Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
By Barbara Ehrenreich
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
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,
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
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
Capital has other strategies to maintain its domination. Help-wanted
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 expos 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.