This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine...

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Summer Book Review! Nickel & Dimed

Barbara Ehrenreich is not poor. She has been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and has written a New York Times Best Seller. Barbara Ehrenreich is not disadvantaged. She is highly educated, middle class, white, disfigurement and debilitation free, and heterosexual. Ok, maybe she's a little too tough to go unnoticed as "lady-like", but that plays into her investigative journalist life anyway.

These reasons were the foundation for my skepticism regarding Nickel and Dimed, a book in which the author leaves the trappings of her middle class Key West lifestyle for a year to work in different cities around America in low wage jobs. She slices through her doubts and mine two-thirds of the way into the introduction by saying "my aim...was straightforward and objective--just to see whether I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do everyday." She's writing about a very divisive reality and subject matter and her success comes only because of this scientific objective clarification and her own outrage. She makes off color jokes about social classes in ways that most liberal writers avoid, even in the "post p.c." age of the late 90's, in which she writes.

She spends a year doing the research. She uproots from her home and job for months at a time, bringing provisional clothes, money and her only connection to her "former life as a journalist", her laptop. In each of the cities she writes about, her goal is to make enough money to pay rent, eat, and buy enough gas to get to work. She acknowledges that she has the advantage of being childless and a native English speaker, but disadvantages come in the form of being single (no other incomes to help) and being a native English speaker. Managers ignore jobs like cleaning hotel rooms or working food counters to instead assign her to waitressing, even if she'd rather clean rooms.

The best parts of Nickel and Dimed are the footnotes. They are rife with informational citations ranging from government sponsored studies to local newspaper reports. She cites figures on income to housing ratios, Wal-Mart's denial of overtime to employees, and what the terms for migrant workers are in various cities. The second best parts of the book are when Ehrenreich's sense of humor take over to keep her from flying into bitter rages. She describes Portland, ME as having "demographical albinoism", wonders about a "secret division" among the female gender into "breeders and drones", and rails against the big-box corporatization of the Western world for a good while.

Nickel and Dimed doesn't present any exotic information, but Ehrenreich does give deeper meaning to the figures of unemployment, housing rates, and welfare collapse that get tossed around in the left-wing news so frivolously. She re-ups the information that the poor in America live in a constant, or near-constant, "state of emergency", but she does so for all the middle class white people that will read her book. I don't know what good this book did for anyone, except for Ehrenreich. Maybe there's the off chance that some kid will read this book and become catalyzed into welfare reform or union organizing action, but it's hard to guess really.

1 comment:

Laura said...

Like your comment that you don't know what good this book did for anyone except the author. I felt the same way going through it; plus, I was pretty ticked off at her on occasion for being so ignorant about the wage lifestyle before this project. I worked ALL of those jobs growing up, so I was a little bitter about her "eye-opening" point of view.

The thing that got me, though, was that this book was written 10 years ago when the country was in relative prosperity. Can you imagine how this same experience would pan out in 2008's intra-war economy? I would love to see her do it again.

Still, it's a good book for those high school kids who think they can get by on the minimum. My old economics teacher assigned this book to her class last year for the first time, and she's gonna keep at it.