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Nickel and Dimed: Undercover in Low-wage America - Barbara Ehrenreich

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Genre: Politics / Society / Philosophy / Author: Barbara Ehrenreich / Paperback / 240 Pages / Book is published 2002-06-18 by Granta Books

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      21.10.2011 15:23
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      A shocking investigation into low pay and poor working conditions in the US

      America has long been billed as the land of opportunity, a place where the streets are paved with gold and anyone who is prepared to work hard enough can buy themselves a part of the American dream. "I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that `hard work' was the secret of success," Barbara Ehrenreich writes. "No one ever said that you could work hard - harder even than you thought possible - and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt."

      On 22nd August 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act brought about major welfare reform in the US. Couched in terms of promoting a work ethic amongst those in receipt of welfare payments, this act brought about significant change to the American poor, removing any automatic entitlement to payouts and restricting any that were received to a lifetime limit of five years. This reform meant that almost overnight, four million women (many of them with children) had to enter the work force in low-paid entry level jobs. Discussing this act with an editor over lunch at a pleasant French restaurant, essayist Barbara Ehrenreich idly wondered how such people - newly stripped of any safety net - survived on the wages paid by employers for such unskilled work. Her editor agreed that it was a good question and who better than Barbara to undertake the undercover work necessary to begin answering it? So was born a project that has become something of a landmark in investigative journalism, and a book that became a New York Times bestseller: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

      As she set out on her quest to investigate the world of the working poor, Ehrenreich set a few rules that would bound and shape her experience: she would not fall back on the skills of her higher education (she has a PhD), she would take the highest paid entry level job she could find, and she would live in the cheapest accommodation she could locate and that considerations of personal safety would permit. She would also allow herself a car, although acknowledged that this was a luxury that many of the poorest people in America simply didn't have. Ehrenreich notes that "the idea was to spend a month in each setting and to see whether I could find a job and earn, in that time, the money to pay a second month's rent".

      She experienced three quite different settings between 1998 and 2000: Key West in Florida, Portland in Maine, and Minnesota in Minneapolis. Ehrenreich admits that these experiments are all too artificial - she is coming to these jobs as someone with good health and fitness, who has had the benefit of gym memberships, health insurance, and a lifetime of nutritious food; she can fall back on her emergency credit card rather than become homeless if things take a turn for the worse, and she can return to her normal life for extended periods between her sojourns as a low wage worker. All the same, her experience during the three month-long research periods are pretty realistic for all the benefits you take into account.

      The Economic Policy Institute calculated that a "living wage" at the time this book was written (2001) was $14 an hour. As Ehrenreich notes, "the shocking thing is that the majority of American workers, about 60%, earn less than $14 an hour." It gets worse - about a third of workers earned $8 an hour or less at this time, and this was in the middle of a huge boom in the American economy. So how much did Ehrenreich manage to earn when she presented herself as a newly divorced woman re-entering the workforce with no marketable skills? Her first job, as a waitress in Key West, offered just $2.43 an hour plus tips; even after a move to a better paying restaurant (but one that didn't hold with the idea of employees taking breaks), she had to live a 45 minute drive away from work as this was the closest place where rents became anything near affordable. It was worse for some of her colleagues, however, and one of them admitted to living in their car and relying on a friend's goodwill for bathroom access whilst working full-time.

      On to Portland and a chance to try out another area of low wage work - as a cleaner for a large maid company that services private houses, supplemented by a "dietary aide" post at the weekend at a local nursing home. Once again, finding somewhere to live proved challenging (despite working seven days a week), but it was the interactions with her fellow maids that were most memorable here. One worker survived on half a bag of corn chips to get her through the working day because she was too frightened to spend any more money than this on lunch, while another fainted at work due to a combination of eating too little and suspected malnutrition - a third desperately called around looking for a free dental service to treat her impacted wisdom tooth, as health insurance was unaffordable to someone earning $6.65 an hour. The situation in Minnesota wasn't any better, with work as a Wal-Mart "associate" proving demoralising and exhausting. The account of one fellow worker asking about a reduced polo shirt but turning it down upon finding the price had only gone down to $7 was telling; spending a whole hour's wage on one top was just not feasible.

