nickel and dimed: on not getting by in america

Nickel and Dimed

Acclaimed author and New York Times columnist, Barbara Ehrenreich pulls back the curtain on the plight of the working poor in Nickel and Dimed.

The story of Ehrenreich’s undercover attempt to squeak out a living as a waitress in Key West, a house cleaner and nursing-home aid in Maine and a Wal-Mart associate in Minnesota gives a poignant and candid first-hand glimpse into low-wage America.

Despite increases in the minimum wage and available social services, Ehrenreich’s tales of shabby hotel rooms and countless hours spent on her feet while making meals out of Wheat Thins, illuminate deteriorating work conditions in our nation.

Moreover, Ehrenreich jumps through multiple hoops just to secure a job. But with each job comes a malignant sense of inferiority — inferiority that is internalized not only by her low-wage colleagues, but also by herself, despite the fact she is well-published and has a Ph.D in biology.

A real present-day muckraker, Erhenreich’s gritty account tackles common stereotypes that are often misplaced on the working poor. It is a must read, full of well-researched facts and no-nonsense humor. Here are a couple of my favorite snippets.

Educated middle-class professionals never go careening half-cocked into the future, vulnerable to any surprise that might leap out at them. We always have a plan or at least a to-do list; we like to know that everything has been anticipated, that our lives are, in a sense, pre-lived. So what am I doing here, and in what order should I be doing it? I need a job and an apartment, but to get a job I need an address and a phone number and to get an apartment it helps to have evidence of stable employment. The only plan I can come up with is to do everything at once and hope that the teenagers at the Motel 6 switchboard can be trusted to serve as my answering machine.

It is common, among the nonpoor, to think of poverty as a sustainable condition — austere, perhaps, but they get by somehow, don’t they? They are ‘always with us.’ What is harder for the nonpoor to see is poverty as acute distress: The lunch that consists of Doritos or hot dog rolls, leading to faintness before the end of the shift. The “home that is also a car or a van. The illness or injury that must be ‘worked through,’ with gritted teeth because there’s no sick pay or health insurance and the loss of one day’s pay will mean no groceries for the next. These experiences are not part of a sustainable lifestyle, even a lifestyle of chronic deprivation and relentless low-level punishment. They are, by almost any standard of subsistence, emergency situations. And that is how we should see the poverty of so many millions of low-wage Americans–as a state of emergency.

Further research:

Economic Policy Institute

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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