Nickel and Dimed Barbara Ehrenreich


Let's face it--most of us don't like to think about the poor or look beyond the placid surface of what surrounds us to what is really going on. Well, perhaps many do, but I know that it makes me distinctly uncomfortable. Ms. Ehrenreich's book forces us to do this.

First, we need to acknowledge a certain truth which is that being poor in America, while not nearly as easy as those of us well-off would like to think, is still better than being poor almost anywhere else in the world. That said, Ms. Ehrenreich's book explores the world of the working poor and reminds us at every step that every convenience, every help, every inexpensive thing we have comes at a cost--sometimes a great cost--to someone else. There is no leisure class without an underclass to support it.

Barbara Ehrenreich spent several months in three different cities scattered throughout the country--Key West, Portland, Maine, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. She decided that she would try to "make it" on the salaries of the working poor, looking to live as they did. From the start she admits to certain flaws in her plan to live this life, and as she continues through the experiment, she recognizes more. For example, late in the book she gets an offer from a family member for housing and realizes that SOMETIMES the people she has been hobnobbing with have this same recourse. However, all too frequently they do not.

Ms. Ehrenreich exposes much of what life in the underclass is like. She has a particularly harsh experience as a maid in Portland under the aegis of a taskmaster who watches her scrub the kitchen floor on hands and knees and then calmly tells her to go and do the entryway too. For most kitchen situations, there is simply no need for anyone to get on hands and knees to scrub (having a six-year old child, I undertand that there are exceptions.) However the image of the imperious householder lording it over a group of hireling maids will not soon leave my mind.

How often do we take for granted the services that we receive from the working poor? The other day I called my cable company and asked them to send someone to install an additional cable outlet. This person came and crawled around in my attic (in Florida, in the middle of July) for something approaching an hour. He was actually grateful because my roof was vaulted enough that he could easily walk through much of the attic. His recompense for this work was a glass of ice-water and a check for something over thirty dollars. Of this he may have gotten as much as fourteen.

He was truly pleasant and said to Samuel who was utterly fascinated by what he was doing, "Stay in school, it will make it much easier when you need to get a job. Do not drop out as I did." This was too much of a window into a life and I desperately wanted to be able to change his condition. But the reaiity is that I'm not going to.

How many of us think about those people who may be raising families who do work at minimum wage, who often have no access to benefits that help the unemployed, who have no health insurance, and who can't afford a day of illness because they will not be paid? In a note below, Alicia indicates that she helps with medical assistance to these uninsured and underinsured. I'm sure there are a great many others who may do so as well. But how many of us would like to be in the role of Blanche, "I have always relied on the kindness of strangers?"

Ms. Ehrenreich's book forces us to look at these issues. What is remarkable about it is that there is relatively little diatribe. The chapter titled Evaluation heaps scorn and blame upon both parties. Her investigation was conducted at the height of the era of good feeling that was the latter days of the Clinton Administration when everything was just peachy in the economy. The policies she attacks were largely democratic/Clinton era initiatives. But she doesn't let either party off of the hook. In addition, she does not offer us easy answers and pat solutions. She lets the dilemmas and ambiguities of life among the poor stand. There is no simple resolution, no signpost that indicates the way out. Except for one, one small indicator of the way we should travel. Ehrenreich does point out our individual and corporate (though not necessarily governmental) need for almsgiving, sacrifice, and just plain mindfulness of those around us who may not be as well off.

I agree with Alicia's comments below on certain peripheral elements of Ehrenreich's books--I don't much care for some of the attitudes and "politics" that seep through at the seams. Nevertheless, this is an insight into the depths of poverty, and the resilience and lived-out hope of the working poor.

Highly recommended social-conscience-raising reading. And strangely, at moment, highly enjoyable.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on August 3, 2004 6:55 AM.

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