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4.2 out of 5 stars
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4.2 out of 5 stars
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Barbara Ehrenreich has written a classic account of life in America's underclass, the people who are all around us, whose lives are rarely considered by the ones to whom they serve. The book was written in 2001, and is much more relevant today, as increasing numbers of people join that underclass due to the "free markets" catastrophic failures which culminated in a near global financial meltdown. It required a few trillion dollars of "welfare" to bail out the banks and Wall Street, who apparently have learned nothing. If only a few "crumbs" had been tossed the way of the waitresses and other low-end services workers that are now being laid off.

For most of a year Ehrenreich attempted to join the underclass. She took low-paying jobs as a waitress in Key West, Florida, a maid in Maine, and worked as a Wal-Mart "associate" in Minnesota. She also did a stint as a nursing home aide. Her chronicle of those efforts mainly concentrates of the sheer economic impossibility of doing low-pay work, and having even the barest modicum of a decent life (and yes, forget about health insurance, so one is always truly, living "on the edge.") Her job changes over the year limited her ability to develop true relationships with her co-workers, but there are those occasional snippets of insight from their lives, and I thought the portion where the maids really did not clean the houses of the upper class, as they should, particularly noteworthy for the small acts of defiance from America's "lumpenproletariat."

Ehrenreich efforts are flawed, as she partially admits in the book. First of all, she never really was part of the "down and out" workers, say, in the sense of Jean Genet or George Orwell or Henry Miller, who were not pretending, and therefore were able to render truer accounts. And, as she readily discovers, being white, and speaking good English was an effective barrier to low-paying job entry in many parts of the country; hence her relocation to Maine to become a maid. Even by her own standards, she could not really stay within the economic parameters she set; but to me that only underscored the lives of quiet desperation that these people live. And most importantly, and a point she down-plays, mentally she always knew she could "pull the ripcord," and bail out, and even if she managed to make it the entire year, there was a definite end point. And her education gave her a broader perspective, and she would never have internalized that her life was part of the natural order of things.

Numerous 1-star reviewers went after her, primarily for questioning the "natural order of things" business. Generally these reviewers ranted about "liberalism," sometimes coupled with true accounts of the "lottery winners" who had pulled themselves up by "their own bootstraps." A more serious review denounced her for "tourism" of the underclass, and indeed, in part, it was, for reasons I outlined in the above paragraph. For the flaws in her approach, maybe even she would give herself a 4-star evaluation. However, like so many of her class, she could have confined her tourism to Provence or the game parks of Africa. The fact that she did not, and really "walked the walk" in the low-pay jobs, has given us all a greater understanding, and more importantly, empathy, for those who serve us, and thus she deserves a solid 5-stars.

Finally, nickels and dimes are indeed small change. But for those of us who voted for change in the last election, yes, questioning the "natural order of things" that so-called "free markets" provide; it seems that is all we received - nickels and dimes, small change.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on December 11, 2009)
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on 17 May 2009
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.
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on 29 February 2016
It’s a strangely unsatisfactory read. I found Ehrenreich rather got in the way of the real story. On two counts. One, because she’s turned this cod-journalistic piece into a self-indulgent account of her own private challenge to live a half-baked breadline existence, rather than actually focus on the people genuinely experiencing the poverty trap. Finishing her Florida segment, for instance, with the glib acknowledgement, “I never found out what happened to George.”

Secondly, surprisingly, her actual prose. She’ll throw in jarringly inappropriate words just for the sheer fun (cleverness?) of it: “I pretend to study my check for a clue, but entropy has been up to its tricks, not only on the plate but in my head…” Entropy is a complicated concept - it’s meaning: 1.(communication theory) a numerical measure of the uncertainty of an outcome; 2.(thermodynamics) a thermodynamic quantity representing the amount of energy in a system that is no longer available for doing mechanical work. It’s clearly not the right word for that sentence. Food on a plate cannot suffer from entropy. It’s a lazy stab at sounding articulate.

Another example: “I was struck by what appeared to be an extreme case of demographic albinism”. She means there were a high proportion of white people in the area - not sufferers of the pigmentation disorder, albinism. They’re not the same thing.

And: “Then Holly starts up on one of those pornographic late-afternoon food conversations…” Pornographic? We’re not talking food-related sexual fetishes - we’re talking common culinary fantasies. Why ‘pornographic’?

Next let’s briefly unpick Ehrenreich’s casual meditation on the soul: “Is the soul that lives forever the one we possess at the moment of death, in which case heaven must look like the Woodcrest (an old people’s care home), with plenty of CNAs (?) and dietary aides to take care of those who died in a state of mental decomposition? Or is it our personally best soul- say, the one that dwells in us at the height of our cognitive powers…?” Now I’m no theosophical expert but isn’t Ehrenreich simply getting the mind and the soul fundamentally confused here?

I won’t dwell further on the littering of clumsy weaknesses in the prose, you get my drift. Returning to ‘count one’ - the content: it’s flimsy, lazy, repetitive and hardly investigative. It’s actually a conceited, self-serving account just as exploitative of the low waged as the malign employers she exposes. Throw away remarks such as these illustrate my point:

“If some enterprising journalist wants to test the low-wage way of life in darkest Idaho or Louisiana, more power to her. Call me gutless, but what I was looking for this time around was a comfortable correspondence between income and rent, a few mild adventures, a soft landing.”

