Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

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Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich, book reviewAmerica has long been billed as the land of opportunity, a place where the streets are paved with gold and anyone who is prepared to work hard enough can buy themselves a part of the American dream. “I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that `hard work’ was the secret of success,” Barbara Ehrenreich writes. “No one ever said that you could work hard – harder even than you thought possible – and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt.”

On 22nd August 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act brought about major welfare reform in the US. Couched in terms of promoting a work ethic amongst those in receipt of welfare payments, this act brought about significant change to the American poor, removing any automatic entitlement to payouts and restricting any that were received to a lifetime limit of five years. This reform meant that almost overnight, 4 million women (many of them with children) had to enter the work force in low-paid entry level jobs. Discussing this act with an editor, essayist Barbara Ehrenreich idly wondered how such people – newly stripped of any safety net – survived on the wages paid by employers for such unskilled work. Her editor agreed that it was a good question and who better than Barbara to undertake the undercover work necessary to begin answering it? So was born a project that has become something of a landmark in investigative journalism, and a book that became a New York Times bestseller: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

Ehrenreich set a few rules that would bound and shape her experiences in the low wage economy: she would not fall back on the skills of her higher education, she would take the highest paid entry level job she could find, and she would live in the cheapest accommodation she could locate and that considerations of personal safety would permit. She would also allow herself a car, although acknowledged that this was a luxury that many of the poorest people in America simply didn’t have. Ehrenreich notes that “the idea was to spend a month in each setting and to see whether I could find a job and earn, in that time, the money to pay a second month’s rent”.

She experienced three quite different settings between 1998 and 2000: Key West in Florida, Portland in Maine, and Minnesota in Minneapolis. Ehrenreich admits that these experiments are all too artificial – she is coming to these jobs as someone with good health and fitness, who has had the benefit of gym memberships, health insurance, and a lifetime of nutritious food; she can fall back on her emergency credit card rather than become homeless if things take a turn for the worse, and she can return to her normal life for extended periods between her sojourns as a low wage worker. All the same, her experiences during the three month-long research periods (as a waitress, cleaner, nursing home aide and Wal-Mart associate) are pretty realistic for all the benefits you take into account.

“…no one who reads it will ever fail to tip in America again.”

The result of all her labour is a book that is explosive. At turns angry, outraged, shocked and frustrated, Ehrenreich has produced an account that shows how the almost invisible workers of America’s low wage economy exist, encountering too many cases of poor health, insecurity and borderline homelessness for comfort. What of other support networks to replace what was one provided by the government? Twice Ehrenreich tries to supplement her limited cash by asking after assistance from charitable organisations. There is no money to be given out, but after doggedly pursuing each case she managed to secure some free food in two of the three settings she visited – and it was all the nutritionally-challenged fare that would do no more that fill a stomach. No fruit, no veg, nothing fresh. One of her starkest conclusions is that, “there are no secret economies that nourish the poor”.

Her car aside, the author does an admirable job of keeping costs low and making her experiments feel as real as possible. It is all too clear that wages are too low to cover minimal survival in a free market economy where both rich and poor compete for living space – and the rich invariably win. Ehrenreich writes that prior to August 1996, it was a common attitude for the well-off to look down upon the welfare poor as being lazy, and they removing the welfare safety would force people into work, a job being the understood ticket out of poverty. After clearly revealing how hard it is just to survive when the survivor is a healthy women with no dependents working both a full-time and part-time job simultaneously, while living in the meanest digs that safety will permit, suggests there is something very wrong here.

“Now that the government has withdrawn its ‘handouts’, now that the overwhelming majority of the poor are out there toiling in Wal-Mart or Wendy’s – well, what are we supposed to think of them? Disapproval and condescension no longer apply, so what outlook makes sense?”. The answer? Guilt and shame as far as the author in concerned. Whether or not you agree with this conclusion, one thing is for certain – no one who reads it will ever fail to tip in America again.

Highly recommended.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

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Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
by Barbara Ehrenreich

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Written by collingwood21

Collingwood21 is a 32 year old university administrator and ex-pat northerner living down south. Married. Over-educated. Loves books, history, archaeology and writing.

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