Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Just Finished: Nickel & Dimed

Journalist Barbara Ehreneich's exploration into the world of America's working class is an important book but, in some ways, disappointing book. In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Ehrenreich spends a month or so each in three different cities where she works as a waitress, maid, Wal-mart employee and other minimum wage jobs.

She acknowledges from the beginning that she's starting her experiment at an economic and physical advantage to those who rely completely on such jobs for survival. Ehrenreich gives herself a start up budget (also something the average joe wouldn't have) and sets out to find an apartment and jobs in each location. She discovers pretty quickly that cheap but decent housing a convenient distance from jobs is hard to find and working only one job is never enough to cover expenses (or get proper rest and nutrition).

In each job some significant law (or at least ethical code) is broken - a table outside the bathroom door instead of a break room (and no breaks to speak of), overtime with no overtime pay, exposure to toxic chemicals, etc. Ehrenreich marvels at her uncomplaining co-workers who don't try to assert their rights or look for better positions. Several jobs also keep the first month's pay of employees, which is a major deterrent for already strapped employees to switch to a better job.

Throughout Ehrenreich's three cities, she discovers how hard it is for honest, unskilled workers to get ahead. Everything is stacked against them from the lack of health care to scarce housing to poor food options. Even getting assistance turns out to be a nearly impossible task.

It's hard to read this book and look at the woman folding clothes at Wal-mart without a new respect. While some look down on the unemployed or poor, this book shows how hard it is to break even without the resources you naturally have if you come from a more affluent, educated background. Imagine trying to go to night school on minimum wage after working 10 hours with 2 15-minute breaks, gas prices on the rise, driving a jalopy, etc. It's nearly impossible and a few mistakes earlier in life can mean falling into a demeaning cycle of poverty.

My biggest issue with the book is that Ehrenreich's own experience rings a bit untrue. I wanted her to stick it out longer, but she doesn't spend very long at any location. (Who would want to if they could go back to the upper middle-class?) Her experiment would have been more valuable after a year trying to survive. I also would have liked to hear from Ehrenreich's co-workers directly, rather than her assumptions after a month or so with them.

Still, I think it's a topic we need to see from the inside and a crucial one for everyone (especially the Christian community) to be acquainted with. These are the poor and the widows and we need to figure out how to share the wealth.