“How did I do as a low-wage worker? If I may begin with a brief round of applause: I didn’t do half bad at the work itself (until you quit after a month or two?) , and I claim this as a considerable achievement. You might think that unskilled jobs would be a snap for someone with a Ph.D…” I’ll stop quoting at this umpteenth mention of her completely irrelevant Ph.D. I’m surprised Ehrenreich didn’t carry the scroll round with her to save her breath…

I am slightly maddened by this book, as well as hugely disappointed. Not my recommendation.
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on 8 July 2016
Not what I expected....just one person's story of finding work. Also a bit 'dated' and not inclusive of other options.
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on 13 August 2002
Nickel and Dimed is a description of the author's temporary life at or below the poverty line in different jobs in 3 US cities. The book is actually quite short but packs in a fair amount of description, background facts and personality.
I have read some harsh criticisms of the book. However, the author was aware of many of these problems and she does not hide her faults. She is only 'visiting' the world of the poor, she does write more about herself than those she meets and she does make some decisions that, in some cases, make her ordeal needlessly worse whilst others make it easier.
Accept her failings as she does, and read a book that says a lot about US society and has many points that are transferable to the UK.
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on 9 June 2013
I read this on a holiday to the States in 2009 by total fluke while staying with a friend. I found it a fascinatingly insightful commentary on some of the social problems facing some of the poorest of the working classes in America. The author spends time in three cities and working in three occupations where wages and hence living conditions really do put people onto the "breadline" and practically explores many of the challenges associated with just surviving such as finding accommodation, eating, getting around. Also by doing the roles herself she provides an authentic and honest appraisal of just how exhausting it is. She takes you on a journey to the "underside" of the American dream where the lifestyle of fast food and consumerism is propped up by essentially exploiting a workforce who supplies these services. Great book. Would definitely recommend and will try and read more by this author.
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on 20 July 2001
If you have read, and liked, George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London then this is a book for you. The author writes engagingly and informatively on what it is like to part of America's "working poor" and, in the process, punctures a number of middle-class prescriptions for, and misconceptions about, the poor. Why do the poor eat junk food? Because they don't have the facilities - kitchen, pots, cooker - to make lentil soup. Why do the poor live in hotel rooms paying $60 per night? Because they don't have the money for the deposit on the rent of an apartment. Housing always emerges as the single biggest obstacle in the lives of low-paid employees. Did you know that many low-paid employees ($6-$7 per hour) live in their cars and vans? That a perk of a waitress' job with a hotel was permission to park her van-cum-home in the hotel car park? This book is in the best tradition of writing with a social conscience -it does not beatify the poor, nor does it regard them as unter-menschen. Indeed, the messsage that I, surrounded by my bourgeois comforts, took away was: "There but for the grace of God.." If you are not averse to this genre, then you should read this book - it is among the best of this type of writing.
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VINE VOICEon 13 July 2002
I regularly work in the USA, and when I mentioned this book to 10 or so US colleagues over dinner in Minneapolis last week, only 1 person had heard of it, which exemplifies the fact that Middle Class America have little consciousness of the realities of the 'slaving classes'. This book does not go into a detailed damnation of the 'system' in the way that 'No Logo' does, but it offers well-written personal recollections of times spent in 3 locations, Florida, Maine & Minneapolis (hence why I asked my dinner companions if they'd heard of it). Even though I consider myself 'socially aware' it gave me further insight into the circumstances of those around me in hotels & restaurants, and reconfirmed my already low opinion of the inequalities in US society. I noticed that the US Minimum Wage is $5.15, and hasn't been changed for 5 years (ie since 1997); contrast that with the UK Minimum Wage of around $6, which has been increased every year since its introduction, even if only by 10p/15c per hour.
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VINE VOICEon 2 June 2015
This book is viewed as an undercover expose to most who will read it but is, in fact, just an account of normal life for many, many more who won't even know that the book was ever published.
The author is a writer who decided to live (by working) on minimum wage for a while. She moves state, finds housing, finds a job, settles into a routine then moves on to start again elsewhere.
It's an uncomfortable read with a vague feeling of the author staring at humans from a different species - most readers will never have experienced conditions in which low paid workers live and, whilst it's very difficult to admit to, there is an underlying feeling of looking through the bars into a zoo. As she gets to know her coworkers at each company and the group is humanised the authors approach softens - a major breakthrough being the acknowledgement that we all want to be appreciated regardless of money being earned.
The author appears to be outraged by the conditions suffered by low paid workers and, as this book is intended to stir up some opinions, then this is entirely appropriate but I'm not quite sure that she should be outraged. How does she think people live on $7 an hour? It's not news that life is impossible on these rates of pay but what is the most engaging element of this book is the insight about the individuals she meets during her travels. Many people generalise the "poor" and these book turns the group into people, promoting an urge to thank waitresses more regularly, smile at check out operators and maybe even just notice maids!
I found the authors attitude a little self righteous but have to admire her greatly for going out and finding out what is actually happening rather than just listening to others.
A criticism would be that the book was published in 2001 and has not been updated since. There is little reference to welfare available in the states that she visits and I would have been interested to know what the position was then and is now. I feel more reading coming on!
This book made me think .... a lot.
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VINE VOICEon 18 September 2013
Good book. Held my interest and attention throughout. The "American Way" , i.e. Corporate America, is again shown in its true light with all its ugly devotion to the dollar. Why do the low earners put up with this? It seems one reason keeps popping to the surface as the main contender. The American poor accept this incredibly divided society because they feel that someday they will make it to the "rich" side. Of course the chance of this happening is akin to their winning the lottery. Poor and brainwashed. A book which should be read by all naive souls who consider America to be the "land of Opportunity" and also by all naive souls who think that the business classes have even the remotest concern for the welfare of their staff or of their customers. Nope - the dollar is the only objective; the only objective - got it ??
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