Sunday, June 19, 2016

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

Welfare reform in the mid-1990s was meant to get people off the welfare rolls and into the workforce. As the U.S. had a strong economy at the time, and jobs were plentiful, this was supposed to work out pretty well all around. The problem was that most 'unskilled jobs' paid minimum wage (which was six to seven dollars/hour at the time) and this just wasn't enough to support a parent and child - much less a larger family.

In 1998 Barbara Ehrenreich - a political activist and writer - decided to try to live like the 'working poor.' She planned to obtain low paying jobs and see if she could live on the resulting wages. Ehrenreich then wrote a book about her experiences - this one.

As Ehrenreich points out in the book, she didn't really start on a level playing field with the economically deprived. She was well-educated, in good health, and had no small children. Nevertheless her experiences provided a peek at what it was like to be a member of the working poor.

Over the span of a couple of months Ehrenreich lived in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota. In each location, she rented (or tried to rent) an apartment, took one or two low-paying jobs, and attempted to live on the wages she earned. The first problem Ehrenreich encountered was finding a place to live. Without funds to pay a security deposit and first month's rent, it was very difficult to rent an apartment - even a cheap crappy one. Thus, some minimum wage earners (including Ehrenreich at times) had to live in shabby motels, which actually cost more than an apartment. One of Ehrenreich's co-workers lived in a van. Ehrenreich describes the various places she lived, most of which were ratty, uncomfortable, minimalist, and sometimes dangerous. On occasion she had no refrigerator or cooking facilities.

Ehrenreich's next order of business was obtaining a job or two in each state. This often required submitting applications, going to interviews, passing personality exams (would you steal; would you report a co-worker for theft; do you follow rules; and so on), and getting drug-tested. Upon obtaining a job, Ehrenrich had to buy appropriate clothing (generally slacks and polo shirts) and travel to work and back. Unlike some low-income workers Ehrenreich allowed herself a car in each location, a rent-a-wreck - which also skewed her 'authentic experience' a bit.

During her experiment Ehrenreich worked as a waitress; a caregiver for Alzheimer's patients; a hotel maid; a house cleaner; and a Wal-Mart ladies-wear employee. Each job was physically difficult, exhausting, and demoralizing... since the workers were closely monitored and generally not trusted by the employers. While at Wal-Mart Ehrenreich had to make a couple of phone calls to line up a new place to live. To achieve this Ehrenreich had to sneak out of Wal-Mart to her car (using maneuvers similar to Keanu Reaves in The Matrix), get the phone numbers, and use a public telephone. Caught by a manager, Ehrenreich (falsely and nervously) stated she was on an official break. All this would give a person heartburn for sure.

Ehrenreich also ate badly most of the time for a variety of reasons: lack of funds (employers routinely held back the first week's wages), no appropriate place to prepare food, no time to eat on the job, etc. Often, Ehrenreich supplemented her diet with fast food. One of Ehrenreich's fellow hotel maids ate hot dog buns for lunch. And a house cleaning mate routinely had a few crackers.

In the end Ehrenreich - making less money at Wal-Mart than she was paying for living quarters, food, and necessities - quit and went back to her normal life.

I'm sure Ehrenreich had good intentions when she embarked on this experiment but she comes across as a kind of 'dilettante' poor person who was not really playing by the rules. First, a real low-wage worker might line up a couple of roommates to share an apartment, which seems a logical thing to do. Second, Ehrenrich knew about the drug testing but - taking a recreational break - smoked marijuana. This resulted in a few frantic days spent drinking gallons of water (to flush out the evidence) plus the cost of system-cleaning medicine from the drugstore (I don't know if this actually works). Third, Ehrenreich could have packed bologna or PB&J sandwiches for lunch, rather than purchasing (relatively expensive) fast food.

Nevertheless, Ehrenreich did bring attention to the very difficult plight of minimum-wage employees in 1998. It was almost impossible for a working single mother, for example, to pay for a place to live, daycare, nutricious food, decent clothing, incidentals, etc. And if a family member needed to see a dentist or doctor they were just out of luck. Moreover, unlike Ehrenreich - who had a cushy upper middle-class life to return to - the economically disadvantaged could only look forward to continued drudgery. They had no hope for a better life. As it happens I read this book in 2016, at the same time Senator Bernie Sanders was talking about the CURRENT problems of the working poor - which are almost exactly the same!! This is truly sad.

Rating: 4 stars

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