble imagining how to raise a family on minimum wage. Descriptions of co-workers whose food budget was tiny are common. I kind of wonder how these people felt about being quizzed. I feel that there was too much focus on rent and food. These are big expenses but they are predictable. Once one finds a way to make ends meet that's stable at least.
One aspect of being poor that I feel was neglected was the lack of medical care. Insurance coverage is expensive and if it doesn't come with the job then that is a big budgeting item. Also jobs without benefits are the one that pay less. Also the difficulty in getting sit down work if one gets injured is a huge issue. Ehrenreich kind of touches on these with statistics and concern for a co-worker with a sprained ankle respectively, but she spends most of her time discussing how the nations poor can't buy food or make rent and trying to make poverty an immediate life or death issue. For me poverty is about not having a safety net.
When I was working for 3.85 and room and board (no benefits at all) I had a co-worker with higher pay use this book to explain how easy I had it. At the time I was trying to scrape together enough for a dental visit and pay some work related expenses. (I had switched jobs and underestimated the fees for work related training and equipment.) She was angry that I was having trouble getting cash together because that reflected badly on the company. Which brings me to a point: Everyday you are in contact with someone who is living at poverty level. Because they shower and know how to get by you may not realize this. The starving limping people Ehrenreich describes aren't common, but that shouldn't be used to undercut the problems faced by poor people who are not in an emergency state right now. It seems to me that many of the people I know who have read this book have strange ideas about the poor to begin with. So if you haven't been poor for a while then don't make this your only source for info about it.
I reccommend Nikeled and Dimed, but take it with a grain of salt. Ehrenreich is a tourist of poverty and has a shallow impression not a deep understanding of the issues....more info
- At the end of the day
"At the end of the day
You're another day older
That's all you can say of the life of the poor."
Welcome to Bush- and,shortly. post-Bush America, when more than 30% of Americans will be unable to find work that carries them beyond one's day's meals.
A must read....more info
- Read it and understand
Another book explaining how we as a superpower are continuing to do a disservice to our own people. We can spend Billions on other countries to insure they have high-speed internet, but fight when it comes to guarnteeing medical for our children. It is not just that the system is not working... it is so far broken that it has been forgotten. How do we fix this? My grandma suggested an atmoic bomb, and although I thought this was ludicrious at first, I am begining to come around....more info
- If one ignores the problems...
I read this book (required reading) while in college. While this book is very well written, Ms. Ehrenreich lets her politics and open contempt for religion (especially Christianity) take an unwarranted role in her otherwise insightful, if not comprehensive, look into the lives of the American working poor. Her occasional gratuitous use of a few Communist party slogans adds little of value to her work. I suspect they were thrown in with the thought of being witty, but the problems we face in America today and the sanguinary solutions of the red terror are not appropriately joined. All that said, with caution, I have recommended her book on numerous occasions, and I feel it is a work worthy of serious thought.
When this book was written, the U.S. economy seemed to be soaring higher and higher. Today, many more people are out of work, the economy is shrinking and millions of people are facing the prospect of chronic unemployment, underemployment, bankruptcy and we already see an increase in homelessness. This book spoke about a large number of people when it was written. It speaks about a much larger number today.
It is regrettable that Ms. Ehrenreich gives free reign to her political and anti-religious sentiments in what is otherwise a book that is all too important. Her personal agenda detracts from her important message. If anything, this book is remarkable despite it flaws....more info
- Great Idea!
I think the idea for this book is superb and I love Ehrenreich's witty writing style but there are some negatives I must express. Ehrenreich seems to think pretty highly of herself. She has a funny back-handed way of saying she thinks she is better then the people with whom she is working. She would say things like, "You would think someone with a PhD could..." At first this comes off as insensitive, however, I think it is actually an important part of the book. She sees her situation in this very American way. She is saying the things we are all thinking, because even as we read this book on the people we take for granted we still do not really understanding them. Ehrenreich states many times she has it easier then the people she works with, this is important because it shows that the book is all about not getting by financially and not really what it is like to struggle. My point is, this book is doing a great job of opening our eyes but we really need to take it a step father to understand what it would really be like, we need to understand those people who are struggling day after day, year after year. ...more info
- WTF? A very enlightening read indeed...
I mean really now. Who sees any sort of humor at all in this book?
I actually find the author's tone to be completely indignant and arrogant, she is ungracious, unkind, even cruel in her tone towards her "friends" and co-workers while she is playing poor.
