Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich

Nickel and Dimed

Barbara Ehrenreich is a treasure. She’s a feminist who embodies few if any of the negative stereotypes of feminists. She can discover information, analyze it, and convey it with all the skills of an investigative reporter, a pundit, and an academic. She chooses interesting and important topics to write about, and addresses them in a consistently intelligent, insightful, and ethically and politically right-headed way. Plus she’s a hoot. Think Molly Ivins without the Texas twang.

I’ve read four of her books, and intend to read more in the future. Nickel and Dimed is my favorite of the four I’ve read.

Sometimes you read an important book on an important subject more out of duty than anything. You don’t expect it to be entertaining; you just expect to come away from it knowing more that you should know about the world than before you read it.

But aside from its other virtues, this is a genuinely entertaining, enjoyable read from start to finish, one of those rare “hard to put down” books of serious nonfiction.

This is the story of the author’s going undercover as a worker at the bottom of the food chain. She picks several jobs and several places around the country—a waitress in Florida, a maid in Maine, and a Walmart worker in Minnesota.

As she emphasizes repeatedly, she isn’t pretending that experiencing life in such jobs somehow enables her to know exactly what it feels like to be trapped in poverty, since she knows all along it’s temporary and she can call off the experiment whenever she wants and get back to her quite comfortable lifestyle. But she does make an effort to give her experiences some realism. She starts with a very minimal amount of money and material possessions in a city she hasn’t researched in depth and has no contacts, and she sets about trying to find a cheap place to live and a job.

She’s maybe a little surprised herself how real it feels to her once she gets into it. The book is written in an autobiographical style, and she brings you along for all the daily ups and downs, the surprises, the humiliations, the little triumphs, the blunders, etc. She pats herself on the back for some things and is self-deprecating about others.

Though it’s interesting how often in the former cases she goes on to point out that her successes are at least in part attributable to certain advantages she has that a lot of people in the working class lack, not to any great individual merit on her part. If she holds up reasonably well physically in a certain job, for instance, she knows this is in part due to the fact that in her real life she’s well fed, has gone to a gym regularly for years, has received high quality health care whenever she’s needed it, and hasn’t worked months and years at these jobs to where they would have broken down her body.

But as far as the authenticity in general, what I can say is that—as much as I’ve tried to avoid it—I’ve spent some time in the lower echelons of the labor market, and what she says feels very real to me.

Her experiences are almost wholly negative, but—again as she herself points out—it’s important to note that the lot of actual working poor people in America can be much worse.

She doesn’t have kids to support during this experiment, which is a huge difference between her and much of the poor right there. As hard as she finds it to do what she does, imagine the same circumstances while also having to generate enough of an income for multiple people to live on plus arrange child care and such.

Perhaps most importantly, she purposely chooses cities where the labor market indicates it should be reasonably easy to get a job, albeit a crappy job. So really this is about how miserable the working poor have it in this country, how hard it is to make ends meet and have any chance of climbing out of a hole to a better future even if you have a job. The people who can’t find work at all are clearly, all else being equal, in even worse shape.

The timing is important to understanding the context. Her experiment takes place in the relative boom years of the Clinton presidency. Welfare “reform” has just passed, with millions of people about to be thrown off the rolls. The claim is that things are set up to where they’ll be able to get jobs. Some people are more or less skeptical about that, but what’s rarely questioned is the notion that if people are employed they’ll be able to support themselves. That’s just what this book questions.

She finds out many interesting things on her journey, of which I’ll mention a few that happened to stand out to me. Some of them I can imagine people dismissing as all too obvious—like, we certainly don’t need some fancy schmancy investigative reporter to tell us that—but they still matter and they’re still worth pointing out and thinking about.

Housing, she finds, is generally the biggest issue for a person or family of limited means. In many places in the country, there is a major shortage of affordable housing.

People respond to this in various ways. Some really do end up homeless—in shelters or living on the street. More often they move in with each other, with all the tension and diminishing of quality of life that that entails. They crash on someone’s couch indefinitely, they stay with an abusive spouse or boyfriend, they impose on family members that really aren’t doing that much better than they are, etc.

