Friday, March 4, 2011

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

Although this book wasn't really about writing, I reviewed it on Reading 4 Writers back in September of 2006. Since I shut down my old writing-book review blog, I brought over the original review to share with you here, on Livre du Jour.

iconiconThis book, I am well aware, is not a book about writing or being a writer, per se; however, the book had a powerful impact on me as a writer, so I thought it should have a place on my blog.

In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, the writer Barbara Ehrenreich decides to find out what it's like to work minimum wage jobs in America. In order to do this, she goes undercover in three different cities, working as a waitress and a housekeeper at a hotel in one, working for a maid service (The Maids) in another, and working at Wal-Mart in the third. In each scenario, she finds it virtually impossible to squeak by on her earnings: affordable housing (at least, affordable housing for someone making $6 or $7 an hour) is difficult to find, not to mention unsafe and unsanitary when she does find it. In two of the three cities, she tries working two jobs, and still is barely able to pay rent, utilities, and food - and of course, working two jobs leaves her mind-numbingly exhausted.

This portrayal of the lowest class is definitely something to think about, especially since Ehrenreich was a single woman - think of all of those with several children to support, trying to do it on $7 an hour! Our culture is so judgmental of these people, yet it's almost our fault they are where they are: we keep repealing welfare assistance, saying that it's these people's own fault that they are poor, because all they would need to do is go out and get a job. Well, Ehrenreich has shown that is not the case: the minimum wage jobs available cannot even pay the bills, much less pull someone out of poverty.

Ehrenreich also talked about how the system - especially in places like Wal-Mart - worked to keep the poor in their place. Management who doesn't let employees "gossip" (i.e. talk amongst themselves at all), threatenes to fire them for discussing their wages (which, as I learned in this book, is actually illegal according to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935), constantly makes them feel they have no rights by invading their privacy (through tactics such as reserving the right to search their purses, instituting random and pre-employment drug tests, and asking questions about one's personal life in interviews or on pre-employment questionnaires), and belittles them in a thousand other little ways - these tactics are engineered to make the poor feel even more worthless and subhuman than they already do, trapping them emotionally as well as financially in the world of poverty.

The reason Ehrenreich's book and its "discoveries" made such an impact on me as a writer is because, for one thing, I have experienced these manipulative, you-are-the-scum-of-the-earth jobs - as I am sure everyone has. I know what it's like to feel that belittled, and I have also seen that it makes people very catty and nasty to each other when they live and work in that type of world. However, I have also - as she has - escaped most of those issues by working for myself, as a writer. Although I don't consider my income to be in the top 20% of the population by any means, as she does, I do realize that I have spared myself many of these dehumanizing experiences.

This book was a reminder to me of why I should appreciate my writing life, even when I am slammed with deadlines and have no time for myself, or experiencing a slow period that hurts my finances. I would recommend this book to any writer who is in or out of the labor force, both for the revelations it offers and for the reminder of what it is like to be poor.

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