      The result of all this labour is a book that is explosive. At turns angry, outraged, shocked and frustrated, Ehrenreich has produced an account that shows how the almost invisible workers of America's low wage economy exist, encountering too many cases of poor health, insecurity and borderline homelessness for comfort. What of other support networks to replace what was one provided by the government? Twice Ehrenreich tries to supplement her limited cash by asking after assistance from charitable organisations. There is no money to be given out, but after doggedly pursuing each case she managed to secure some free food in two of the three settings she visited - and it was all the nutritionally-challenged fare that would do no more that fill a stomach. No fruit, no veg, nothing fresh. One of her starkest conclusions is that, "there are no secret economies that nourish the poor".

      Her car aside, the author does an admirable job of keeping costs low and making her experiments feel as real as possible. It is all too clear that wages are too low to cover minimal survival in a free market economy where both rich and poor compete for living space - and the rich invariably win. Ehrenreich writes that prior to August 1996, it was a common attitude for the well-off to look down upon the welfare poor as being lazy, and that removing the welfare safety would force people into work, a job being the understood ticket out of poverty. After clearly revealing how hard it is just to survive when the survivor is a healthy women with no dependents working both a full-time and part-time job simultaneously, while living in the meanest digs that safety will permit, suggests there is something very wrong here. Ehrenreich unfortunately doesn't go so far as to discuss much in the way of practical solutions - she suggests greater unionisation would help, but acknowledged that most workers she met were too exhausted and demoralised for this to be easy - but that is the only real fault I can find with this book.

      "Now that the government has withdrawn it's 'handouts', now that the overwhelming majority of the poor are out there toiling in Wal-Mart or Wendy's - well, what are we supposed to think of them? Disapproval and condescension no longer apply, so what outlook makes sense?". The answer? Guilt and shame as far as the author in concerned. Whether or not you agree with this conclusion, one thing is for certain - no one who reads it will ever fail to tip in America again.

      Highly recommended.


      == Book Details ==
      Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
      2001, 221 pages
      There are various editions available on Amazon (including one subtitled "undercover in low wage America"), which will cost from £3 for a new paperback copy.

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      • More +
        13.05.2004 06:52
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        A book about the difficulty of living on the minimum wage

        I heard about this book from email friends in the US and was astonished that a book on low pay had gained so much attention. I'm very glad it did and I hope it inspires some of its readers to joining in the pursuit of change.

        A US journalist and writer, with a good income and comfortable standard of living, Barbara Ehrenreich became a low paid worker in 3 sectors in different US cities, taking the jobs and trying to make ends meet on the wages, with the intention of writing about her experiences.

        One of the dangers of a book like this is that it can appear patronising. And how can someone who's only sampling life as a poor person really know what it's like in the long term? One of the things I liked about this book was Ehrenreich's refreshing honesty in regularly asking herself that question, and acknowledging the importance to her of the times she was able to step out of this low paid drudge life.

        The jobs

        Waitressing in Key West, Florida, near to home. She worked in several different diners and restaurants, each with its own pros and cons. Apart from the low wages, there are often no real breaks, though the jobs vary in their intensity.

        Cleaning in Maine - she worked for a maid service. Adding insult to injury in this job are the attitudes of those who the maids clean homes for to the workers, on all kinds of levels.

        Wal-Mart in the Twin Cities, Minnesota - here Ehrenreich has to face drug and attitude testing as well as the pay issue.

        What runs through all these stories though is not just that the work is often tedious and unpleasant, and that management have lots of ways to make life harder for the workers. There is lots of camaraderie and the author and her colleagues help each other. Ehrenreich faces all that with humour; after all sh
        e can get out.

        What takes its tool on the writer is the struggle to find somewhere to live. Without a deposit and given high rents, it's impossible on minimum wage to afford somewhere to live - one striking moment is finding out the rent for a trailer - being trailer park trash is an aspiration, comments Ehrenreich.

        Highlights for me in the book are Ehrenreich's great writing and sense of humour throughout. I also liked the bits where she talks to colleagues about a union, particularly at Wal-Mart. Writing about it later, she is able to include stories of what was happening around then in other stores.

        Ehrenreich also spends some time writing about management attitudes towards the workforce, and analysing corporate induction/indoctrination programmes and propaganda. I found this really fascinating and sometimes shocking reading, especially in the Walmart section.

