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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
on 29 January 2005
First, I must say that, for all its faults, this is a book worth reading. It needed to be written, and I applaud the author for doing what she did-an attempt to support herself on minim wage jobs for a year. She shares many telling details of life among the desperately poor, including the highly questionable practices of such employers as Merry Maids and Wal-mart. She makes astute observations regarding human behavior and quality of life in this under-studied group of Americans.
I do, however, have some serious gripes with Ehrenreich's book. Mainly, I feel that she weakened her own arguments by her inability to stick to her subject. Ehrenreich takes frequent detours onto topics that are not really related to being poor.
Ehrenreich is, in fact, experiencing at least two kinds of culture shock in the course of her experiment. The first culture shock, which she recognizes and intends to write about, is going from her upper middle class income to at or near poverty level. The second, equally significant culture shock, of which she seems only dimly aware, is going from a self-employed journalist to a wage-earner.
In order to achieve maximum impact with her book, Ehrenreich needs to stick to the topics specific to poverty, because this is what she purports to be writing about. However, she continually branches off into complaints involving issues that are true of _many_ wage-earners at all economic levels. These two states-poverty and wage earner-are _not_ the same. Ehrenreich, however, doesn't seem to make the distinction.
For instance, she spends considerable time griping about "chemically Nazi America." She feels that drugs should be legalized and is very angry that she must undergo drug testing. This would, perhaps, make a suitable topic for another book, but it is _not_ an experience specific to minimum wage workers. Drug testing is very common among many classes of wage earners in America-a fact that she briefly acknowledges, but then goes right on to speak about at length. Ehrenreich is angered particularly because she has been using marijuana and must undergo a self-imposed cleansing before she can pass the test. This, again, is not an issue specific to minimum wage earners. She is confusing her issue and giving her opponents ammunition-something I find distressing, because I do sympathize with her purported topic.
Another item Ehrenreich finds infuriating is that she's not allowed to curse at work. Ehrenreich does not seem to realize that, as a journalist, she is in a very linguistically privileged class of workers. Even most self-employed people can not afford to use lots of four-letter words in the course of their business day if they wish to maintain their clientele, and most wage earners at any level will find foul language frowned up at work. Journalists have a linguistic freedom that goes well beyond most other Americans at work. This is not closely related to the plight of minimum wage workers.
Aside from her periodic forays into matters non-poverty-related, the other serious flaw in the book is that it makes no attempt to address the most serious argument against raising minim wage-how will you keep all other costs of living from not simply escalating as well? Without at least attempting to answer this question, I feel that the book's conclusion lacks conviction and punch. This is too bad, because the topic is important, and the observations in the book are worth reading-so long readers are willing to sift the material with a critical eye.
on 7 February 2005
book - it was time that the issue was adressed, however, I think she made a few mistakes in her approach.
(1) Starting out is always hard and it takes more money until you are settled in a certain routine - by switching jobs too often she does not acknowlege that.
(2) I was a single mom with three jobs and went to college - looking back I have no idea how I did it. I did not get state benefits because I was working, but I managed to pull myself out of the swamp and I am "middle class" now, even though I was really poor (and eating spaghettis out of a tin if I had to)
(3) Her approach of life-style is too much middle class. You can get used to everything, really, also to living in a car. Once, to save money (before I had a baby) I lived in a former bathroom, barely big enough to put in my bed. I did not feel deprived after a while - you just get used to things.
(4) I think the poor use different tactics and approaches than she does. At least I was for sometime sharing a bedroom when I was in college and the rent was unbelievable high. I always picked restaurant jobs if I had the chance because usually you get one to two meals a day, so that saves money, too. I bought a lot of stuff second hand. If I was running short of money, I'd sell some CDs or stuff. I always got by - on very little money.
But it was interesting!
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)
Both England and America have a phenomena know as the working poor, these are people that work one or more jobs yet still cannot make ends meet.
This book was written by a journalist investigating what's it like to be a low pay worker in America.
The author took various low paying jobs and tried to survive on the wages and had a very tough time.
Jobs such as cleaning turn out to be very demanding physically leaving the workers with permanent damage to their bodys. The cleaning company charged $25 per person hour but only pays the worker $6.65 per hour.
The high cost of housing and low pay means workers cannot just give up their current job and look for another as they will not be able to pay their rent while looking for a job.
Other low pay workers cannot afford health care to fix heath problems, the health problems then cause them to lose their jobs and get even poorer.
Poor public transport in many parts of America means if you cannot afford a car you choice of jobs is limited to your local area only making the choice of work for the poor worse.
It comes obvious that been poor in America actually traps people when vital needs such as health care and transportation are only for people that can afford it. No wonder social mobility in America is so bad and the poor have decreased in wealth in the last 30 years while the rich have gotten even richer.