Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Get a job, you bum. That's exactly what Barbara Ehrenreich did, but in her case it was get a job you incognito PhD.
It's stylish these days, in certain circles, to rail about handouts and entitlements. It's s.o.p. to advocate tearing down the safety net for those in poverty. But what is it really like in America for millions of working poor?
In this book, Ehrenreich works as a waitress in Key West, a Merry Maid in Maine, and a Wal-Mart "associate" in Minneapolis, complete with having to find low cost housing and make ends meet. She did allow herself a car, and a small stake to get her started, which is certainly more than a great many people start out with, but she freely concedes that what was a series of three month-long immersions in the world of the working poor for her, is unending for many many people.
What she found was eye opening indeed. First, there was the dispiriting process of job hunting, which usually included drug tests and "personality testing" with a strange focus on marijuana use. Right from the get-go, an applicant has to prove that she is not a drug addict, a thief, or capable of independent thought, before she can even be considered for employment. The level of intrusion just to apply is humiliating.
Then, two of the three jobs she got leaped straight from application to orientation, conveniently skipping the moment of actually offering a job, describing wages and benefits, and giving the applicant the chance to accept, refuse, or counter. It's pulling a fast one.
Then there were the jobs themselves. Waitressing in Key West for about half of minimum wage plus tips (shared with hostess and busboys), she discovered that, along with drunken frat boys, the worst tippers were Obvious Christians aglow with light after church functions, leaving a dollar tip on a nearly three figure tab. Just to get started, she had to buy the the right color pants, and some kind of serviceable shoes, putting her behind right from the start. She soon discovers that her friend, who trains her when she starts, is living in her car. Other co-workers are crammed in to small living arrangements with relatives or roommates.
In Maine, she catches on with Merry Maids. After watching several how-to videos, she goes to work, traveling to clients' homes as part of a team of four women. The homes are generally big, the owners absent or hawk-eyed, and the procedure aimed more at making the home *appear* clean, than actually *being* clean. Only a small amount of water is allowed. Nothing to eat or drink in clients' homes, even though the work leaves her sweaty and exhausted. One of her fellow maids seems to live off of corn chips, and only one of them has a house of her own (because her husband has a steady job). Discovering that she can't make ends meet from just the maid job, she gets a weekend gig at a nursing home as a dietary tech, seeing to it that the residents of the locked Alzheimer's ward get fed. Still, even working seven days a week at difficult physical work, the numbers only barely add up. One reason is the seemingly customary practice of holding back an employee's first check until they leave or quit. The maid service and Wal-Mart both did that. What the hell IS that? It's just one of a million examples of things that are done to the working poor just because it benefits the employers and the employees have no power.
Wal-Mart may be the strangest job she got, working there in Minneapolis. It's the cult of Sam (Walton). Again with the drug test, personality test and fast shuffle into "orientation". And again with the minimum wage and withheld first check. Ehrenreich finds herself working in ladies', endlessly pushing carts full of discarded items from the fitting rooms or the displays out into the store to be put back where they belong. It isn't as physically hard as the waitress or maid jobs, but it is mind-numbingly routine. Ehrenreich's writing skills and sharp irreverent humor save this section, and I laughed in spite of myself at passages like this one: "I feel oppressed, too, by the mandatory gentility of Wal-Mart culture. This is ladies' and we are all "ladies" here, and we are all forbidden, by storewide rule, to raise our voices or curse. Give me a few weeks of this and I'll femme out entirely, my stride will be reduced to a mince, I'll start tucking my head down to one side." This last adventure turns out to be the worst one, not because of the job, though it is dispiriting enough, but because she cannot find affordable housing, though goodness knows she tries. She stays for a while in a horrid residential motel, then moves to a Comfort Inn (many of the working poor have to live in residential motels because they cannot come up with first and last month's rent for a regular apartment.) her money runs out after three weeks and she returns to her real life. Someone scrambling under these circumstances because it is their life and not just book research, would have been on the streets, or living in her car.
Ehrenreich blows up the myth that a job, by itself, is the ticket out of poverty. Repeatedly, she found that one minimum wage job was never enough to even survive on, and even with two jobs, there was nothing left over for anything unexpected, or for anything beyond the most rudimentary medical care (lots of Advil). Housing ate up huge portions of hers and her co-workers' pay, IF they could find any at all, and this book was published in 2001, boom times by comparison to now. She says that the jobs she found easily when she wrote this book aren't readily available today.
She also brings home the invisibility of the poor, at least to those above them on the socio-economic ladder. It's a brutal, demeaning, exhausting way for anyone to have to live, and offers very few roads out. At the very least, if you read this book, you will never see a waitress, or a maid, or a Wal-Mart "associate" the same way again. Highly recommended.
View all my reviews