When the working poor do have their own place to live, it’s definitely not a “you get what you pay for” situation, because they routinely get far less than they pay for. It’s a classic instance of the “it takes money to make money” principle, or really more the “it takes money to save money” principle. Because they don’t have enough money for a full month’s rent and deposit on a house or apartment, they end up paying much more over the long run to pay weekly or nightly at really bad motels.

And because they’re grossly overpaying for shelter, they have even less chance of saving up enough money to change that. A lot of other things are similar: decisions that people with money think of as self-evidently prudent may not be realistic for the poor.

Can you save money by buying certain things in bulk? Yes, but only if you have the money to do so (not to mention the space). In the long run will you spend less money if you buy a $5,000 used car in good shape that may well give you several years of headache-free use, compared to a $500 piece of junk that you’ll have to pump money into for endless repairs on a monthly if not weekly basis? Sure, but if it’s a major strain to be able to beg, borrow, or steal the $500, you sure as heck aren’t going to be able to come up with $5,000. Are you better off in the long run having health insurance and being diligent about preventive medicine? Probably so, but not when those upfront costs mean you won’t be able to afford to keep a roof over your head.

Sometimes poor people make dumb, irresponsible choices. But other times what look like dumb, irresponsible choices are really the least of the available evils.

She notes that employers loathe unions with a great intensity. Not surprising I suppose, but given how beaten down and toothless most unions are nowadays, it’s interesting the passion with which employers will lie, break the law, or do anything necessary to make sure they never have to confront a realistic threat of their work force unionizing.

An interesting discovery she makes is the racial hierarchy of work. In Florida she initially tries to get a maid job, but has to get a waitress job instead because no one wants to hire a white person to be a maid. In general, the shittiest jobs are reserved for minorities. That’s a sort of privilege for the white person, but not for a white investigative reporter trying to experience bad jobs. She chooses Maine as her second destination precisely because there aren’t enough African Americans and Latinos and such to take all the worst jobs.

I think what she captures especially well are the petty humiliations of being a low level worker in a capitalist system. That’s what I’ve always hated even more than the physical privations of trying to get by on a low income. If you could still do “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay” then there might be elements of it to complain about, but mostly that’s not so bad. Not everyone can live like a millionaire. But why do you have to be treated like shit in the process?

Think about the increasingly ubiquitous pre-employment drug tests. First of all, it’s not clear that even to some sort of purely amoral profit-seeking employer they make sense in terms of the benefits of fewer stoned people on the job (or whatever the alleged benefits are) outweighing the costs of the tests. That’s a close call at best.

But what’s interesting is that the degradation and violation of privacy of making people pee into a cup in front of a witness in order to find out what they might have done in the last few weeks before you hired them doesn’t enter into the calculations at all. It doesn’t, because workers are things, not people. They’re not to be thought of in terms of concepts like human dignity, any more than your printers, warehouses, or trucks are.

Furthermore, obtaining and keeping a job is largely an exercise in ritualistic lying. If you’re so morally pure that you’re going to be completely honest about the fact that you were fired from your last job, or the fact that you’re inclined to light finger the occasional office supplies to about the same degree the average person is, or the fact that you anticipate missing work an average of a couple days a month to take care of a sick child or elderly relative, or the fact that you’re frankly not all that enthused about this job but just need it for the money, then be prepared to starve.

The ridiculous pre-employment psychological questionnaires only make that bad situation much worse. Now part of the charade of play acting as the ideal employee who will function solely according to the will of the employer is to commit in advance to all kinds of specifics about ratting out your co-workers and such.

The author finds that with these tests (always presented, by the way, with the lie that “there are no right or wrong answers”), there is no level of servility that is too implausible. On one occasion where the test asks if you agree or disagree with certain statements and to what degree (i.e., “disagree completely,” “disagree strongly,” “disagree,” “agree,” “agree strongly,” “agree completely”), she mixes in an occasional “agree” or “agree strongly” with her mostly “agree completely” responses to statements like “It’s never OK to be late for work” or “I always have a positive attitude at work” or whatever such bullshit, because she expects she’ll lose points by being too extreme and thereby too obviously insincere. In fact, the opposite is the case. The interviewer brings up with concern only those statements to which she gave a response short of “agree completely,” and she’s required to then assure her that, yes, yes, on second thought she certainly does “agree completely” with those too.