She even goes so far as to compare her plight to that of a princess being punished by being forced to hand feed all her subjects... this lady is a real piece of work. She is absolutely deplorable and such a snobbish, egotistical (well a not so very nice person)! Her "insights" and her surprising realizations scare me, I mean if real people actually find shock and awe at the same everyday DUH she makes a big fuss over, then this country is way past salvageable!!!
She is a career essayist who lowers herself to play poor for a little while, and tries to maintain a decent quality of life while getting by on minimum wage, something which is definitely not her area of expertise. She describes looking for places to live, jobs, working conditions and overall environments of the places she goes.
She alienated, humiliated, and demeaned almost everyone she met, though not in any sort of dialog to their face, just her thoughts about them...
This is definitely a must read, but not for the reasons by which I kept being mislead. For people like myself, this is at times hard to read, however it is definitely a book you will not soon forget, and definitely an author you will not soon forget either.
- honest but flawed yet provocative
It is rare that a book would get me riled up as *Nickel and Dimed* did. I truly appreciated Ehrenreich's honesty about certain things before initiating her undercover investigation on whether people on minimum wage could survive on life (basic necessities).
Ehrenreich, well-educated, goes undercover by working various minimum wage jobs just to see if her meager salaries could carry her through life. She worked as a waitress, a maid and an "associate" at Wal-Mart, among other jobs.
Granted, her parameters or criteria did not accurately reflect those of the working class. First, she came into this research with some money, which she was able to afford uniforms, secure a temporary home and get some food. In addition, she had a laptop. Lastly, she went alone, without a family. I truly believe that her struggles/reports would be drastically different if she had no start-up money for these "luxuries".
However, the meat and potatoes of her research are the employers and their practices in employment, business and benefits/wages. I've once worked in the food & beverage industry and it's a tough place to work. However, the working conditions that she experienced as a waitress are appalling. Don't get me started with Molly Maid. I was literally this close to calling the company and giving them a piece of my mind. I certainly hoped that this book helped launched an investigation into the company. And Wal-Mart already had a bad reputation prior to my reading this book. After reading Ehrenreich's accounts, Wal-Mart is just the worst in terms of employment.
Anyways, the whole point of this research is to see if the working class are "too lazy" to "move on up to the East Side" (if you like The Jeffersons, you should have caught that phrase of the theme song). It turns out that it's not so simple. The working class are out there and pounding the road for a better life by getting a better job that can cover basic necessities, along with adequate benefits. They're also out there looking for suitable and affordable homes for their families. However, they faced obstacles by their employers' lack of provisions, shady practices (including drug testings) and hourly pays. In addition, they're not getting adequate services for housing or food assistance. They are literally forced to stay within that economic class.
I found Ehrenreich's book to be informative even if it riled me up. *Nickel and Dimed* helped raised an enhanced consciousness of those trying to live the American dream, just like everyone else....more info
- IDEOLOGICALLY BIASED ACCOUNT...
This is a well-written, interesting, anecdotal book about a well-educated woman's sojourn among the working poor. If only the author had stopped there, the book still would have been a hit. Instead, the author chose to claim it to be representative undercover reportage. Unfortunately, she does not do this with any objectivity, as she views all that she does through liberal, rose colored glasses. Nor does she live as the truly working poor do, as her existence is isolated, cut off from all support systems. While the author received raves from the New York Times Book Review, which acclaimed the author as "...the premier reporter of the underside of capitalism", the reader should remember that the New York Times is the bastion of East Coast liberalism and take such praise with a grain of salt.
The author comes across as a somewhat vapid individual, whose inherent biases and expectations prevent her from being able to live as a true member of the working poor or interact with them on a truly human level. She objects to having to take drug tests in order to secure a minimum wage position, stating that the costs of such a test outweigh the benefits, without any clear understanding, other than the cost of the drug test itself, of what the potential costs of employing substance abusers would be. She authoritatively uses statistics willy-nilly without grounding them in an appropriate context. The author does, however, establish one very important key point that would certainly tend to keep the working poor running in place, and that has to do with the cost of housing. The book leaves little doubt that there needs to be more affordable housing for the working poor. Yet, the author offers no suggestions as to how that would best be accomplished.
Moreover, the author, during her work as a cleaner for a cleaning service company, seems to have a lot of negative things to say about people who have had some demonstrable achievements in life. The author seems to forget that in almost every chapter she does not hesitate to remind the reader that she holds a Ph.D, is middle class, educated, yada, yada, yada. The one positive thing that comes out of her experience as a cleaner is that she points out that some cleaning service companies are doing a pretty filthy job of cleaning people's homes. Thanks, Barbara, for the tip, as I would now never consider using such, preferring to do it myself. Unfortunately, her remarks just might cause some of these companies to lose business, causing them to cut back on personnel, the very working poor of whom the author writes.
