The Year of Overdue Books: Nickel and Dimed

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in AmericaNickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You know you're late to the party on the book when the author complains about $2 gas (p. 135), mocks the "new sensation" television show Survivor (p. 160), and imagines a day when one's "Palm Pilot displays the menu and prices for every restaurant or store he or she passes" (p. 206). Yes, this entry is a particularly good candidate for my Year of Overdue Books--books I should have read by now, that I'm finally reading. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America at the end of the Clinton Years, before the war on terror became "the focus of [President Bush's] administration." She wanted to see how effectively what constitutes a living wage (read minimum wage) allowed workers to live, especially in the wake of sweeping Clinton-era welfare reform that rushed people off the roles and and into the workforce. This is immersive, investigative journalism, the kind of fearless, fully committed writing that should (though sadly rarely does) change the world. Nickel and Dimed made massive waves when it came out, but twelve years on, to quote the 80s Australian protest band Midnight Oil, "the rich get richa; the poor get the pitcha" at an increasingly alarming rate. In an age where bosses get dipped in bronze and given messianic power on broadcast television shows such as The Apprentice and Undercover Boss, the book merits an urgent rereading and extrapolating to account for the wider gap between rich and poor, the higher numbers of working, desperate poor, the dramatically growing creativity in governmental austerity measures on their backs, and the steadily increasing unlikelihood that they'll be able to hoist themselves into the middle class.

The task Eirenheich, a middle-aged and one-percenter journalist, gave herself was to spend a month each in three representative communities (in Florida, Maine and Minnesota), attempting to cover all her basic needs (housing, transportation, food, clothing, medical care) through unskilled labor (waitressing, retail, housekeeping, etc.). Lesson number one: There's no such thing as unskilled labor. There are infinite ways of failing at the work on offer at these levels, and more to the point, there are complex procedures and social systems to master in the relentless effort to keep the boss and the customer satisfied. Maids are not allowed to swear, smoke or accept a cup of cold water from their clients; a broken ankle is maybe a reason to slow down but not a reason to call it a day. Talk of unionizing or dissatisfaction with management is "gossip" and "time theft" and won't be tolerated; your personal property can be searched without warning as a safeguard against company theft; if there's time to lean (say, because you're five weeks pregnant) there's time to clean. Management need not be so imperial, according to Ehrenreich; workers still have their pride, and their pride is almost wholly invested in their work. She makes the compelling case, one we've begrudgingly accepted about overseas labor practices but still doubt at home, that "when someone works for less pay than she can live on--when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently--then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. . . . To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else" (p. 221). Who's messianic now, Donald Trump?

The book works on two fronts: the job front, where we meet Ehrenreich's coworkers and ourselves in our more exploitative roles as Wal-Mart customers, family restaurant diners and homeowners who hire out the cleaning of our homes; and the home front, where we see Ehrenreich testing the limits of a living wage. If you use a cleaning service, I don't think you'll want to read about Ehrenreich's time in Maine; she suggests (again, compellingly) that the task at hand is not the cleanliness of the home--removing bacteria, mildew and allergens--but the appearance of cleanliness. Floors are meticulously swept and vacuumed, surfaces are carefully and methodically dusted, toilets are scrubbed; but management is stingy with resources, so the net effect is a house that is keeping up appearances, just as its owner is: Ehrenreich emphasizes the promise to homeowners that maids will clean floors on their knees, a posture of ultimate submissiveness and human degradation. Things aren't much better in retail or restauranting or the nursery home where she weekends; we pay for things to make us feel good about ourselves, more so than for things that are good for us; and apparently what makes us feel good about ourselves is for our fellow human beings to suffer.

The other side of the book--the home front--is more intimate, mainly because working two jobs in each city doesn't allow the author much time to socialize. The housing available to her given her means is modest and sad and sometimes scary; it's also shockingly hard to find. Working poverty is an irreducibly complex problem: everything costs money, and everything must orbit around the job, where a job can be found. So you take what you can get in a living situation so that you can make it to your job on time, without pouring too much money into a gas tank, so that you can keep your job, so that you can afford the place you found within an acceptable distance from your job. People in such situations don't sign long-term leases; they rent by the month or the week or sometimes the day, depending on what's available and how secure the job is and, maybe most important, how effectively they can circumnavigate the barriers to residency their landlords or their bosses throw at them. For the working poor, every market is a seller's market.

Nickel and Dimed was the kind of muckraking book that all journalists should aspire to. Muckrakers endure the hardship of their investigation as well as the persecution by the powers that be who don't like their business being discussed. They tell a story that people have conspired, often unwittingly but always on a massive scale, to ignore. I wish I had the courage or the stamina of Barbara Ehrenreich; the thing we need more than anything is to see the world we've made, as consumers and producers, as industrialists and capitalists. It's too easy not to see it, to settle for the simulacra we construct around ourselves and present to the world and our mirrors. Every once in a while someone needs to shout "The Emperor got his clothes so cheap because the discount superstore has suppressed the basic human rights of its workers!" And the rest of us need in that moment to listen, reflect, and figure out a way to set things right.

Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case. Ehrenreich's experiment in immersive journalism has been coopted by the entertainment industry to become reality television. Justice tourism allows the well-to-do to taste the hardship that many people suffer and learn how beautiful and dignified poor people are, learn to appreciate all that we have, learn that we have to start with the man in the mirror and make that change. We allow ourselves to feel just enough guilt to make ourselves feel penitent. "But guilt doesn't go anywhere near far enough," Ehrenreich tells us; "the appropriate emotion is shame--shame at our own dependency, in this case, on the underpaid labor of others. . . . Someday--and I will make no predictions as to exactly when--they are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they're worth. There'll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption. But the sky will not fall, and we will all be better off for it in the end" (p. 221).

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