Thursday, March 29, 2007

Nickel and Dimed

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich
$9.75 at Amazon.com ISBN: 0805063897
Barbara Ehrenreich is an investigative journalist with a master's degree and a good paying job. After American welfare reform, which promised a living wage at any job, she decided to masquerade as a low skill worker to see how someone can survive making roughly seven dollars an hour. Millions of Americans work full-time, year-round, for poverty level wages. Ehrenreich decided to join them, taking several low-paying jobs in three states and then wrote this book about the experience. It put me deeply in touch with all the cashiers, maids, and cleaning professionals in the country, and her story moved quickly and was interesting enough so that the book was never dull.
Her first job was as a waitress in a truck-stop type establishment. She also worked as a maid for a cleaning service, at a nursing home as a food server, and even as a cashier and stock clerk at a Wal-Mart, America's largest poverty-level employer. She took the cheapest apartments available, applied for public assistance programs as they were available, and after spending three months at each location, usually found herself flat broke and destitute. If she'd had a medical problem or other serious, major expense, she probably would've found herself living on the street. The work was back-breaking, and her employers almost always unsympathetic.
What I found most interesting were her experiences with her co-workers. There's a stereotype here in the U.S. that the poor are lazy, stupid, and generally deserve to live as they do through bad choices. Ehrenreich reports that the contrary is true: virtually everyone she met in the lower-class set worked very hard for long hours, and didn't deserve to suffer as they did. There are several heartbreaking scenes: as a black woman eats a bag of store-brand hot dog rolls for lunch, and another young woman suppresses painful medical problems because she can't afford health care, or even to miss a day of work!
It was a good story, at all times interesting and fast-paced, and not too long (221 pages). There are a lot of important issues brought to light here: equality and justice in a democratic society, and the idea that anyone can make it if they're willing to work hard. See for yourself. You'll never look at your cashier the same way again!

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