Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I've been meaning to read this book for years. My book club is reading it this month, which is as good an excuse as any.
Barbara Ehrenreich is fairly well-known in liberal circles for this book. I'd already read her
Bait and Switch
, about the job hunt in today's market, and I found it an eye-opening look at the exploitative industry around getting one's foot in the door. I think that one may have been more informative. Or maybe it's because this book's main talking points have become such a part of the cultural knowledge. I didn't learn anything new, because I'd already heard most of the useful information from other sources who'd filtered it through their biases.
You don't have to move to a strange new city with two thousand dollars and the drive to find a minimum wage job to know that there's something off about people forced to work two or three jobs just to meet the basic cost of living. Reports like this one highlight the extreme discrepancy between minimum wage and rent, a gap that widens every time rent prices go up. Meanwhile, Seattle is gradually lifting its minimum wage to $15/hour, while Massachusetts settles on $10.50 or $11. These changes aren't a direct result of this book, but it did give a voice to those too exhausted from working absurd hours. The book illustrates a system of people too ground down to fight the common refrain that they're too lazy to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
The book isn't perfect. Ehrenreich starts off with little empathy for those living on minimum wage, and often holds herself above them. She never acknowledges the opportunities and luck that allowed her to get an education and a job that paid well. She skims over the advantages in the color of her skin, but doesn't examine in any depth how much harder the struggle might be if she were a different race. The book is best viewed as the start of a conversation, not the entire answer.
The book's greatest strength is in asking for empathy for waitstaff, retail workers, and cleaners. Ehrenreich is consistently amazed at how her co-workers soldier on, despite worse living conditions than what she'll accept and awful nutrition. It never quite sinks in, for her, that this is their lives. They don't get to walk away from their jobs after a month of misery. They have to accept their lot, because they can't afford a few weeks of no income while they scrabble for something closer to home or that pays a little more.
Hopefully those points sink in with the reader. Anything that opens people's eyes to the reality they're asking their service industry workers to live with is a positive, in my view.
But then, when I lived this reality, it wasn't an experiment. I may have a job that uses my degree now, but I haven't forgotten how dehumanizing it was to work retail.
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