Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Nickel and Dimed - Barbara Ehrenreich (2001)

Barbara Ehrenreich spoke at the Printer's Row Lit Fest yesterday (June 7, 2014) but I could not get a ticket.  So instead I went to the God, Sex and Death Variety Hour, which included a reading by Tim Kinsella, who has just published his second book.  I have just put a hold on his first book from the library, so I will review it soon, and I tried to talk to Tim Kinsella afterwards and he said he didn't really like to read reviews, so I didn't need to let him know when I published my review.  Of course, part of me wanted to see Ehrenreich and ask a pointless question during the Q & A (presuming there was one) and film it with my camera and post it here.  Because it is quite ironic that I could have seen her while I had been putting off reviewing Nickel and Dimed for about a week--this gave me a purpose!  But it was not to be.  Such as it is with this review.  It could have been great--with multimedia and almost real-time updating, on an extremely pertinent issue--but I didn't doggedly pursue a spot at the reading, when I probably could have gotten in if I really tried.  No, I wanted to see Tim Kinsella (and actually all of the performers at the GSDVH were wonderful), and since they were both at the same time, I easily deferred to my back up plan.

My first exposure to Nickel and Dimed came in a law school clinic, the Consumer Counseling and Bankruptcy clinic.  We had to work an internship at a placement (which was easy because they basically found the job for you) and go to a seminar once a week.  We had some readings to discuss at the seminars, and our professor had given us a couple chapters photocopied out of Nickel and Dimed.  She briefly mentioned it in going through the syllabus and I looked forward to it as more enjoyable reading material than one usually encounters there.  I am pretty sure we read the final chapter, "Evaluation," and maybe one other chapter that I can't remember.

I wanted to take this book out of the library because I've been obsessed with keeping track of my monthly expenses--particularly when I was doing my post-graduate fellowship at the CTA.  That paid a stipend of $1000 a month.  I would only be disbursed $1000 after four weeks as the school only authorized 20 hours per week.  This worked out to a wage of $12.50 an hour.  I was obsessed with figuring out if I could live on $460 a month, because that was what was left over after paying the rent.  I am sure a lot of people would say they could live on that amount without a problem, but I wasn't sure.  I usually spend about $300 a month on food ($301.46, in December 2013).  I had a bad cell phone deal and was paying $63.86 a month for that.  It was another $64.57 for utilities, which leaves about $40 for everything else (and this isn't even mentioning alcohol).  Commuting alone - $45.00 for ten days of round trips to CTA Headquarters - put me in the hole.  Of course, that they did not give me free riding privileges, like they did for all the other law school externs, stung.

If I had been working 40 hours per week, there wouldn't have been a problem in covering those costs.  But people tell me I should consider myself lucky--I am not working at Wal-Mart or a fast food restaurant for $7.75 an hour.

Nickel and Dimed has a simple premise: Barbara Ehrenreich goes out to lunch with an editor at Harper's to discuss future articles she might write for the magazine and they start talking about how difficult it is to live on the minimum wage and Ehrenreich says somebody ought to go out there and try it for themselves as a sort of old-school journalism project.  The editor tells her she is just the one to do it.  The year is 1998.  From there, she travels to Key West, FL, Portland, ME, and Minneapolis, MN to work as a waitress, maid, and Wal-Mart associate, respectively.


For anyone who has worked these jobs, moments of this book will seem instantly familiar.  Personally I think the strongest chapter in the book is "Selling in Minnesota," because it delves deeply into the culture of Wal-Mart and gives Ehrenreich the occasion to unleash her most sardonic barbs.  I was under the impression that it was the longest chapter, but at 72 pages, it barely edges out "Scrubbing in Maine"'s 70 ("Serving in Florida" is only 40 pages).  However, this entire book is a pleasure to read.  It does feel a bit dated at times, but I have to say that rent is not obscenely higher than it was in 1998.  Nor is the minimum wage--but it seems inevitable that will not be true much longer.  While it is at $7.25 presently, when Ms. Ehrenreich worked as a waitress at "Hearthside" in Key West, it was $5.15.  It looks like it will change to $10.10 soon, and then maybe $15.00 in certain states.  The jump to $15 is unprecedented and could dramatically shift the landscape of the low-wage workforce.  And while Ehrenreich may not be directly cited as an influence on this positive trend, this book has gotten major attention over the past 15 years, and through a kind of cultural osmosis, the sad reality that life on minimum wage is unsustainable has seeped into the public consciousness.  The only criticism I can make is that the book is not pure reality.  It is a great social experiment, but Ehrenreich's desperation is only temporary.  Because she does not need to try and figure out some way to get out of the mess she's in, or resign to struggle throughout the rest of her life, the book is less valuable than the genuine article could be.

Perhaps that gives some of Ehrenreich's observations an air of hyperbole.  While she is looking for a place before craigslist, she does not come across any shared apartments, so naturally any apartment she keeps to herself will be more expensive.  But she writes often about staying in dirty motels:

"There are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs.  If you can't put up the two months' rent you need to secure an apartment, you end up paying through the nose for a room by the week.  If you have only a room, with a hot plate at best, you can't save by cooking up huge lentil stews that can be frozen for the week ahead.  You eat fast food or the hot dogs and Styrofoam cups of soup that can be microwaved in a convenience store." (27)


While going back through the book to try and find passages, I found too many.  I didn't want this review to just be a huge collection of quotes.  But it made me realize that, when I did the same thing for The Circle, I had a lot of difficulty finding good examples.  At a very basic level then, this book is better than The Circle, but it's less surprising and more depressing because it's real.

