Thursday, February 25, 2010

My Favorite Reads: Nickel and Dimed

Each week I am featuring one of my favorite reads from the past, thanks to At Home With Books. In February I am focussing on books related to the economy, as well as books published by MacMillan.

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

Summary (from the publisher):
The New York Times bestseller, and one of the most talked about books of the year, Nickel and Dimed has already become a classic of undercover reportage.

Millions of Americans work for poverty-level wages, and one day Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that any job equals a better life. But how can anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 to $7 an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich moved from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, taking the cheapest lodgings available and accepting work as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing-home aide, and Wal-Mart salesperson. She soon discovered that even the "lowliest" occupations require exhausting mental and physical efforts. And one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors.

Nickel and Dimed reveals low-wage America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity -- a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate strategies for survival. Instantly acclaimed for its insight, humor, and passion, this book is changing the way America perceives its working poor.

Why I chose this book:
This book was really well-written. And I think does a great job opening the eyes of a lot of middle-class Americans to the realities of the lives of the working poor. However, having lived on $6.15/hr myself, in low income housing, I don't think Ms. Ehrenreich went far enough in her experiment - she had a decent car and a computer and health insurance, which most people in this income bracket (including myself at the time) don't, and therefore I felt it was close, but no cigar.

I actually didn't earn enough at $6.15/hour to qualify for low-income housing (which is not no-income housing). I had to get a previous job to lie and say I still worked there part-time as otherwise my rent was exactly 50% of my take-home pay. Small part-time gigs here and there pushed me into new tax brackets and caused me to owe over $500 in taxes two years in a row. Which was also well over half my take-home income. It's a messed up world when getting paid more than minimum wage is still well under the minimum for low income housing. In 1997, my monthly grocery budget was $80. And I lived in a state with a nearly 10% sales tax on food! The one saving grace was that in 1997 gas was around $1/gallon. My car was 14 years old, and just when I thought I could actually make it through a month and not have to ponder if I could pay either my phone bill or my electric bill, my muffler would fall off my car. Without fail, every time I thought I could actually make my budget work, the car would break. I made $14,000 that year. It was really, really hard. And although I applaud Ms. Ehrenreich's efforts, she cut corners and fell short. Perhaps that was inevitable since this was just an experiment for her, and she had a book deal and a journalism career and a nice house to go back to. But for people who don't want to experience the fun of it for themselves, this book is a welcome addition to the economic discussion. A lot of these people - who ring you up at the pharmacy, who fill up your vending machines at work, who do your drycleaning - we encounter them every single day and we somehow don't see them.


DCMetroreader said...

I think Ehrenreich was trying to approximate the minimum wage life which I think she did quite well. I admire that she actually did work at Walmart and the Maids and a few other places, rather than just interview the workers. I don't know if you read her f/u book about trying to obtain a white collar entry level job and failed miserably (I think the job she got was a commission only position).

Nickle and Dimed is a wonderful eye-opening read! Thanks for reviewing it!

A Bookish Way of Life said...

Thanks for reviewing this book. I have it sitting on my shelf and its on my list of books to read for the Women Unbound challenge. I completely agree with you that even though Ehrenreich attempted to experience what the majority of the American people actually live with/through, its not enough. Until you have no health insurance and can't afford food on the table and are constantly trying to figure out how you are going to make rent next month, there is no way for Ehrenreich to fully comprehend the situation. I'm looking forward to reading this book and wanted to say thank for the heads up. Cheers!

Alyce said...

I saw a review of this book elsewhere in the past few weeks and added it to my wish list because it looks like such a good read. I agree that there's nothing to compare to really living in the situation though. Thankfully I haven't had to deal with a situation like that as an adult, but there were a few tight years like that when I was growing up. My dad took really any job he could get to make ends meet, and there were stretches of time without health insurance.

Booksnyc said...

This book is a favorite of mine. Reading it really opened my eyes to the challenges of low-income workers and how in many ways it can become a vicious trap. I naively believed that if you were working you could make enough to get by - this book proved how very hard that can be.

I agree that the author didn't totally immerse herself in the life and maintained comforts like health insurance, etc but she did acknowledge that and point out how really living that life is much more difficult than her experiment with it.

I haven't read her next book but would like to.

Great review!

Unknown said...

You know what creeped me out most about this book? Her description of how Merry Maids "cleans" a house. I would think this book probably directly impacted their bottom-line. I was urged my a co-worker to read this book, a who self-admitted to suffering from what she termed as "White guilt". I liked this book. However it's really hard to understand what someone is going through until you put yourself in their shoes.

PS- thanks for sending me the link. I enjoyed reading your take.