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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Nickeled and Dimed

Author: Barbara Ehrenreich
Rating: 5/5
Reason for Reading: Recommendation by Eva, In Their Shoes Reading Challenge

Poverty, especially in relation to Welfare is an uncomfortable topic. Get two people with different viewpoints going on the subject, and your carefully planned dinner party could quickly end in disaster.

Barbara Ehrenreich, who in normal life spends her time as a writer, decided to spend 3 months as a blue-collar worker to see what it was like to live on the wages offered by the likes of Walmart and other low-paying jobs of similar ilk.

The result is a fascinating first-hand account of the struggle to make ends meet on meager wages. Ehrenreich started as a waitress in Key West, then a maid and dishwasher in Maine, and finally as a Walmart employee in Minnesota.

She reports in the introduction that "The first thing I discovered is that no job, no matter how lowly, is truly "unskilled". Every one of the six jobs I entered into in the course of this project required concentration, and most demanded that I master new terms, new tools, and new skills."

Ehrenreich reports on the exhaustion of standing on her feet for 8 or more hours in a row, the humiliation of mandatory drug tests, having her first paycheck held (as is the custom in many low-paying jobs), the managers who spend all their time looking over everyone's shoulder to yell at the smallest mistake, the seedy rent by the week motels she stayed at, and the complete and utter inadequacy of $7 an hour to pay for all of the lodging, food, clothing, and payphone expenses.

Among her coworkers, those who are not lucky enough to have a boyfriend, parent or child to split housing costs with have found solutions such as sleeping in their cars or staying at cheap motels. While working as a maid, Ehrenreich reports a particularly harrowing story about a coworker who apparently eats next to nothing. When she trips in a hole and hears something snap, she refuses medical attention because there are no sick days, and besides, she doesn't have any insurance. Ehrenreich recalls reaming out their boss over the phone to let her coworker have the day off. The next day, she went to work, uncertain if she would still have a job.

At the maid company, most of her coworkers had injuries of some kind or another from the hard work, even though the pay is sparse. Reflecting on the toll exacted on the maids, Ehrenreich states:

So ours is a world of pain-managed by Excedrin and Tylenol, compensated for with cigarettes and, in one or two cases and then only on weekends, with booze. Do the owners have any idea of the misery that goes into rendering their homes motel-perfect? Would they be bothered if they did know, or would they take a sadistic pride in what they have purchased-boasting to dinner guests, for example, that their floors are cleaned only with the purest of human tears?

This book like this was a glimspse into a world I've never been a part of, not really. Personally, my closest brush with poverty came when I returned from a semester abroad and spent a desperate month with no money in reserve and grocery and rent to pay. But even then, I had advantages most poor do not. My fiancee (now husband) bought me groceries and an extra student loan came in just enough time to keep me from overdraft fees. The memory of how humiliated I felt at having to ask someone else to buy me groceries (even though it was my fiancee!) has made me very determined in life not to wind up in the same situation. But to be forced into that position not for a month, but for years and years, with little possibility of change.... it is truly beyond my power of imagination. Ehrenreich's story brings a much needed human element to the discussion on welfare reform and poverty. She is an excellent writer, and she weaves her own stories along with that of her coworkers into a compelling and moving read.


Andi said...

Great review. I've often thought of picking this one up, but given all the hype a few years ago, I never did. I'm definitely putting it on my Bookmooch list.

Chris said...

Wow..this sounds like such an amazing and important book..I've gotta read this. As bad as I think I have it sometimes, I have to admit that it could always be worse...Books like this need a wider audience. Thanks for the review!

Eva said...

I agree-I got insights into difficulties the poor face that I hadn't even considered before reading it. I've heard of another book, called Working (I think-something like that) that deals with the same issues, so I'm hoping it's more well researched.

Anonymous said...

What a good book! I am going to see if I can find a copy.

Debi said...

Thanks for the review, Kim! I'm definitely going to pick this one up. Sounds like the kind of book that ought to be mandatory reading. I've never understood how some people can so lacking in empathy that they can blame the victims of poverty.

Trish said...

I'm always interested to read people's thoughts on this book because I read the book a few months ago and certainly could not relate either. I've had my penny-pinching days, but not to the extreme of the women (and men) in this book. Certainly and eye-opening read!

Kim L said...

andi-isn't it funny how hype makes you avoid a book sometimes? This one is definitely worth reading!

chris-yes it is that. I think part of what makes it great is that the author restrains herself from getting on too many rants, she does a good job of just telling the story.

eva-no kidding! I would never have thought about living in a motel because I didn't have the money for a down payment.

j. kaye-I do hope you like it!

debi-I couldn't agree more. Too often those who have never experienced crushing poverty can't fathom what its like and make all sorts of judgements.

trish-yes, I think it was def. an eye-opening read. The stories were hard to relate to, but they made you think!

N.Vasillis said...

I've heard such great things about this book. I'm definitely putting it on my TBR list.