Our sharpest and most original social critic goes "undercover" as an unskilled worker to reveal the dark side of American prosperity.
Millions of Americans work full time, year round, for poverty-level wages. In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that a job -- any job -- can be the ticket to a better life. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered. Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, she worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. She lived in trailer parks and crumbling residential motels. Very quickly, she discovered that no job is truly "unskilled," that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you int to live indoors.
Nickel and Dimed reveals low-rent America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity -- a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate stratagems for survival. Read it for the smoldering clarity of Ehrenreich's perspective and for a rare view of how "prosperity" looks from the bottom. You will never see anything -- from a motel bathroom to a restaurant meal -- in quite the same way again.
In contrast to recent books by Michael Lewis and Dinesh D'Souza that explore the lives and psyches of the New Economy's millionares, Ehrenreich (Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, etc.) turns her gimlet eye on the view from the workforce's bottom rung. Determined to find out how anyone could make ends meet on $7 an hour, she left behind her middle class life as a journalist except for $1000 in start-up funds, a car and her laptop computer to try to sustain herself as a low-skilled worker for a month at a time. In 1999 and 2000, Ehrenreich worked as a waitress in Key West, Fla., as a cleaning woman and a nursing home aide in Portland, Maine, and in a Wal-Mart in Minneapolis, Minn. During the application process, she faced routine drug tests and spurious "personality tests"; once on the job, she endured constant surveillance and numbing harangues over infractions like serving a second roll and butter. Beset by transportation costs and high rents, she learned the tricks of the trade from her co-workers, some of whom sleep in their cars, and many of whom work when they're vexed by arthritis, back pain or worse, yet still manage small gestures of kindness. Despite the advantages of her race, education, good health and lack of children, Ehrenreich's income barely covered her month's expenses in only one instance, when she worked seven days a week at two jobs (one of which provided free meals) during the off-season in a vacation town. Delivering a fast read that's both sobering and sassy, she gives readers pause about those caught in the economy's undertow, even in good times.
Customer ReviewsSee All
Nickel & Dime
I had to read for a college course their were some aspects I loved about the book and others I did not . I loved how the lives of the poor were put into focus their daily struggles and I'm happy this book has brought the lives of minimum wage to focus and a need for change .
Loved it! Absolutely fascinating!
Writer Tells It Like It Is
Unlike so many nonfiction books that outline the plight of the poor in the U.S., this author of this book took the time to show us just exactly how hard it is to exist on the minimum wage. She shows how hard it is to find and work a minimum wage job (she works several different jobs), find an affordable place to live, and buy enough meals to survive. And she shows how very, very hard it is. Yes, she doesn't show the other side (Wal-mart's or the other employer's.). But after reading this book, one wonders what excuse employers could have for paying people only enough income to keep their employees, effectively, in indentured servitude?