        Another interesting part is the stories of Ehrenreich's colleagues, who of course are probably stuck in this life forever, and the challenges they face. Ehrenreich makes the point that she is not special or exceptional in any way in this world in intelligence or anything, and admits to finding this hard to get used to - she lives by her brain normally.

        The weakest part of the book is the conclusion - I share her dreams of workers organising for greater justice but I can't quite believe in the optimism of the conclusion given how grim what has gone before are.

        I originally read the US edition from the library but I own the UK paperback edition. This has an intro from Polly Toynbee, an English journalist who has also tried living life as a low paid worker twice. This seems like a good idea but it doesn't really add much to a book which doesn't need it. I read Toynbee's own more recent book, Hard &
        #87;ork and thought the Ehrenreich book was a lot better - in writing quality, use of humour and perhaps I felt her views were closer to what mine would be.

        I'm pleased to see this book getting attention still, and plan to read more by Barbara Ehrenreich, who has recently co-authored a book on women in the global economy.

        Paperback 240 pages (25 July, 2002)
        Publisher: Granta Books; ISBN: 1862075212
        cover price £8.99 - Amazon offer it at £5.62 (as of 07.09.11)

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        • More +
          12.12.2003 21:15
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          Amazon has a lot to answer for, namely for making me buy more books. Now and then I'll log in, find a book I've bought in the past and enjoyed and scroll down to the part where it says "Customers who bought this also bought...." to see if there are any books on the list that look like fun. That's how I got sent to a book called "Hard Work, Low Pay", about live in low pay Britain, and from there, after reading and enjoying that book, I made the jump myself to this one - along the same lines but set in the USA. Barbara Ehrenreich is an American journalist with a distinguished career behind her. The sort of person who can command her own fees, work as and when she feels like it and live in a nice house eating nice food and taking nice holidays. But for this book she turns her back on that comfortable life, and sets out across America, investigating the realities of being a working woman paid an appallingly low salary. From waitressing to cleaning, from folding clothes to feeding patients, she lives a less desirable life for the course of the book, all in the name of investigative reporting. It's expected that people can live and support families on jobs paying $6 or $7 per hour, but can they really? Starting in her home state of Florida, she sets about finding herself a job, a home and a whole new lifestyle. But even for someone taking the process seriously, she is aware that "With all the real-life assets I've built up in middle age - bank account, IRA, health insurance" she is not going to be able to "experience poverty or find out how it really feels". Still, she does her best, denying herself contact with her old life and resisting the temptations that this offers (ATMs, email, meals in Michelin starred restaurants) and generally trying to integrate herself in her new community and position in society. She changes jobs relatively frequently, motivated by higher salaries, better worki
          ng conditions or work less physically demanding, as many others would in her situation, and moves from state to state in search of a better deal. It's a book strewn with useful nuggets of information and littered with statistics which back up her tales - it may seem odd that she ends up living in a relatively expensive motel for a few weeks, for example, but in fact this is what many others in her situation do, unable to afford down-payments on apartments. The investigation was obviously done with some care as there don't seem to be any questions remaining in my mind after reading it a few times - all points touched on are explained in detail, and backed up with details of supporting studies if appropriate. Ehrenreich also details some other possible outcomes that would have been beyond the scope of her project to explore - what if she had got that apartment? What if she had been 10 years younger? What if she had started her project at a different part of the tourist season and so on, but even these sometimes more favourable results are disheartening. The conclusions at the end of the book are pretty clear - it may not be impossible, but it's pretty darn tough. The book is interesting in a detached sort of way - while everything she says is worth reading, it still seems hard to identify with the people who feature in her anecdotes, as they don't seem especially real. But, it's well-written and more novel-style than a lot of non-fiction books, making it flow like a story rather than stop and start like a scientific investigation. It's a book lots of people seem to have read (people at my gym, on the train to London and in my local library have all managed to start discussions with me about it), and is available in a nice, small, UK paperback edition for £8.99. Worth a read if you're interested in class, salaries or American life, or just hunger for a chunky read at the moment.

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          With some 12 million women being pushed into the labour market by welfare reform, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to find out just how they were going to survive on the wages of the unskilled-at six to seven USD an hour, only half of what is considered a living wage.