Employers can’t possibly want only people stupid enough to sincerely give all the maximally debasing responses, since presumably there are so few of them (though the way people are now so routinely duped by Fox “News” and conservative pro-rich propaganda in general, maybe I shouldn’t be so confident of that), so it must be they’re looking for people so conformist, so aware of and so willing to abide by “the way the game’s played” as to know the expected answers and give them. Ritualistic lying.

Again, don’t like it? Unwilling to lie like that? Have fun starving.

Putting up with little indignations and injustices remains par for the course after you get the job. At her maid job, for instance, she was required to be at work by 7:30. They’d then be briefed on the day ahead, split into teams, and sent out in vehicles to the homes to be cleaned around 8:00. For pay purposes, their work day was interpreted as starting at 8:00, in spite of the fact that they physically had to be there by 7:30.

Then there’s the whole matter of putting up with asshole bosses. Not so much the corporate overlords themselves—they have the most effect on your life, but you don’t deal with them in person—but the managers and assistant managers who typically are working class themselves, but now get to be on a power trip and lord it over those a rung below them.

I’ve been through all this, and this book just brings back to me how thoroughly I detest it.

Not surprisingly, the author finds most of her co-workers apolitical and disinclined to interpret their lives and their relationships with their employers in terms of justice or morality. She encounters very, very few budding revolutionaries, or really even people who’d be open to the idea of a union.

My take on this is that while, again, there are a few Fox “News” dupes who accept the rights of the rich to treat others as they please due to their inherent superiority, mostly it’s not that they believe the system is just or their treatment is just, so much as that the question doesn’t arise for them.

In my experience, once you get outside of college classrooms and liberal blogs and such, the overwhelming majority of people experience social or economic reality the same as physical reality. It just is. As a sensible person, you deal with it. It does you no good to complain about it or get down about it, any more than complaining about rainy days or the fact that we’re mortal. Make the best life you can for yourself in the circumstances you find yourself in.

For that reason, I think many people would react to a book like this with the attitude of “What is all this pointless whining?” A self-help book they could understand, something that tells them how to maximize their chances of getting a job by creating a certain kind of resume, dressing a certain way, adopting a certain positive attitude, etc. That’s practical, realistic stuff that accepts the world as it is. But questioning the world? That makes a lot of folks decidedly uncomfortable.

In the end, she finds that even with the advantages she has over many poor people, and even though she is indeed employed fairly quickly in each of the three cities, she mostly can’t make it work. Even if she could stomach the indignities indefinitely, the income of full time employment (or more—like many poor people she tries to get an additional part time job where she can) isn’t enough to sustain her.

She draws the quite modest conclusion that there’s something wrong with that. If a person is willing to work a full time job or more, they are entitled to remain alive, and to have an existence of at least minimal comfort and human decency. Our society fails to live up to even that very, very, very low standard.

No matter how much the political right wants to lampoon and ridicule such statements, that really is just simple justice. It’s not “Oh, why don’t we just give everyone a sports car and a yacht, and a magic flying unicorn they can ride that shits rainbows while we’re at it, and they don’t even have to work for it! LOL!” If you’re willing to work 40 hours or more a week, you should have a decent, even if materialistically quite modest, life. That’s it.

But beyond the material rewards of employment, there is still the matter of how gratuitously insulting and degrading workers are routinely treated. That grates on me every bit as much as the inadequate pay.

Most workplaces are dictatorships. Literally. That’s the norm under capitalism. Most people spend a good portion of their waking hours living in a dictatorship situation.

Granted, you have the freedom to quit and (try to) get a job elsewhere, but is that true freedom? Was the only objectionable thing about the Iron Curtain countries that they made it difficult or impossible for their people to leave? If the world consisted solely of states like the old Soviet Union, with the exception that emigration was not restricted, would we celebrate that as a world of freedom?

