Nickel and Dimed

I finally finished Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. It was quite a compelling read, and I don’t use that word a lot. Though I read it mostly in chunks (nonfiction is easier to put down), it was an easy-to-read narrative style without a lot of numbers or facts at once.

In an undercover social experiment to see whether she was able to survive as one of the working poor, author Barbara Ehrenreich temporarily leaves her comfortable lifestyle and for six months takes only low-wage jobs in three different locations: Florida, Maine, and Minnesota.

This is not an economic analysis as I originally suspected. Rather, she takes an honest look at her own experiences, as well as occasionally the stories of her coworkers. In this lifestyle there is no “success,” merely failure or survival. These are ordinary people from all walks of life, single and with families, who work hard and are still barely able to get by.

We have so many misconceptions about what it’s really like, and it’s scary to see how fast things can pile up. If you live from paycheck to paycheck and can’t save enough to give the first month deposit on an apartment, you go to a motel. There you can pay by the week, but with the downside of an added cost. If there is no kitchenette included you can’t cook, which means prepackaged meals or fast food, both unhealthy and more expensive. It’s even harder for those with children. Most of the people she encounters double up by crashing with relatives or sharing rent with a boyfriend.

The jobs themselves struck closer to home for me. For most of my life so far I’ve been a minimum wage worker myself, never earning more than $8. 50 an hour, though compared to this book that sometimes seems extravagant. It’s enough, however, to cover groceries while I’m at school and start paying back loans, with pocket money on the side. I’ve done a couple summers in retail, and though I don’t mind at the time I can’t imagine making a life out of it. As much as I enjoy helping customers and keeping merchandise organized (true, not sarcasm), doing the same thing day after day gets tedious and thankless. And summer’s empty stores are a stark contrast to the Christmas season rush.

I’ve also worked in a small independent store, which I love a million times more even though the pay is less. There is a sense of ownership, of purpose and connection, instead of corporate greed. I think it would be interesting to survey workers in both types of stores and compare their opinions.

What strikes me the most however, is that for low-wage workers it is a job (and often two at a time), not a career, that they go off to each day. I’ve spent four years and college tuition training to be a teacher, and personally can’t wait to begin working. Even during student teaching I went to school each morning with a passion I never felt at the department store. And I think that makes a huge difference, working at something you love as opposed to working only to get by.

At some points I wished she would have focused more on her coworkers’ situations, especially at times when her own came across as impostered. For example, few single women would look for housing by themselves instead of buddying up, and the way she cut herself off from most human contact when not on the job emphasised that this was an experiment. I’ve always tried to be aware of issues relating to poverty and social justice, and this book still gave me things to think about. it doesn’t really ask questions, let alone pose solutions. It does, however, paint a picture of situations that often get overlooked.

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Published in: on July 11, 2009 at 12:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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