- Books

MAR 2002

Nickel and Dimed:
On (Not) Getting By in America
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books, 2001. 221 pages.

Nickel and Dimed has received plenty of attention lately, and it deserves every bit. This eye-opening book puts the world of low-wage work under a microscope and concludes that it is possible in America to have a full-time job and still not be able to make ends meet. To the two-thirds of us who make more than $8 an hour, Ehrenreich describes the travails, frustrations, physical sufferings, and humanity—and in some cases the hunger and homelessness—of the largely-invisible group of people who serve up our quarter-pounders, clean our hotel rooms, care for our elderly relatives in nursing homes, and put away our tried-on-but-rejected items in department store dressing rooms. To her credit, Ehrenreich manages to find humor in every nook and cranny, and it is her ability to keep us laughing that keeps us turning the pages.

To conduct research for Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich—a noted author and essayist for Harpers, The Nation, Time, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Republic—abandons her life of comfort and assumes the undercover identity of a divorced homemaker re-entering the workforce. From the spring of 1998 through the summer of 2000, she works as a waitress, a Wal-Mart clerk, a cleaning woman, a hotel maid, and a nursing-home aide in Key West, Minneapolis, and Portland, Maine. Regardless of the locale, she finds that on entry-level wages it is nearly impossible to balance income with living expenses.

At the book’s outset, Ehrenreich acknowledges certain advantages she has over other low-wage workers. She has a car, has only herself to support (no young children in tow), has benefited from a lifetime of good medical and dental care (i.e. her back is not ruined), and has a few hundred bucks stashed as emergency money. She’s also white and a native English-speaker. Ehrenreich does not use her other obvious advantages, however, such as her level of education (she has a Ph.D.) or professional experience, when job-hunting.

In Nickel and Dimed we learn that while low wages are the single biggest identifiable problem for the working poor, there are additional money matters that make it difficult to stay afloat financially. For instance, Ehrenreich finds that employers routinely withhold a workers’ first-week’s paycheck until the worker eventually quits, supposedly as incentive to keep the worker from blowing the wages over the weekend and not returning to work. For someone living paycheck-to-paycheck, one week without pay can make the difference between eating or not, or having shelter or not. Another consideration is that when making $6 or $7 an hour—the going rate for "unskilled" (a term Ehrenreich rejects) labor—a worker is always one step away from economic collapse. A collapse can be triggered, for instance, by illness or injury of the worker or a dependent.

Furthermore, Ehrenreich learns that the emergency food programs—often regarded as safety nets—can be less-than-helpful. In Portland, after making several phone calls and driving to pick up a food voucher—taking a total of 70 minutes—she ends up with $7.02 worth of food. And in Minneapolis persistent inquiries yield her a box of food containing cereal, barbeque sauce, several small bags of candy and bubble gum, sugar cookies, hamburger buns, juice coolers, Kool-Aid-like drink mix, bread, peanut butter, canned ham, canned chicken, shampoo, and deodorant.

Ehrenreich spends a great deal of ink discussing a particular constant concern for the working poor: housing. She explains the terrible irony of people with the smallest incomes being forced to pay very high rents for miserable accommodations. The reason for this phenomenon is that poor people typically do not have enough cash on hand to put down a security deposit plus one month’s rent, as required for most rental housing. (Adding to the problem is the acute shortage of affordable rental units in most communities).

The refuge of the working poor is the pay-by-the-week or pay-by-the-night motel. Ehrenreich learns first hand that the going rate for room in a residential motel is typically $200 or more per week; if a room cannot be found by the week, one must pay $59 a night for a room at Motel 6 or Comfort Inn (that’s more money than one can make working eight hours at a $7-an-hour job!). The rooms Ehrenreich looked at, and in some cases lived in, had no cooking facilities and no refrigerator. There were windowless basement efficiencies; moldy first-floor rooms with no windowshades, windowscreens, air conditioning, or fans; and apartments so small that one could reach the kitchen table while sitting on the commode. Ehrenreich learned that many of her co-workers were only able to afford rent by working two jobs (sometimes two full-time jobs), sharing a room with other workers (sometimes sleeping in shifts on the sole bed), or living with their mothers, boyfriends, or grown children. Others got around the problem by sleeping in their vehicles.