While the book is interesting at times, the pretentiousness of the author is generally grating and the books ends up being a poor execution of its promise. The author is the quintessential do-gooder, placed in settings of which she has little understanding other than her own pre-conceived, ideologically based ones. It is true that minimum wage will never allow anyone to flourish without some sort of support system in place. Minimum wage is nothing more than what its name states it is. Minimum wage, however, allows the unskilled, minimally experienced worker to get some job experience and a proven track record in terms of the work world. Moreover, some of the problems that the author mentions are just those of bad management by those in positions of power. This is not, however, a situation relegated to those who hold minimum wage jobs. Corporate America is rife with bad management and bosses that treat their employees, even well-compensated ones, badly....more info
- Perhaps she meant well
If you'd like to hear the voices of the real working poor, get a copy of Without A Net: the female experience of growing up working class, edited by Michelle Tea. It is more poignant than a journalist's game of dress up. ...more info
- Important page-turner
I loved it. It was a page turner. It was a nice balance of serious ... very serious stuff about working lives of the full-time, barely-making-it workers ... mixed in with Ehrenreich's sense of humor. Oh, and it brought back memories of all those jobs (I've had a million of `em!) that paid terribly and humiliated you at least 8 times a day. Highly recommended.
- Hypocritical to the max!
There are certainly many issues facing those who are trying to climb up from low paying and/or minimum wage jobs. However, this author's attitude that all those in this position are helpless victims doomed to lifelong poverty is ridiculous! As is the idea that anyone NOT mired in a tedious, low-paying job is somehow bad and to be blamed for those who are. She identifies with the poor almost pathologically without fair consideration to all involved, including the employers. And I found that very strange considering she is a well paid, successful writer living in a very high-rent area of this country (Key West, Florida) in her everyday life!
She herself enjoys all the benefits of the upper middle class lifestyle, and more power to her for earning them, yet, she rails relentlessly about others in this position and blames them for the plight of the working poor. When she works as a maid for a cleaning service, she comments about how insulted she is by one of the home-owners choice of books! Huh? She is angered that another home-owner has the audacity to own a set of copper pots and other home furnishings and decor that she finds disdainful as if these people are somehow at fault for being successful and having purchasing power, and heaven forbid, opinions and tastes that she does not share. She makes it clear that she herself does not regularly employee domestic help as that would just be, well, disdainful, yet, she admits to having done so on certain justifiable occasions. Really Barbara, you can't have it both ways!!
When an immigrant dishwasher at a restaurant where she works is caught red-handed stealing from the storehouse, she immediately identifies with the thief and becomes defensive of him. So stealing is OK if you're working for minimum wage? Would she have been so protective of the thief if he'd stolen say HER laptop or HER car or HER food? I wonder.
And did anyone notice that on two different occasions, regarding two of her jobs, the author brought up the widely held (and grossly misguided) concept that employers "hold back" the new employees first week of pay? As a human resources professional, I've battled this misconception amongst both white and blue collar employees for years and find it unfathomable that a person with a Ph.D. does not get it that the time she works this week is not actually paid for until the following pay period, usually the next week. There is no "holding back" of any pay, merely a lapse in time in which payroll processing takes place and a check printed. I found it incredible that this author did not grasp the logistics of this simple concept, and instead, clung to the ignorant idea that an employer would actually "hold back" pay until some such future date at their self-declared discretion, a practice that would be in fact, illegal.
Where is the balance in this so-called reporting? It's all and only about one side of the picture. And where are the suggestions? solutions? ideas for a better system? The concept of this book has great potential, but sadly, it falls flat and short of meeting it.
- Worth a couple of readings
I was curious about this book after hearing Ms. Ehrenreich interviewed on radio. She took a sabbatical from her reporting career and spent three months or more to see if she could live on minimum-wage employment.
First she describes how she lived in Key West trailer park, Florida, waitressing in a pancake house. She then moved to Maine, working in a nursing home as well as with a franchised cleaning service. For her third experience, she moved to Minneapolis to work at Wal-Mart.
The result was three failed attempts to live on hourly wages, but great insight on what many dismiss as the "working poor". That category leaves out a word; it should be "working poor people". Ehrenreich's book takes you into some of those lives. It is a must read, and a short book, so you might want to read it twice....more info
- The Wrong Reich
You ever have one of those crazy bosses?
She would blast ecological sounds so loudly we had to ask her to turn it down (our jobs included listening to actors read lines). Another time, she called in sick because she was "wafting vapors." She always brought up her education in conversation. She never seemed to actually do any work, but instead worked on her novel, using company resources to write it. And she was strangely preoccupied with "ganja" to the point that she used it as her password, a fact she was only too happy to share. "Wafting vapors" indeed.
