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'Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America' Book Review

More Relevant Than Ever, Barbara Ehrenreich's Book Reprinted in 2011 Edition

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Journalist and author Barbara Ehrenreich from P.O.V. 'Waging a Living' speaks onstage during the 2006 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour for PBS
[Frederick M. Brown]/[Getty Images Entertainment]/[Getty Images]
In 1998, while meeting with the editor of a major magazine to discuss ideas for an article, journalist and author Barbara Ehrenreich got it into her head to write about the life of the low-wage worker in the United States. Namely, she was interested in learning if the typical worker could earn enough in one month to cover food, basic expenses, rent and transportation to and from work.

But instead of interviewing these workers, Ehrenreich took it upon herself to go undercover and experience firsthand what it would be like to work these jobs, locate and live in low-rent housing, and count every penny to make ends meet.

Not a Living Wage

For a month at a time in three different parts of the country, Ehrenreich tried this total immersion "experiment" and found that even with her background, education, advantages as a white middle-class woman and knowledge that this was only temporary, it was a dehumanizing life.

A physically fit woman in her 50s with a Ph.D. and several books under her belt, Ehrenreich believed she was up to the task; initially, the prospect of getting a job -- starting in her hometown of Key West, Florida -- did not seem too daunting. Leaving out her real career history on job applications, she reasoned that she could explain her long break in employment due to marriage and childrearing, and that divorce had forced her to find work -- a very plausible scenario that reflects the experiences of millions of women in the workforce who earn little more than minimum wage.

Yet getting a job -- even in the boom economy of the late 1990s -- was incredibly difficult, even in places that acknowledged a "labor shortage."

Over the course of her "research" she worked as a waitress, nursing home aide, house cleaner, hotel maid, and Walmart store associate in women's fashions -- often holding down two jobs at a time to be able to earn enough to live on. In every situation, despite her best efforts, at the end of the month she was unable to cover her costs of living, particularly her rent, for the following month.

The 'Special Costs' of Being Poor

Ehrenreich soon discovers that the biggest crisis in this country is the lack of affordable housing for the working poor. In many communities, particularly vacation/resort locales which are highly dependent on cheap labor, no affordable housing exists; workers therefore must drive 30 or more miles out of town to find an apartment their wages can cover. Even when affordable housing is available, low-wage earners are unable to put money down in advance because they lack any savings to do so.As Ehrenreich learned firsthand:
There are no secret economies that nourish the poor. On the contrary, there are a host of special costs. If you can't put up the two months' rent you need to secure an apartment, you end up paying through the nose for a room by the week. If you have only a room, with a hot plate at best, you can't save by cooking up huge lentil stews that can be frozen for the week ahead. You eat fast food or the hot dogs and Styrofoam cups of soup that can be microwaved at a convenience store. If you have no money for health insurance...you go without routine care or prescription drugs and end up paying the price.
That "price" is exacerbated by the physical toll of juggling two jobs simply to survive. As Ehrenreich learned working weekdays as a housecleaner with The Maids and weekends in a nursing home Alzheimer's ward while in Portland, Maine, the unending round of ceaseless labor with no days off catches up with the low wage worker. Without health care coverage she is less likely to seek medical attention until she's facing catastrophic illness.

How Citizens Who 'Fend for Themselves' Suffer

Compared to the rest of the world, Ehrenreich observed that the U.S. is stingy to its poorest workers:
Most civilized nations compensate for the inadequacy of wages by providing relatively generous public services such as health insurance, free or subsidized child care, subsidized housing, and effective public transportation. But the United States, for all its wealth, leaves its citizens to fend for themselves — facing market-based rents, for example, on their wages alone. For millions of Americans, that $10 — or even $8 or $6 — hourly wage is all there is.
Even as an accomplished woman, Ehrenreich found that her self-esteem took a beating at the hands of companies and employers who treat their workers as disposable. Again and again she documents the many ways workers are devalued by a system structured to keep them powerless. From the job interview that avoids any discussion of wages and the hiring process that says, "come in for orientation" thereby skipping pay negotiation, to male bosses who enforce a patriarchal workplace which reduces working women to "girls," Ehrenreich's book outlines how gender bias hits low-wage female earners the hardest .

In the end, the author came to a clear-cut conclusion. In most situations where the consumer enjoys cheap rates or bargains on goods and services, these artificially "low" prices come at a cost -- the sacrifice of the worker who is not fairly compensated for her labor.

Poor Workers as 'The Anonymous Donor'

In a strongly-worded and heartfelt summation that went viral as a meme on Facebook years later, Ehrenreich wrote:
When someone works for less pay than she can live on — when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently — then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. 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.
Originally published in the spring of 2001, Nickel and Dimed drew upon the experiences of a woman during a time of growth and prosperity in the U.S. Although the book is now more than a decade old, it was reprinted by Picador in August 2011 in a 10th anniversary edition because its lessons are even more timely and relevant today. Ehrenreich's much-lauded book speaks to every single underpaid, underemployed, and/or displaced worker who has been hit hard by the Great Recession. It should be essential reading for anyone who earns a paycheck, especially those who are in a position to implement change and reform.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
by Barbara Ehrenreich

Paperback, 256pp. ISBN: 978-0312626686
Picador August 2, 2011

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