Of course not. When people are treated unjustly and abominably, when they’re lied to, exploited, insulted, and required to behave in an utterly servile fashion, yes it’s nice if they have the right and opportunity to leave, but that’s not sufficient to render that situation morally acceptable.

I’m not going to pretend to know what to do about it. Maybe it’s just human nature that we’ll never achieve a political configuration that’s not unjust toward a massive segment of the population.

I suppose in my fantasies what I’d like to see, at least as a start, is some form of economic democracy. I believe it’s Article Four of the Constitution that guarantees the federal government and state governments fulfill some minimal level of republicanism (small r). That is, I take it, Delaware can’t become a dictatorship tomorrow and remain in the union.

What I envision is a requirement like that for all entities above a certain size. Maybe people shouldn’t have a right to buy and sell General Motors or Blue Cross or Google any more than they can buy and sell Ohio or Arizona. Much less should they be able to pass ownership on to their heirs, any more than Oregon may be governed by a hereditary monarchy and still remain in the union. Maybe all such entities should be required to structure themselves democratically, where the people who work there all have an equal say in choosing their representatives, i.e., their bosses.

Oh, but the entrepreneur who built the business thereby earned the right to own it and benefit from it in perpetuity! Baloney. No more did General Washington earn the right to be king by defeating the British. You can remain in charge as long as the people who work at your particular enterprise choose to vote for you for that role, and even then your powers will be less than dictatorial.

A fanciful notion I know. Probably could never work. But I know that the kind of situation the author describes in this book is repugnant and a mockery of any notion of freedom, and I know that having people exercise democratic control of their work environment on a day to day basis appeals to me far more than, for example, some kind of centralized socialist state calling the shots.

Anyway, I know I’ve gotten far afield, but a situation of blatant injustice, humiliation, and cruelty can get me fired up, especially when so many people can look at it and not see it.

Ehrenreich has the gift of not only making such ugliness manifest, but of doing it with far more grace, humor, and readability than I ever could. This is a politically important book, but it is absolutely not a dry, strident, dogmatic book. It’s a genuinely fun read, no matter how infuriating the reality it depicts.

One more quick point before I close. I suspect that one common negative reaction to this book would be to blame the poor for their own plight, to say that regardless of the accuracy of what the author says, “It’s their own fault! Whatever happened to personal responsibility in this country?!”

First off, let’s acknowledge that you can always find something that any poor person did that was wrong or imprudent. A lot of somethings, in fact. Maybe a person got pregnant too young, or got hooked on drugs. Maybe they lost their temper with a boss without thinking through the consequences of losing their job. Maybe they spent money on a vacation or cell phone minutes that they could have saved. Maybe they had the opportunity to take a community college class that could have made them qualified for a better job but they didn’t. Maybe they were irresponsible about keeping up with their bills and ruined their credit.

There is always stuff like that in anyone’s past. Always. None of us are perfect, including the poor.

But does it follow from that that it’s a mere acceptance of personal responsibility to regard the poor as to blame for their own plight? I don’t think we can make that leap from that premise.

To me, the point is that everyone is imperfect like that. I don’t contend that your mistakes and irresponsibility should have no consequences, that somehow if you and Hector come from the same circumstances, and you spend every penny you get on frivolous things and Hector diligently saves his money, that somehow you’re entitled to just as good a life as Hector.

But the consequences should be proportional. What I see around me are imperfect rich people who make all those mistakes and get away with them, and imperfect poor people who have miserable lives if they survive at all.

Rich people get countless second chances. Over 90% of the time they’re not rich because they did fewer irresponsible things than poor people (and certainly not because they “took more risks”—please!), but because they were born that way.

By all means let’s have a system where people who make responsible choices, defer gratification, take risks that improve society, etc. benefit from doing so. But that isn’t capitalism, not even close.

You can’t establish that the poor deserve to not be able to make ends meet just because you can point to at least one bad choice each of them made, because then we’d all deserve such lives of misery, imperfect sinners that we are. How about a little compassion, empathy, and justice, to go along with that faux personal responsibility?

That’s all my preaching for now. I strongly recommend Nickel and Dimed.


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