Ehrenreich also sheds light on the physical and emotional demands of low-wage work, as well as the oppressive and demeaning nature of management. While working for the Merry Maids, a house-cleaning corporation in Portland, Ehrenreich had to wash floors on her hands and knees and was forbidden to eat or drink while on the job. Even consuming water on sweat-drenched, hot summer days was off-limits. Then there were the homeowners who left stacks of bills in plain view, and in sight of mini-cams, in their attempt to catch maids stealing money. She described her manager, Ted, as a "pimp" who had no sympathy for the sore backs, knees, and feet of his workers and whose answer was always to "work through the pain."

In the following passage, Ehrenreich describes some of the more unsavory elements of housecleaning work: "The first time I encountered a shit-stained toilet as a maid," she wrote, "I was shocked by the sense of unwanted intimacy. A few hours ago, some well-fed butt was straining away on this toilet seat, and now here I am wiping up after it.... Or we might talk about that other great nemesis of the bathroom cleaner—pubic hair. I don’t know what it is about the American upper class, but they seem to be shedding their pubic hair at an alarming rate. You find it in quantity in shower stalls, bathtubs, Jacuzzis, drains, and even, unaccountably, in sinks."

Other forms of humiliation that low-wage workers encounter begin before they are even hired. At Wal-Mart, for instance, workers must fill out an opinion survey for which there are "no right or wrong answers" (they are told) with questions such as: "do rules have to be followed to the letter at all times," is there room for "nonconformists" on the workforce, should a co-worker be turned in for stealing, is it the fault of management when things go wrong, how do they feel about marijuana and alcohol use, and is it okay to be late if there is a "good excuse." Of course, one must "strongly agree" or "strongly disagree" in accordance with every management position to get the job. The next indignity is the urine test. One must pee in a cup and prove they are drug-free in order to stack boxes, put clothes on hangers, and clean houses.

The indignities continue once the job actually begins. Workers are forbidden from ever having an idle moment or "gossiping" with one another, are pressured not to say the word "union," and are instructed to appear cheerful for the customers. At one restaurant, managers search workers’ purses for stolen items (which they are legally entitled to do, Ehrenreich discovers). At Wal-Mart, employees are expected to participate in the company cheer at staff meetings: "Gimme a W! W! Gimme an A! A!" When they come to the hyphen in the store name, the manager shouts: "Gimme a squiggly!" and the workers are expected to squat and twist their hips in response.

At one point, after a day of cleaning houses with a woman who is faint from hunger and has a sprained ankle from a fall she took while cleaning the day before, Ehrenreich considers quitting and telling off the boss in the following manner: "Look, I can put up with shit and snot and every other gross substance I encounter in this line of work. The only thing I’m squeamish about is human pain. I’m sorry, I tried to ignore it, but it undermines my efficiency when I have to work alongside people who are crying, fainting, starving, or otherwise visibly suffering, so yes, you better find someone tougher than me."

In her "evaluation" at the end of the book, Ehrenreich discusses the failure of welfare reform—the legislation passed during the Clinton era that purported to turn welfare recipients into productive members of the work force. She debunks the myth that low-wage work brings dignity and self-sufficiency to people (typically young mothers) formerly on the dole. "Both parties heartily endorsed [welfare reform]," writes Ehrenreich, "and to acknowledge that low-wage work doesn’t lift people out of poverty would be to admit that it may have been, in human terms, a catastrophic mistake."

Perhaps the most poignant conclusion reached by Ehrenreich at the end of her investigation is the following: "I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that ‘hard work’ was the secret of success: ‘Work hard and you’ll get ahead’ or ‘It’s hard work that got us where we are.’ No one ever said that you could work hard—harder even than you ever thought possible—and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt."

It is impossible to do justice to the brilliance of Nickel and Dimed in this brief review; to discover all the book’s gems, you must read it for yourself. For her sacrifice and dedication to this research effort, Ehrenreich is truly a working-class hero. R

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