After I finished reading Nickel and Dimed, I was convinced Ehrenreich was my former boss. A highly-educated journalist with an arch tone, she blesses us all with her insights by going undercover as a poor person and trying to get by. Which is a bit like the scene from Aladdin when the princess slips out into the real world.
You see, Ehrenreich wants to help people. She really does, and she views things in a sort of black and white, my way or the highway sort of charitable aggressiveness. She's an ideological bully, the kind that is impossible to argue with because she cloaks herself with the cause of the underdog.
And that's a shame, because Ehrenreich's absolutely right in what she uncovers: that the poor can't get by on minimum wage salaries in the year 2000. The only way to survive is to have a partner, she concludes, but with that comes the baggage of living with another person, possibly children, and all that entails. And yet, Ehrenreich's experiment lacks precisely that - when she is given the opportunity o move in with a friend, she turns it down.
Ehrenreich isn't a poor person. In fact, she is so NOT poor that she secretly feels she should be treated differently because she's better educated, or because she's a journalist, or because she's trying to help people when clearly bosses are greedy and poor people are too weak to fend for themselves.
In my first job, I worked in a factory. I've come a long way from that factory job, but it taught me a lot as a high school student. And what's missing most from Ehrenreich's tour in Poor People Land is that these people aren't characters in her book; they're real people. Ehrenreich never seems to detach herself from her upbringing, although she would have us believe otherwise. The signs, if you read carefully, are there.
The one that really turned me off was the fact that Ehrenreich, due to an "indiscretion," smokes pot when she knows she'll be going on job interviews. Now either Ehrenreich didn't know job interviews required drug testing, which speaks poorly to her journalistic abilities, or she has a fondness for pot she fails to disclose as part of who she is. From there it's railing against the system of drug testing, a charge that becomes shrill when she beats the test and sees that as further evidence that drug testing is dumb. There are lots of hard working poor folks who aren't smoking pot before job interviews, and Ehrenreich isn't doing the underrepresented poor any favors by succumbing to the stereotype.
The other hypocrisy is that Ehrenreich bristles at psychological tests. I agree with her, I hated those tests too. She objects to the tone of the questions and their underlying agenda, but the back of the book contains a "reader's guide" that asks such loaded questions as, "have you ever been homeless, unemployed, without health insurance, or held down two jobs? What is the lowest-paying job you ever held and what kind of help--if any--did you need to improve your situation?" The lack of self-awareness rife throughout the book is breathtaking.
The final indignity is when Ehrenreich, the educated white woman who knows better, decides on a lark to start a union at Wal-Mart. Heedless of what the consequences might be, she just skips right out of that final job into her conclusions. Never mind that Ehrenreich was intentionally rabble-rousing workers who, if they had decided to try to form a union, could have all lost their jobs. And where would that leave them, while Ehrenreich went back to her comfortable house?
But if you can look past that, and I'm sure a lot of people can't, the book's messages are sound. The end result of a capitalist system in America is ultimately hostile to itself. The rich need the poor to work as cheaply and inexpensively as possible, and this form of human labor market ultimately degrades the bottom ranks until they rebel. Ehrenreich doesn't have any answers as to why the poor haven't rebelled already and instead concludes with navel-gazing reader's guide.
Nickel and Dimed should be required reading for CEOs everywhere who are often responsible for the fates of thousands of peoples' livelihoods. I just wish Ehrenreich hadn't written it.
- Disappointing with few insights
The only reason I gave two stars to this book is because at least Ehrenreich tried to write about an important topic. But her execution falls well below the mark, and the book turns out to be more about a journalist pretending to be a low-income worker than about the lives of the low-income workers she's supposedly studying. It is, by turns, whiny, preachy, self-righteous, facile, and annoying -- much more often than it's insightful, which it is maybe a handful of times (if that) throughout the book. (The footnotes were actually among the most informative parts.) At times she even seems to be making fun of the workers with whom she briefly shared her life. And the "experiment" is flawed from the start, as the author herself more or less acknowledges, in that someone who knows that she can return to her real life any time is very different from someone who works for $7 an hour and has no choice. One also has to question the ethics of a decision to take a job that someone else really needs. Finally, as the book progresses, the author makes some bumbling attempts at humor that just aren't funny -- it feels like the writing of someone who thinks she's being clever but the jokes are flat or obvious, or someone who utters banalities as if they were profound insights. (Please, leave satire to the satirists.) One line in the book stood out for me as a reflection of everything that is wrong with it, and it was hard for me to keep reading after that. In the chapter on her experience in Maine, Ehrenreich asks the reader, "If you hump away at menial jobs 360-days-plus a year, does some kind of repetitive injury of the spirit set in?" Well, DUH. As my partner pointed out, that sounds like the kind of idiotic "wisdom" that might show up on Carrie Bradshaw's computer in "Sex in the City."
