"Nickel and Dimed, on (not) Getting By in America" A Book Review

I've begun reading "Nickle and Dimed, on (not) getting by in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich, having picked the book up after recognizing who she was and the premise of her book from a class struggle movie airing on either LinkTV or Free Speech TV, I can't remember which. The premise is that the author gives up her comfortable middle class life for the social experiment of trying to make it by working low wage jobs. She did her experiment from 1998 to approximately 2000, and he book outlines, in detail, what she learned, saw, and experienced as well as high-lighting the stories of her many coworkers, changing their names for privacy reasons.

I'm only into chapter two, albeit it's nearly half-way through the book. Not only is it a fast, engrossing read I am surprised that only two months and five jobs into her experiment her mind is already beginning to snap. Ehrenreich fully acknowledges the clear advantages she has going into this experiment - such as having a safety net so that she does not ever actually have to experience homelessness because she can cheat and tap into her real-life finances and bail herself out of a bad situation. She also has the advantage of having a solid education, a PhD in fact, although she promises not to use her previous work experience or education and has opted instead to lie and claim she has only a few years of college under her belt, and no relevant prior work experience in order to see what kind of work she can get on par with the single mothers returning to work after being on welfare.

She also has healthcare, a gym membership, and regular access to healthy food leaving her much healthier to start and able to withstand physical jobs better than the average low-wage employee. Psychologically, although she graces on this bit only slightly so far, she also has the knowledge that she has a much higher-wage comfortable lifestyle awaiting her when she's done experimenting. She admits to not ever being able to understand what it feels like to be poor, but it goes farther than that because there is a slow, painful, downward spiral mentality for those who have nothing to look forward to but another day of hard degrading work.

Even still, with her advantages, and even though she has already cheated twice, once using her multilingual skills to get a job, and once to use her access to healthcare to cure an unexplainable rash - she is quickly understanding poverty and low wage work as well as mentality far greater than I think even she realized.

By week five, and on her second location she is already noticing her ability to despise even low-level management as an "enemy" and clients or patrons as over-indulgent assholes. A great passage about this change of heart and thought happens while she's working for a maid agency. In this scenario she is gearing up to work in a house for this agency, and the patron is walking her through what she wants her to do:

"Self restraint becomes more of a challenge when the owner of a million dollar condo [...] who is [...] an acquaintance of the real Barbara Bush takes me into the master bathroom to explain the difficulties she's been having with the shower stall. Seems its marble walls have been "bleeding" onto the brass fixtures, and can I scrub the grouting extra hard? That's not your marble bleeding, I want to tell her, it's the world-wide working class - the people who quarried the marble, wove your Persian rugs until they went blind, harvested the apples in your lovely fall-themed dining room centerpiece, smelted the steel for the nails, drove the trucks, put up this building, and now bend and squat and sweat to clean it."

Ouch, that's a pretty hard-core reaction to have in such a short time. This was of course, following the degrading experience of having to scrub a patron's floors on her hands and knees while the patron watched her work, and after watching her coworkers try and work through serious illnesses, and in harsh work conditions with little empathy from both the patrons and management. This is also following the experiences in her first location that include being embarrassed and treated like a criminal along with her fellow low wage coworkers just because someone made a mistake, or another employee (as it turns out lower management) did something illegal.

So far in this book what I'm seeing is an unabashed declaration of how little it takes to see through the capitalist and class/race propaganda constantly being shoved down our throats, where the realities are being covered up and ignored.

This book is, so far, a must read as far as I'm concerned. If nothing more than understanding how quickly and easily we could make people understand what's wrong with our economic system just by making them experience it first hand.


Drea said...

I'm going to look for this book. :) thanks.

Anok said...

Awesome! :)

polybore said...

Have you seen this? http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/18/dubai-hamas-israel-uk-relations

Monkey Suit said...

Is it because the woman has money that she watches the woman work? Or because she is a bitch. I mean not all people with money treat people without money poorly.

Anok said...

No I hadn't Polybore, thanks, I'll look at it right away.

Monkey I have no idea about the woman in the story but as I have been in a similar situation before I can say that one need not be a bitch to make their hired help feel very uncomfortable and degraded.

The whole idea that a person - who is standing there and clearly able to clean up their own shit - has hired someone else to do it for them is degrading.

Although from my perspective it reflects more poorly on the employer rather than the employee.