Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Nickel and Dimed - Barbara Ehrenreich

Title: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
Author: Barbara Ehrenreich
Pages: 221
Date Finished: June 27, 2007
Rating: 3.75/5

I really don't want this review to turn into a rant about politics or economics or really my personal beliefs, so I'm going to try and be brief (and to the point--*try* being the operative word). I think its difficult, though, to read this book and not have some sort of emotion invoked--whether because you agree with what Ehrenreich writes or because you disagree.

The basic premise of this book is whether or not low-wage employees are getting by with what they earn. The simple answer is "No." In order to test her theories or ideas, Ehrenreich goes "under cover" in three different cities with a list of rules about what she can spend, what types of jobs she can take, and where she can live. She spends about a month in each city, and has about six jobs throughout the book: Maid (x2), Wal-Mart "associate," Waitress (x2), and Nursing Home Aide (I feel like I'm leaving something out).

I found Ehrenreich's narrative easy to read, partially because of her humor (although sometimes potentially offensive) but also because she really gets down to the nitty gritty about her experiences. What I found interesting, though, is that until the last chapter ("Evaluation"), all of the pertinent statistics and facts are hidden away in the footnotes. I am generally a lazy reader and sometimes glaze over footnotes (or sometimes don't read them at all if they are endnotes). I am guessing she chose to do this as to not break up her narrative, but I think a lot of what she is REALLY getting at could be lost to readers (lazy ones at least). In many ways, though, what she writes in the main narrative is scary enough--the living conditions, the managers, the physical effects, the working conditions, etc., etc. In one particular poignant moment, Ehrenreich shows how difficult it is to actually receive aid or help (in terms of housing, food, medical, etc) as she is passed from one agency to the next (all basically dead-ends). I think the book could have used a little more of this than anecdotes from her jobs (although informative and entertaining).

Recommendation: While this book was relatively enlightening for a young, middle-class, white, educated reader ( I have had my share of "roughing it" as a Sonic car-hop, telemarketer, and retail scrub to pay my way through school), I felt let down at the end when she didn't give any calls for action. So people aren't getting paid enough--what do we do about it? Raise the wages? Well, what repercussions will that have? Will the cost of living increase causing a circular effect? I'm not an economist, so I really don't know, but I wanted to find this out. Bottom line--perhaps everyone should read this book, but I'm not sure what difference it would make.

*picture from


soleil said...

i read this book a couple of years ago. i found it an eye-opening read in the sense that i didn't realize that there were people out there busting their butts and still homeless. but i also found this book to be really depressing. she has another book out called bait and switch but i forget what it's about.

Trish said...

It is a little depressing, and I think maybe that was part of her goal (she mentions in the end that perhaps we should feel guilty).

Thanks for stopping by!

cj said...

Guilt does no one any good, especially those who need help. I'd be interested in knowing if the author did anything to help the poor and homeless, besides writing a book to make people feel guilty.

And Trish, raising the minimum wage seems like a good idea until you realize it freezes entire groups of people out of the work force. Like teenagers.

Bottom line? There's no such thing as an easy answer. Not on this question. Not on most.

Oh, and btw, my first job after college, as a sworn police officer paid $7.50 an hour to start with.


Trish said...

CJ - You raise a good point about helping others. Not only did she decide she wasn't going to take any help or shortcuts from other people, but the most I could see her helping the others was trying to get them to see how they were trying to be mistreated by their managers (which sometimes backfired). There was one instance during her time at Wal-Mart where she tried to get her co-workers to start a union for better wages. Like I said, there is no call to action in this book--it is simply stating what we all know--that minimum wage is too low and there are too many people who are getting paid far less than they deserve (or more simply, just to live off of).

Here I am ranting, when I really didn't want to. :) Thanks for commenting CJ!