So Ehrenreich gets some points for effort and for "humping away" at these jobs for as long as she did, I suppose, but as far as offering any real insights into or solutions for the lives of the working poor, this book leaves much to be desired. In the end, it's a book about Barbara Ehrenreich....more info
- "Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can...
...barely support herself by the sweat of her brow."
At her boss's urging, an upper middle-class writer (with a PhD in biology) sets out to see if she can make due on minimum wage. She spends three under-30-day periods in different areas of the country working as: a waitress, hotel maid, Walmart associate and a dietician/aide at an Alzheimer's facility. Turns out, she can barely make ends meet. Of that conclusion I can only say - tell me something I don't know. The problem is that while the issue of low wage earners being unable to eke out an existence is real and very important, Nickel and Dimed, with its author's annoying tone and technique in telling, might better be entitled "Diarrhea-of-the-Mouth'd Dame Slums (with the Socioeconomic Strugglers) and Tells." Ehrenreich undertook her (three months in chunks long) experiment in the year 2000. And somehow, through facts, filler, opinion, and a bit of blather, she was able to fill up an entire book on the subject! Best of the book is that an attempt to bring the workers' plight to light is laudable, worst is the writer's frequent inflammatory statements, which detract from what could have been a pretty good book.
Of the clientele during a stint as a waitress, she has plenty to say, including (p 36) "The worst, for some reason, are the Visible Christians-like the ten-person table, all jolly and sanctified after Sunday night service, who run me mercilessly and then leave me $1 on a $92 bill." She excuses herself for choosing not to intervene when a fellow employee is accused of stealing and summarily fired by comparing her lack of bravery to what a prisoner of war might similarly suffer (p 41) "...plenty of brave people shed their courage in POW camps, and maybe something similar goes on in the infinitely more congenial milieu of the low-wage American workplace." Working at (p 62) "an Alzheimer's ward, bringing breakfast" to residents, Ehrenreich has a tough time thinking of it as a restaurant because "...in a normal restaurant...very few customers smell like they are carrying a fresh dump in their undies." As part of her argument against personality testing required for applying for some jobs, she writes (p 127) "...the truth is don't much care if my fellow workers are getting high in the parking lot or even lifting the occasional retail item, and I wouldn't snitch if I did." And of the frustration of her job at WalMart in the clothing department (p 165) "Once I stand and watch helplessly while some rug rat pulls everything he can reach off the racks, and the thought that abortion is wasted on the unborn must show on my face...I even start hating customers for extraneous reasons, such as, in the case of native Caucasians, their size...huge bulges in completely exotic locations, like the backs of the necks and the knees." And she has the gall to call ACORN, a fraud controversy-plagued voter registration organization, ACORN (p 231) "a scrappy advocate for the poor."
In summary, Nickel and Dimed, about the serious and important problem low-wage earners face daily, is ruined by the author's unwillingness to ascribe to an important life lesson-It is not necessary to say (much less write) every thought that comes into your head. Check inside jacket back cover (with her latest book) for a more likely agenda involving more capitalistic pursuits than advocating for the poor (though she conspicuously toots her own horn over a short stint doing so). Those who loved this book may also enjoy The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. As for me, I prefer something along the lines of Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder....more info
"On (Not) Getting By in America"; this sentence itself, incorporates the whole sense of the author's precious experience, and prospects to the potential reader a prompt sense of discomfort. Or at least, cues the awareness that somebody in this country is not indeed "living large".
Coincidentally, I think about it everyday, especially when I notice curious people driving in the next lane of the highway, during my tedious attempts to respect the 55-miles speed limit. "Curious" in this case is definitely a euphemism; I see individuals with obvious dental problems. Some have scarce or rotten teeth, and in some rare cases don't have teeth at all. I often catch myself in the rear view mirror shaking my head and naively wonder, how in the world can one neglect one of the main priorities, like personal hygiene or health care? In actuality, I always believed that you can have a fairly good idea of the social status of anyone anywhere in the world when they open their mouth, or by looking at them straight in the eyes. There you find clear indications of how they lived their childhood and youth, and which were the main concerns of the family in which they were reared. Consequently, as they approach adulthood, they keep carrying this scarlet letter as an undesired mark of infamous heritage. Moreover, a common denominator among the people I encounter is that they look precociously aged, probably by a distressed and sullen existence. At times they drive vehicles totally corroded and possessed by rust, and yet, I wonder if they will be able to get home safe to their families. Most of them are poorly dressed, and the expression they bear in their face is of utter alienation, desperation, misery, and hopelessness.
