Nickel and Dimed: on (Not) getting by in America
Barbara Ehrenreich (Henry Holt, 2001)
The financial page picture of economic life in America is dismal these days, but in a way that strikes me as abstract. The Dow Jones is down, the NASDAQ has crumbled, and IRA investors are nervous. A look at the fine print reveals rising personal debt, and the looming threat of corporate layoffs. In Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich dives right down past those abstractions, into the lives of people who may never be able to retire
at all, let alone in Wall-Street-supported comfort.
Ehrenreich went out and applied for jobs in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota. She folded clothes at Wal-Mart, waited tables, washed dish, and cleaned houses, to see what it's like to live on what those jobs pay. No big news, in a sense--it stinks: "What you don't necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you're actually selling is your life."
Ehrenreich allowed herself a safety net. She always had a car, a place to live, an ATM card. She came with the first month’s rent; the experiment was to see if she could legitimately earn another month’s rent in the best job (or jobs) that an ordinary person could get. “In addition to being mobile and unencumbered, I am probably in a lot better health than most members of the long-term low-wage workforce. I had everything going for me.” But nowhere does the equation work out.
This is a passionate, painful book. It could not have been done as a thought experiment. “There’s no way, for example, to pretend to be a waitress: the food either gets to the table or not.” Ehrenreich is really exhausted, her knees and back really hurt--and in the end she gets to go home, back across the divide into the world of people who can reach into their wallets to buy this book.
The last chapter of Nickel and Dimed treats the economic nuts and bolts of the experiment. Market rents go up; market wages do not; and the working poor go without lunch to make up the difference. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how the lowest-paid have disappeared from the agenda of American politics and media. Our blindness is our shame.