Nickel and Dimed Review 2001
Review of Nickel and Dimed in Shma online journal, July 2001
In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich teaches us sad, important and jolting truths. Truths that I am sure you will find moving. Truths which every reader will be grateful to know.
Ehrenreich accomplishes this teaching with one of the oldest and most effective tool in the world. She tells stories. Stories of her life and the lives of her colleagues as she waitresses, cleans houses, clerks in a Wal-Mart, serves food in a nursing home, and cleans rooms in a hotel. She doesn’t deluge us with dry statistics and academic rhetoric, yet powerful data is artfully included in footnotes. She doesn’t preach, yet her work is filled with spiritual depth. She doesn’t argue, yet she makes an utterly convincing case for a living wage, for building or allocating more affordable housing, and for dramatically improving the working conditions of low wage workers, routinely treated as chattel.
Ehrenreich had access to this story because she went ‘under cover,’ identifying herself as a housewife returning to the labor market. Her goal was to“match income to expenses” over a period of several months in Florida, Maine and Minnesota. Thankfully, she makes no claims that her brief excursion into poverty could represent any one else’s experience. In fact, she is all to aware of her privilege. As she says in her introduction, “Just bear in mind, when I stumble, that this is in fact the best case scenario: a person with every advantage that ethnicity and education, health and motivation can confer attempting, in a time of exuberant prosperity, to survive in the economy’s lower depths.”
So what truths does she reveal? As I begin to click out my next few sentences, the words seem trite, obvious. Doesn’t everyone understand that we live in a land divided? Don’t we all realize that the gap between the haves and the have nots is widening? Surely we know that during the economic boom of the 90’s layoffs ravaged lives, while unstable, low wage service work replaced solid middle income jobs. Haven’t we all heard that the cost of living increased while the minimum wage stagnated–effectively putting it 20 years behind the times in terms of buying power?
So, what makes Nickel and Dimed so important? Why do I think that everyone should read this book?
The reason is simple. It is because it is easy to think about poverty in the abstract. We might have known the aforementioned facts, and still believed Clinton’s campaign slogan “It’s the economy, stupid,” rejoicing in our nation’s abundance. Denial is easy when we are in relationship with facts or ideas instead of people. Avoidance is possible when we live in our minds instead of our hearts.
I am sure that many of us live with the experience of poverty etched into our souls. Even some of us who don’t identify as one of the working poor today. I would have counted myself amongst this group before I read this book. Yet despite my direct experience of poverty 20 years ago, despite 15 years working in and with the labor movement, despite recent advocacy for the Living Wage, Nickel and Dimed taught me things about working poverty that I had not known before. I felt Ehrenreich’s hunger and fatigue in my kishkes, in my back, in my knees. Those things feel different when you are in your 40s, 50s, 60s than they do when you are in your 20s. Really different. And I learned once again how middle class privilege creates a kind of amnesia of the soul–how it allows me (and I believe others) to forget that the blessing of material comfort depends on the exploitation and pain of the working poor, at least in this country, at this time.
It is not easy to evoke such powerful responses from a reader. Ehrenreich is capable of doing so because she writes with an extraordinary clarity and punch. She teaches with humor and grace, by lifting us out of our heads and into the exhausted bodies and the broken hearts of her colleagues. And she can do so because she tells it like it is. Who could read about washing someone else’s shit stained toilet without feeling the disgust and inhumanity implicit in that role? Who wouldn’t be outraged by the non-stop 8-10 hour on your feet, get yelled at if you sit down, no break shifts, while getting abused by the manager experience at “Jerry’s”. Who’s heart wouldn’t break in response to the woman, virtually starving to death because she cannot afford to eat, who brakes her foot during a shift, and wouldn’t call in with the injury, terrorized that she would lose the income for the day.
Yes, Nickel and Dimed tells it like it is. Now the only question is, what are we going to do about it?
Debra R. Kolodny