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Down and (Almost) Out in America
Nickel and Dimed: Undercover in Low-wage America - Barbara Ehrenreich
Member Name: collingwood21
Nickel and Dimed: Undercover in Low-wage America - Barbara Ehrenreich
Advantages: Engaging writing, Undercover journalism turned into compelling storytelling
Disadvantages: The author stops short of discussing practical solutions
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.
== 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.
Summary: A shocking investigation into low pay and poor working conditions in the US
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