What are the possible causes of all that? Why do some people neglect their health, appearance, and basic safety? Ehrenreich provides us with one strong and simple answer: indigence, a disease common to millions of low-waged American workers. In her book, she lists personal experiences, statistical data, and specific information to explain and support some of the truly plausible reasons. She talks about real people, and reveals their personal dramas.
However, I am sure that some of these real people would not feel honored to be involuntary protagonists of Ehrenreich's book; or, ironically, maybe they would (!), for the reassuring feeling that "finally somebody knows", acknowledges and sympathizes with their daily wearing fight for survival. Perhaps they would be even able to feel the warmth of its solidarity, if the uncompassionate world in which they strive everyday would not have caused them to be outraged, and by contrast, numbed by the plethora of opulence that surrounds them. An opulence that appears to be at everybody's reach- the true American dream- but sooner or later unfolds to many with its true identity: a plain and simple chimera.
The Author sapiently describes her experiences with great pragmatism and dances on semantics seemingly without any perceptible effort, demonstrating a superb ownership of her native language. She does not spare harsh criticism to her temporary employers when portraying the world of the mistreated, the humbles, the humiliated, those that do not have an alternative, those whose dignity has departed its main headquarters like a soldier who ventures off to a war in another continent, and does not seem to be ever coming back.
I admire her ability to fully immerse herself in this "underworld", and deliver a sagacious observation on the dynamics that govern the lives of low-waged American workers. Yet, I particularly agree with some of her statements: as an example, when working as a maid and analyzing the possibility of hiring help for her house, she rebukes the idea of "having this kind of relationship with another human being" (Ehrenreich;91). I utterly adore this sentence; it "wraps it all up", in my opinion. After all, what is a relationship with another human being supposed to be based on? Shouldn't respect for every individual be the paramount of our daily social interactions? Or should an obese, ignorant, and crass lady-wearing a cheap and acidulous cologne-order a maid to kneel, and scrub her repulsive bathroom floor with her bare hands, and in her presence? Well, this hypothesis does not seem acceptable to me.
Nonetheless, we assist episodes of public humiliation in the workplaces every sacred day, and in all forms and variations, whether we eat at a restaurant, or we step into a public facility. Sometimes, I happen to see a janitor in the restrooms of my own workplace, and I cannot avoid feeling a sense of embarrassment, to notice how "different" our lives are. He/she works in the so-called "restrooms", but this embellishing noun does not make them dissimilar from latrines, because that's what they really are: a place where people dump their organic fluids and stenchy excrements. A fancy name does not masquerade their true designed purpose, especially when the outcome of some citizen's expedition is evidently visible on the toilet seat, or worse, on the floor. The idea that somebody, another human being, will have to bear with that sight and smell on a daily basis, only because he/she has no better choice, triggers in me a deep sense of depression; being born in the wrong family, in a bad time of history, or in a poor country, makes all the differences in the universe. Here I am, and I cross paths with a janitor-mostly an hard-working immigrant- that does not feel comfortable looking you straight in the eyes, almost as he/she would not be feeling dignified enough, just like the vassals would do in medieval feudalism, in presence of their lord. Yes, of course, "somebody ought to do that job", hence it is a task that has to be accomplished; that's the only reason why I put up with the idea of its existence, but I try to be as respectful as I can, to show my sincere and deepest sympathy or at least to establish a "bridge of communication". Ehrenreich provides us with and excellent, extensive and hilarious comment on her experience with the restrooms in the paragraph "Scrubbing in Maine", at page 92 of the aforementioned book; her choice of words is striking, and although disgusting, her description of "how to clean a toilet seat" is an exhilarating thriller.
Nonetheless, albeit being exhilarating, its depressing content keeps reminding us how miserable the lives of many workers -such as those employed in the janitorial services- can be; at least as miserable as that of anyone working for less that $10 an hour. In fact, despite the vivid and yet-still-bright survival of the "American Dream", the author brilliantly points out on page 186 that there is a great truth that she had been discovering during the course of her expedition: for those working with low-wage salaries, life goes on in the very same way, day after day, minute after minute, and nothing happens, let alone the possibility to improve either the quality of their job or that of their lifestyle. One can work for decades breaking his/her own back and putting up with chronic muscular pains, to find out that the light at the end of the tunnel has still the diameter of a micron.
