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Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
By Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books
221 pages, $23

While researching her latest book, Barbara Ehrenreich performed what the millennial culture of greed must surely regard as an experiment in insanity: She embarked on a course of intentional downward mobility. At a time when a reader of the business pages couldn't scan three paragraphs without bumping into the adjective "high-flying," she decided to see what life was like for those who stock shelves, scrub toilets, serve food and generally do the heavy lifting of the American economy.

Nickel and Dimed thus emerges as a welcome corrective to all the breathless gushing about the new economy, the end of the business cycle and the inexorable expansion of the investor class. Granted, the business press, smelling fear among the markets, has rushed to cover the slaughter of the bulls in recent months. But the sad stories it tells generally involve paper millionaires whose fortunes went up in smoke, or market analysts whose reputations have tanked. What happened to the human guinea pigs of welfare reform? No one in the coddled corporate media seems to know. What's life like for workers on a single-digit hourly wage? No one seems to care.

Ehrenreich became a wage slave at the behest of Harper's editor Lewis Lapham, who,

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Ehrenreich sheepishly tells us, made the suggestion over a "comparatively sumptuous" lunch of salmon and field greens in a Manhattan bistro. Soon thereafter she was on the other side of the server-customer exchange, in a Key West restaurant that was a far cry from the "understated country-French style" surroundings where the project was hatched.

Her goal was simple. She wanted to see whether she could venture off on her own, find adequate housing and match income to expenses at the $6 or $7 per hour that a substantial share of the American work force earns. Granted, her experiment was far from pure. She's a native English speaker, has a Ph.D. and is in good health. These attributes already give her vast advantages over much of the low-wage work force, though she fudges the extent of her education on application forms.

Other advantages, though, give her project less urgency than it might have had. She keeps an ATM card handy in case she runs out of money for food, a luxury not available to the typical low-wage worker. She also resolves to have a car at all times--either her own or a rental model procured with a credit card. "I just figured that a story about waiting for buses would not be very interesting to read," she says, as if a story about working as a waitress or a maid is inherently gripping. It's not, of course; the trick is in the telling. A strict desire for verisimilitude would have compelled her to do without these two conveniences, especially the car. Maneuvering between affordable housing and the workplace is a logistical nightmare for many Americans, given the shoddy state of public transportation.

These quibbles aside, the results of Ehrenreich's experiment are rife with keen sociological insights. As a maid, she witnesses the odd mixture of paranoia and obliviousness with which the upper classes regard those who buff their floors and polish their porcelain. As a waitress, she notes that she and her co-workers "utilize whatever bits of autonomy we have to ply our customers with the illicit calories that signal our love. ... [We] control the number of butter patties our customers get and the amount of sour cream on their baked potatoes. So if you wonder why Americans are so obese, consider the fact that waitresses both express their humanity and earn their tips through the covert distribution of fats."

Later, in Minneapolis, she applies for jobs at Menard's and Wal-Mart, which require her to pass a drug test. This spooks her because "there has been a chemical indiscretion in recent weeks, and I'm not at all sure I can pass." Why do these mega-retailers care if their employees roll a joint to unwind on the weekend? Essentially, the test's purpose is to put the employee on the defensive from the beginning. It's a bit like installing an "anti-theft device" at the entry to a store. Now and then it will beep randomly (just as drug tests will sometimes erroneously come back positive), and it casts suspicion on all who enter, giving capital a psychological edge.

Capital has other strategies to maintain its domination. Help-wanted ads run

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perpetually to ensure a steady stream of applicants, even when no jobs are available--thus issuing a subtle threat to employees who dare question wages or working conditions. Employers rig the application process so that when jobs are open, prospective hires move directly from paperwork and personality tests to orientation, bypassing any opportunity for negotiation of pay or benefits. And, naturally, unions are bad-mouthed as corrupt, collectivist, Bolshevik bureaucracies at odds with core American values.

Affordable housing, though, is an even bigger problem for the working poor, many of whom don't have the up-front money needed to pay a deposit and first and last month's rent. This relegates many to pay-by-the-week (or even by-the-day) residence motels, which can eat up half or more of take-home earnings. Others live three or four to a room, or even in their vehicles. As the overall economy soars, the housing crunch only worsens as new wealth drives up property values for rich and poor alike.

Ehrenreich offers no panaceas to these problems. But she does a service merely by showing how grindingly difficult it is to make ends meet. Even she couldn't do it, eventually falling back on various pre-arranged safety nets--and she possessed advantages others only dream of. She also gives us candid glimpses into the lives of her low-wage colleagues, who are smarter, wittier and more resourceful than the rare media exposŽ makes them out to be.

And her final point is one worth pondering amid the cascade of numbers telling us Americans have never had it better: "The 'working poor,' as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else."

Philip Connors is editor of the literary magazine Croonenberghs' Fly, whose first issue will be published this spring. His e-mail address is [email protected]

 

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