Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
© 2001 Barbara Ehrenreich
In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich asked her editor at Harpers Weekly a question for which neither had an answer: how do people get by on the meager wages available to the unskilled? To find out, Barbara reinvented herself as “Barb”, a recently divorced homemaker with no work experience. Leaving her world of comfort and ease behind her, ‘Barb’ moved around the country, from Florida to Maine to Minneapolis, looking for the best work and cheapest rents available in a given area — and attempting to make ends meet. She found out that ‘unskilled’ labor is anything but, for every job required a different set of physical, mental, and social skills, some so demanding as to be overwhelming — especially after she was forced to take on second jobs just to break even. For despite the sneering retorts of politicans eager to dismantle social programs, simply finding a job isn’t the answer to poverty — the cost of living is so high that one job often isn’t even enough to survive on, let alone serve as a foundation for fiscal success. Further, in her time spent in the trenches, Ehrenreich realized the conventional argument of these politicians is utterly reversed from reality. Far from those on welfare living off the work of others, those who are comfortable maintain that existence only because of the treatment the working poor stoically endure, doing jobs that no one appreciates but everyone demands, and receiving nothing — not even a sense of security — for their efforts. Ehrenreich’s insights would have been damning in 1998: today, in a worsened situation, they demand reading.
Barb begins her existance in Florida, as a waitress. The experience is a baptism by fire; introducing her to both impossible customers and hostile low-level managers, who seem to be paid just to ensure that the staff are miserable. She soon looks for additional work on the housekeeping staff of a local hotel, but the stress of two jobs proves more than she can take and soon ‘Barb’ makes her first move — this time, to Maine, where she works as a maid, and later moves again to Minnesota to experience life as a Wal-Mart associate. While waitressing, cleaning, and sales are her primary occupations in these experienments, invariably she has to look for supplemental work to meet her expenses, usually a part time job like the weekend gig she took in a nursing home, serving food and providing entertainment for a ward of patients with dementia. Taking on a second job doesn’t necessarily solve her problems: in fact, she usually decides to try another state soon after beginning a second job and realizing it’s too much. Not only can she often not take the stress of two jobs — of having to scurry from one to the other without a break in between — but taking on a second job often adds additional financial burdens. While her first job might have been chosen for its relative proximity to cheap housing, the second is usually more distant, consuming more of her time and forcing more dependence on transportation. Even when Barb pulls ahead, it’s by so meager a count that the smallest disaster threatens to destroy her standing completely. Try accounting for a trip to the doctor or replacing a car part with $8. Sadly, this is not hypothetical; while working as a maid, Barb witnesses one of her coworkers hobbling around on a bad ankle because she can’t afford to lose a day of pay, let alone spend money at a physician’s office.
There’s voyeuristic appeal in Nickle and Dimed, but Ehrenreich combines a narrative of her experience with serious analysis, picking apart the hiring, working, and living conditions, and pointing out that as strapped for time and cash as she is, “Barb” is getting off easy. Unlike her coworkers, she isn’t trying to raise a family on these meager wages…and unlike them, her body hasn’t been broken by a lifetime of motonous, labor-intensive work. Ehrenreich writes that if it is possible for her to pass as a fake, if productive, member of the working class, it is only thanks to a lifetime of above-average nutrition and plenty of time spent at the gym. Her coworkers make the most of what they can in a desperate situation — attempting to survive on lunches of hot dog buns and nothing else, or living together to pool resources.
They shouldn’t have to. The United States has been a fantastically wealthy country throughout most of the 20th century, and that conditions like this exist is outrageous — an insult to what we are capable of. Although Ehrenreich’s account dramatically establishes that the conditions of the working class which exist are unconscionable, she doesn’t evaluate what went wrong or what can be done to change this. Her own experience does hint at part of the problem, though, the decentralization of American cities. The rents she can afford are generally far from the places which are hiring…and with no mass transit system in place, and with sprawl so extensive as to defy attempts to build such a system, she’s forced to drive. In Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Kay called this ‘the geography of inequity’. Ehrenreich is alarmed at the prospect of $2/gallon gas, less than half of today’s prices.
Nickle and Dimed must be read by Americans, because the problems Ehrenreich witnessed are still here and are more pronounced. Witness the results of the National Low Income Housing Coalition‘s reports on the affordability of rent on a minimum-wage salary. Today, to afford a two-bedroom apartment on the minimum wage in Maine and Florida, “Barb” would have to work 81 and 97 hours respectively. Working two full-time jobs, “Barb” wouldn’t make quite enough to pay rent — let alone groceries, bills, transportation, or anything else. While ‘Barb’ doesn’t need a two-bedroom apartment, consider that two adults with kids would have the same problem. Even if both were fully employed, they couldn’t afford rent — or anything else, including daycare. Resolving this crisis will probably take work on both ends. Although the minimum wage should adjusted to be a living wage, more fundamentally the United States has to change to become a more livable nation. The zoning laws which prohibit mixed-used architecture — a traditional source of cheap apartments — need to be taken off the books. In addition to promoting sprawl, they have destroyed the ability of the poor to live recently. It is no accident that Transportation for America, a group advocating for a transportation system that can not only be paid for, but be used effectively by everyone, advocates for the restoration of mixed-used planning.
If only to convince you that a problem exists, this is a must read.The working class didn’t create the miserable conditions they are stuck in, and no one should be forced to endure them. I would also recommend the books in the related section.
- Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Keay
- Transportation for America’s Route to Reform
- Out of Reach 2012: America’s Forgotten Housing Crisis
- Suburban Nation, Andres Duany et. al
I remember just how stunned I was when I read this book years ago. So eye-opening, so astonishing. And so deeply, deeply disturbing.
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