It's also remarkable in my opinion, her consideration on the relationship between the strength of the economy and the cost of the rent, when she cannot afford housing in Minneapolis: upon quoting the statement of a public official with the phrase "the stronger the economy, the stronger the upward pressure on rents" (Ehrenreich;172), she sarcastically notices to be "victim of prosperity, not of poverty". In other words, the worse your financial situation, the deeper your precipice will be. Paradoxically, richness (and the pursuit of it) can be a blessing and a damnation, at the same time.
In essence, I evidently showed my appreciation for the book, mostly for its openly declared social commitment, and honest sober critique to the challenges of the capitalistic economic model; the lives and the hurdles of millions of Americans who work for less than $10 an hour are truly invisible to the affluent, but through her book, there is a slight chance that many will become aware of this unfair, inhumane polarization.
However, I cannot neglect to observe that her publication is often adorned with an endless surplus of negative stories tied to each individual with whom she works in each of the settings; those negative stories seem to be abounding at times, causing the profiles of those low-waged involuntary protagonists twisted into victims and/or scapegoats of this unjust society. I stand absolutely far from denying that people can have several problems at once, such as bad health, a violent spouse, or a drug addiction, but some of the characters of the book appear to have them all at once, like they were living a jinxed and catastrophic existence. Hence-and alas-in my opinion, some paragraphs appear on occasion to assume a grotesque connotation, such to deteriorate the primary social purpose of the author's initiative and favor a more extreme but entertaining content, almost a fairy tale: the cause of this, I believe, is a clear abuse of poetic license, or maybe, the victory of marketing over social obligation. Ironically, and to the same extent, the original purpose is eventually defeated by the same enemies it was once committed to obliterate.
Ehrenreich writes very well, knows what she writes and which keys to play, but is also visibly pleased to read her own writing, and genuinely admits it by stating that writing is a great tool to feed our own ego.
In conclusion, although I slightly disagree on the Author's approach towards her writing style, I absolutely adore her book, and passionately hope that it will be read by everyone, especially our state representatives and all the American people; I wish that they might eventually gain awareness of the gruesome reality that millions of low-waged fellow workers face everyday, when they are forced to "check their civil liberties at the door of their workplace and leave America and all it supposedly stands for behind, and learn to zip their lips for the duration of the shift", as Ehrenreich puts it on page 210. I look forward to the day our governors will find the inspiration to start facilitating a set of interventions aimed at reestablishing a decent and humanely life for all of the citizens, and most importantly, fostering the true and ultimate essence of every human being: their dignity.
- This book enraged me!
Yes, I can see how a lot of people are saying "it must be nice, she can just go back to being rich after this little experiment". That is true, but most people (even other wealthy liberals) wouldn't actually bother to put themselves in someone else's shoes to the extent that she did, and by doing this she told the stories of not just herself but other people whose stories would otherwise have not been told. I wonder what would happen if some CEOs were required to do this?
A lot of people have the attitude that poverty is always the result of laziness or irresponsibility. This book shows how easy it is to fall through the cracks. Even in an economically prosperous time, she fell behind in most of her attempts. If you don't have any extra savings, or some friends or relatives to fall back on, you end up paying a lot more money in the short run by living in hotels (b/c you don't have security deposit) and eating fast food (b/c you don't have cooking supplies). Missing one day of work, even for the doctor, is a major setback at places that don't have vacation pay or health insurance. Looking for another job means missing time at work and losing money. Employers get away with breaking labor laws b/c 1) people don't know their rights, and 2) even if they do, the employer can just hire someone else. I've seen this happen lots of times. The book describes the workplace as a dictatorship, and for low wage people who need their job and could be fired for "insuboordination", it basically is. Although labor laws outlawed working more than 40 hours per week, many people work a part time job in addition to a full time job, which is more than 40 hours anyway.
Yes, of course people can get out of poverty through their own efforts, like the man in The Pursuit of Happyness. However, stories like this are rare, and the result of extraordinary luck and smarts as well as hard work. I admire people who can bring themselves out of poverty, but they are the exception.
This book talks about how after "welfare reform", people just plain went back to working poverty. It also talks about the growing gap between rich and poor. Usually people are against helping poor people b/c they think it is socialism, but the current situation as she describes it is more like feudalism.