Ehrenreich does a wonderful job portraying the life of a server--and I say that as a former server of 18 months at 2 restaurants.  She works at two restaurants concurrently to make ends meet, and she provides a fantastic account of a sensation every server must have felt at least once in their past:

"Ideally, at some point you enter what servers call a 'rhythm' and psychologists term a 'flow state,' where signals pass from the sense organs directly to the muscles, bypassing the cerebral cortex, and a Zen-like emptiness sets in.  I'm on a 2:00-10:00 PM shift now, and a male server from the morning shift tells me about the time he 'pulled a triple'--three shifts in a row, all the way around the clock--and then got off and had a drink and met this girl, and maybe he shouldn't tell me this, but they had sex right then and there and it was like beautiful." (33)

A personal favorite part of the book for me is Ehrenreich's experience flushing out her system to take a drug test for Wal-Mart:

"If it weren't for the drug test, I might have stopped looking right then and there, but there has been a chemical indiscretion in recent weeks and I'm not at all sure I can pass.  A poster in the room where Roberta interviewed me warns jobs applicants not to 'waste your time or ours' if you've taken drugs within the last six weeks.  If I had used cocaine or heroin there would be no problem, since these are water-soluble and wash out of the body in a couple days.  (LSD isn't even tested for.) But my indiscretion involved the only drug usually detected by testing, marijuana, which is fat-soluble and, I have read, can linger in the body for months.  And what about the prescription drugs I've been taking for a chronic nasal congestion problem?  What if Claritin-D, which gives you a nice little bounce, shows up as crystal meth?" (125)

Her tales of life as a "Wal-Martian" belong in any anthology of literature or essays on corporate culture.  As I've said, this is the highlight of the book, but I don't want this entire post to be about Wal-Mart either.  Because this book is not about that store--but the way it allows its employees to remain in poverty.

Ehrenreich gets hung up on a few topics: housing, transportation, health care, and food (a dearth of each).  I found her comments about housing surprising, because, while it is understandably difficult to get started on a new apartment on a limited budget and without a job, I still thought the rents would be cheaper in the places she lived.  I say this as a former resident of New York and Los Angeles and current resident of Chicago.  I know rents are cheaper elsewhere, and I am currently paying roughly what the "deals" were for a one bedroom or studio apartment per month, if you added up the weekly rates.

The food issue of note is the lack of nutritional value in the meals the poor can afford to eat.  One footnote, an example of the foodstuffs obtained through a pantry, seems almost too ridiculous to believe, but obviously is true:

"Middle class people often criticize the poor for their eating habits, but this charitable agency seemed to be promoting a reliance on 'empty calories.'  The complete inventory of the box of free food I received is as follows: 21 ounces of General Mills Honey Nut Chex cereal; 24 ounces of Post Grape-Nuts cereal; 20 ounces of Mississippi Barbecue Sauce; several small plastic bags of candy, including Tootsie Rolls, Smarties fruit snacks, Sweet Tarts, and two bars of Ghirardelli chocolate; one bubble gum; a 13-ounce package of iced sugar cookies; hamburger buns; six 6-ounce Minute Maid juice coolers; one loaf of Vienna bread; Star Wars fruit snacks; one loaf of cinnamon bread; 18 ounces of peanut butter; 18 ounces of jojoba shampoo; 16 ounces of canned ham; one bar of Dial soap; four Kellogg Rice Krispies Treats bars; two Ritz cracker packages; one 5-ounce Swanson canned chicken breast; 2 ounces of a Kool Aid-like drink mix; two Lady Speed Stick deodorants." (174, n.8)

The best is saved for last, when Ehrenreich steps back from being the fearless hero of low-wage adventures (which gives this book an appeal similar to Dishwasher) and puts on her Ph.D garb and analyzes the situation.  She makes some wonderful points, and writes powerfully about her subject matter:

"It is common, among the nonpoor, to think of poverty as a sustainable condition--austere, perhaps, but they get by somehow, don't they?  They are 'always with us.'  What is harder for the nonpoor to see is poverty as acute distress: The lunch that consists of Doritos or hot dog rolls, leading to faintness before the end of the shift.  The 'home' that is also a car or a van.  The illness or injury that must be 'worked through,' with gritted teeth, because there's no sick pay or health insurance and the loss of one day's pay will mean no groceries for the next.  These experiences are not part of a sustainable lifestyle, even a lifestyle of chronic deprivation and relentless low-level punishment.  They are, by almost any standard of subsistence, emergency situations.  And that is how we should see the poverty of so many millions of low-wage Americans--as a state of emergency." (214)

I've said about all I can.  Please note that I did not  read the 10 year anniversary edition, released in 2011, as I did not know it existed until now.  Obviously, after the financial meltdown of 2008, Ehrenreich was going to have more to say.  She wrote a long essay that is posted here and is definitely worth checking out:

I could go off about the minimum wage, and the debate that the cost of goods will go up if it is increased, but I am glad it is happening.  I could also go off about my options as a law grad, and how they barely pay more, but I will desist for another day.  I am just glad that a small victory seems likely, and hope that other bigger ones will follow.

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