Top positive review
6 people found this helpful
on 26 February 2011
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)