This book will probably depress you, but it can also make you thankful for what you have. I am lower middle class, but I see that it can be a lot worse, and I'd rather be aware....more info
- What you Get Out of It Depends on What You Bring to it
Barbara Ehrenreich goes undercover as an entry-level worker to determine whether or not she can make it on the wages paid to the majority of American employees. She freely admits that she is only dipping a toe into the experience - she will not be homeless, she will have a vehicle, and of course she knows that at the end of the month she will be able to go back to her regular life. The goal is to see if she can earn enough from her various jobs (a waitress, a maid and a clerk in a department store, respectively) to feed herself, house herself and save enough money for the next month's rent. She is healthy and single with no dependent children, and has no chemical dependency issues weighing her down, and even with these advantages, and in a job market that was plentiful compared to the current one, she finds that she is unable to manage it.
I am unable to call this book eye-opening, because I know just how difficult it is to make ends meet, and I was working in what is rather condescendingly referred to as the "pink collar" sector. Even with my "middle-class" earnings, I was never more than a paycheck or two away from being in real financial trouble, and I did NOT live lavishly by any stretch of the imagination. It is no surprise to me at all that $6-8.00 per hour is not enough to keep body and soul together. Especially in America, where necessities of life (health care, food, housing) are, for some people, luxuries, this is a frustrating situation.
What Ehrenreich does is open her own eyes to the drudgery and difficulty of daily life in this grind. She has no pat answers for solving the deeply-entrenched problems that the working poor face; she is only able to shed a light on them. What emerges in her occasionally witty, always gritty prose is confirmation of what I experienced as a worker - even on the somewhat higher rung that I occupied; if you're not one of the top 2%, you're invisible and expendable. It's this attitude that helped me make my decision to leave the United States for more civilized climes, and I have never regretted that choice. ...more info
- Bitter is as Bitter Does.. why I, as an employer, would NEVER hire her
I think the premise was a good idea as a whole, but I don't believe Barbara Ehrenreich was the one to present it.
She tends to have a victim attitude in life, and a contempt for people who are successful, which I find ironic since I am sure she is not standing on a street corner giving away her profits from the book.
She opens fine and the footnotes are somewhat interesting but then she goes off on tangents that have nothing to do with the book. She claims to have this disdain for others who she feels are elitists but then she turns around and does the same thing herself. One example, which has no place in this story, in my opinion is when she, as an avid atheist, decided to attend a revival for fun, then not only proceeded to mock the people who went but called Jesus a socialist among other things I would rather not repeat. My opinion of her formed very quickly from that point.
She also points out that management in one of the companies she works for were simply jerks. Granted we all know the types but she didn't even try to see it from a balanced point of view. The Maid Company she worked for had some hard rules, like no water on the job, etc., which I found to be unreasonable, however she ended up blaming the homeowners, some that she never met. She had disdain for a Buddhists home who had spiritual messages throughout his house, once again she never met this person, yet felt free to judge.
Also as far as management is concerned, as a business owner I realize how some people are in this position but there are also two sides to a coin. She mentions how much she dislikes the people she works for with the "rules" yet in the next breath she talks about her and the "maids" in the company car driving through a nice area with the radio blarring and yelling "F*** YOU" out the car window to moms with stollers. When they cringed she mentions how she finds this behavior hysterically funny. Gee and you wonder why they have to set up rules. I wouldn't want her representing my company.
The book is not balanced. Last but not least, she claims so many of these people are in poverty, yet I can't help notice how many of them have no "lunch " money yet have plenty of funds for smoking and having kid after kid. Just an observation. It's too bad really the subject matter would have been good had it not been so tainted by attitude.
I have no doubt there are a great deal of working poor who are making ends meet and having a hard time. Those are the people she should have sought out. I believe she was too blinded by her anger or perhaps guilt over her own success to see it clearly.
- Completely Predictable
This was a book club selection and I thought is would be a good read.
Well, it was a fast read, however......
The lady had a template all prepared and wrote her story to fit it.
(Several of us wondered if most of it was even true.) The employers are mostly rich, heartless, greedy ogres and the people they hire are mostly honest, hard working people who are poor through no fault of their own.
Taking up for the thief was really over the top. (Is stealing OK if there is a "good" excuse? Who decides what a "good" excuse is?)
Her smug disdain for the literary collection of one of the clients of the maid service, says more about her than the jacket of her book.
The left in this country love to give away the money earned by others.
I wonder if Ehrenreich gave any of her proceeds to the poor people who populated her book. I would bet not....more info
I started Nickel and Dimed with high expectations because I had hear such good reviews. I was in for a major let down. I did not feel sympathetic as the narrator "struggled" through her low income life. She complained constantly and showed an eagerness to quite when something got tough. She never settled into any one job or place, creating extra hardships of constantly being the "new girl".
I think the author meant well in her attempts to show how the lower class lives however, her endeavor fell flat, leaving the reader unsatisfied. ...more info
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