Thursday, April 23, 2015

Review of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Nickel and Dimed is a book I've been wanting to read for ages (see: here), but I didn't realize that as soon as I picked it up from the library that I'd devour it in one day - almost in one sitting.  It was compelling, devastating, heartbreaking, and funny all at the same time.  If you're looking for a (nonfiction) book that will make you seriously think about how to change the world, go now and read this one.

Okay.  Phew! Now down to it.

Basic plot: (from Barnes and Noble) Millions of Americans work full time, year round, for poverty-level wages. In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that a job -- any job -- can be the ticket to a better life. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 an hour?

To find out, Ehrenreich left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered. Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, she worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. She lived in trailer parks and crumbling residential motels. Very quickly, she discovered that no job is truly "unskilled," that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you [intend] to live indoors. 

Nickel and Dimed reveals low-rent America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity -- a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate stratagems for survival. Read it for the smoldering clarity of Ehrenreich's perspective and for a rare view of how "prosperity" looks from the bottom. You will never see anything -- from a motel bathroom to a restaurant meal -- in quite the same way again.

On a scale from 1 to Cripplingly Depressing: Oh, man.  I would say that the realism - the reality of the situations she describes in this book - is what makes it a serious read.  I found myself asking: How do you build community or a positive outlook in these situations? How do you in any way get out?  If I were working in one of the places she worked, I don't know that I could have read this book.  That said, Ehrenreich is tremendously funny and honest, which kept the book buoyant.

Thoughts: Ehrenreich wrote this book over ten years ago, and it doesn't seem as though (minimum) wages have gone up very much - from 1998 to 2008 to 2015.  So what happens when the job market, even for low wage jobs, tanks? For years? Ehrenreich used the word "shameful" to describe what's been going on - and it is.  The middle class bubble she talks about was something I'd never thought of in that way, and it seems very, very true.  Additionally, one of my favorite things about the book was how beautifully she captured the interactions and relationships between co-workers.  You really get a sense of people in the workspace, not case studies.

Teeth-gnashing: There aren't really any resolutions to the problems she presents.  I don't think that the point of the book was to solve the problems, since they are so huge, but it would have been nice to know what I could do when I finished reading.

Memories from reading: Got home from the library and couldn't even wait to put everything away before I started reading.  Green gingham chair all the way.

Weapon of Choice: Paperback!

Other titles by this author:
Living With A Wild God: A Non-believer's Search for the Truth About Everything
Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America
Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream

Have you read anything by Barbara Ehrenreich? What have you read recently that's been all-consuming, or left you thinking about it long after you were done?

(If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.)

No Comments Yet, Leave Yours!