Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Booknote: Nickel and Dimed

Title: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America.
Author: Barbara Ehrenreich
Publication Information: New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001.
ISBN: 0805063889
Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: Current affairs, Labor studies, economics.

I had been meaning to read this book for a while; it was a common choice for some freshman composition classes back in Houston. I saw some of the reviewers over in (where I keep my reading list), and a good number were less than sympathetic. I did try to reserve judgment until reading the book. Now that I have read it, I can see that a lot of those unsympathetic people probably have never had to do some hard "unskilled" work at any given time.

The author goes out from academia to work in "unskilled" jobs as a maid, a Wal-Mart employee, a waitress, and a nursing home assistant. What she finds is that these jobs require a lot more skill than it would appear. Also, it is very clear that the poor folks who work at these jobs are not making it in terms of their overall quality of life, to put it mildly. Basically, these are jobs that pay miserably, barely providing enough for anyone to make any kind of living. And these are hard jobs that also require some degree of skill and concentration. Add to this issues with housing and other needs, and you can clearly see why this is a problem. The author shatters the myth that poor people are so only because they are lazy or won't get a better job. The evidence points to the fact that the deck is stacked against them from issues in housing (for instance, it is not particularly easy to get an apartment without a substantial deposit and first month's rent) to geography to child care. One of the reviewers on the GR site actually expounded the elitist view of, to be polite, that certain people just should not breed. Let's leave it at that, shall we? In the end, it is not as easy as that. And that is just some of the conditions and obstacles they face from society. If you factor in some of the unethical (for example, withholding a person's first paycheck) and just downright abusive practices from these employers, then the picture is really bleak.

The book is not perfect. While the author does an excellent job in exposing the situation, she can get a bit preachy at times. This takes away from the narrative, and I think lessens the impact a little bit. However, the author does support a lot of her assertions with documentation in footnotes. I found those footnotes interesting; they added an additional element of realism and evidence to her arguments.

And if you think charity aid agencies are any better, you better think again. When the author finds herself in need of them, she finds a chilling degree of insensitivity and just plain cluelessness. See her passage about the box of food aid she gets in Minneapolis (mostly useless stuff like candy). And then people have the gall to say the poor have poor eating habits? This instance was during her stint at Wal-Mart, which is notorious for their workers needing to go on welfare or seek other public assistance to supplement Wal-Mart's meager salaries or miserable health insurance. But don't take my word for it. Read this book. And if Ehrenreich is not enough, you can also read Stacy Mitchell's Big-Box Swindle (see my note on that book here).

The book had a lot of passages that caught my eye. I am only going to highlight a few here:

  • "Or maybe it's low-wage work in general has the effect of making you feel like a pariah [this was during her stint as a maid, observing how maids are pretty much invisible in society]. When I watch TV over my dinner at night, I see a world in which almost everyone makes $15 an hour or more, and I'm not just thinking of the anchor folks. The sitcoms and dramas are about fashion designers or schoolteachers or lawyers, so it's easy for a fast-food worker or nurse's aide to conclude that she is an anomaly--the only one or almost the only one, who hasn't been invited to the party. And in a sense she would be right: the poor have disappeared from the culture at large, from its political rhetoric and intellectual endeavors as well as from its daily entertainment" (117-118).
  • And to answer those people who say that the poor just don't behave in a rational way, you know, the ones who say, why not walk out and get a better job? Here is what the author has to say: "So, if low-wage workers do not always behave in an economically rational way, that is, as free agents within a capitalist democracy, it is because they dwell in a place that is neither free nor in any way democratic. When you enter the low-wage workplace--and many of the medium-wage workplaces as well--you check your civil liberties at the door, leave America and all it supposedly stands for behind, and learn to zip your lips for the duration of the shift. The consequences of this routine surrender go beyond the issues of wages and poverty. We can hardly pride ourselves on being the world's preeminent democracy, after all, if large numbers of citizens spend half their waking hours in what amounts, in plain terms, to a dictatorship" (210).
Now, this book came out in 2001. It is still very relevant today. Personally, I found interesting the experience of reading it right after I read Dobbs's book (note here). While Dobbs is focusing more on the middle class, he still manages to address some of the issues that Ehrenreich rises on her book as well.

In the interest of disclosure, I will say that I have worked as a waiter and in fast food. Little tidbit about being a waiter. Since I am fully fluent in English, I was able to work as a waiter. However, since I am a native Spanish speaker as well, it meant I could make friends with the dishwashers and kitchen help, which were mostly Hispanic (Mexican to be precise; I am Puerto Rican). I mention that because, as Ehrenreich notes in her book, when it comes to food service, there is a certain hierarchy. I was able to, well, navigate it a bit. Anyhow, it was hard and demanding work. Anyone who says it is simply "unskilled" work simply has no clue.

Similar books: well, for some, maybe Dobbs book may be of interest. However, I would recommend the works of Jonathan Kozol for a similar feel.

No comments: