walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Nickel and Dimed_, Barbara Ehrenreich

Subtitled: On (Not) Getting by in America

Ehrenreich's tour(ism) of duty in low-wage jobs in three turn of the century US cities (Key West, FL; Portland, ME and Minneapolis, MN) takes her from restaurants, through housekeeping and a nursing home to Wal-Mart. Her rules include getting to use her car, and arriving in each city with a certain amount of cash. Once she arrives, she sets up in a hotel for a few days to try to find cheap digs and work. Because of the time frame, she doesn't have a cell phone, so she is hampered in her job search in ways that might or might not be mitigated by a pay-as-you-go phone today. She specifically does not take any job that would rely upon her skills and credentials from Her Real Life.

As one would expect, Ehrenreich draws attention to the plight of her coworkers in each gig -- parents struggling with child care and dodgy housemates/partners/spouses, health problems, etc. She opts not to find a room-mate, which materially handicaps her in some ways (she notes that virtually everyone who had a stable living arrangement was sharing it with another income-earner) and spares her grief in others. She concludes with a discussion of why the poor are under much more pressure now than in the past, how welfare reform made it worse, why it's very difficult for the poor to "act like Economic Man" and ends with an ambivalent paragraph about someday it's all gonna change.

She doesn't display any sense of place -- she recognized after the fact that she did pretty well in Portland, and Minneapolis pretty much did her in, but she didn't see that coming. Her optimism going into the Twin Cities in particular was bizarre to me, given how legendarily expensive they are from a cost-of-living perspective. Her middle-class perspective was at times odd; I wasn't sure if she was affecting a certain perspective to make a point, or her epiphanies were genuine. The one that really stood out starkly was her realization that poor women really have a lot more to be afraid of than women with better access to resources.

She does recognize that not-working-as-fast-as-you-can is a matter of budgeting energy and avoiding more egregious exploitation, which is a plus. Other tourists in low wage jobs frequently mistake the strategy for the reason that the low-paid worker is paid poorly.

Throughout, her own family history colors her perspective on the jobs she takes. Her mother's approach to cleaning informs her contempt for the cleaning done by The Maids. Her family history in union organizing has obvious results when she collides with Wal-Mart.

There's a fair amount of journalism that amounts to: gosh, I should go try that and really understand it and then write about it. While I _really love_ non-fiction that's about someone tracking down experts and learning about something, this particular style of journalism is unsatisfying to me. I think I know why: the author is maintaining too much distance from the subject matter. Throughout her project, Ehrenreich thought of herself as deceiving those around her. She acknowledges that this isn't the case -- you don't fake waiting tables or cleaning a hotel room. The tables are served and the room is cleaned or it isn't. But she constantly perceives herself as Not Being Like the People Around Her, and that's jarring. Maybe it's respectful. Maybe it's honest. But it's jarring.

I owned it and had meant to read it years ago; it's up for book group tonight, so I may post again about other folks take on it and how that influenced mine.
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