October 13, 2003

Nickels (Dimes in about a week).

As you all know if you've been visiting this site, I've tasked myself with reading and critiquing Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

This will be a long post. I plan to offer the book's premise, talk a little bit about how Barbara defines science, illustrate what I find to be unrealistic, offer places where I identify with the author, and then conclude the analysis of what I've read. I'm 119 pages into the book, which is a natural stopping point because of the book's structure.

The Premise

The author tasks herself with working low-wage jobs and then writing about how she fares. She works (so far) as a waitress, a housekeeper, a maid, and a kitchen worker in a nursing home. (There are other jobs, but I've not read that far) and then chronicles her experience for you, for me, and for anyone else who is interested.


Barbara, as I will refer to her from here on out, calls this a science experiment. Unfortunately, there's nothing scientific about it, as the setting is not real. In the illustration section, I'll point to snippets from the book that seem like vagaries to me, since I'm someone who's had to subsist on a pretty small budget for a lengthy period of time. But, I'll jump right in, in the interest of keeping the post short (HA!)



1) On page three, while still introducing the book's concept, she states:
    But if the question was whether a single mother leaving welfare could survive without government assistance in the form of food stamps, Medicaid, and housing and child care subsidies, the answer was well known before I ever left the comforts of home. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, in 1998 - the year I started this project - it took, on average nationwide, an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one-bedroom apartment...
Roommate, Barbara. Really, it is an option, and often a wise one. Also, briefly, children are a choice. If anyone needs that one explained, the post will be quite harsh to some and humorous to others.

2) Page 5, on setting her boundaries:
    First, I would always have a car. In Key West I drove my own; in other cities I used Rent-A-Wrecks, which I paid for with a credit card rather than my earnings. Yes, I could have walked more or limited myself to jobs accessible by public transportation. I just figured that a story about waiting for buses would not be very interesting to read.

3) Barbara also decides to spend a month in each setting. How is this realistic? I suspect this was done again for the "interest" factor, though this is not stated.

Key West

1) Page 12.
    My first task is to find a place to live. I figure that if I can earn $7 an hour - which, from the want ads, seems doable - I can afford to spend $500 on rent, or maybe, with severe economies, $600 and still have $400 or $500 left over for food and gas.
$500! When you're earning $7 an hour? That's outrageous to expect that'll work. Barbara is from Saturn, you see, where she was never taught in common sense class that you should not spend more than 25% of your income on housing. If she's bringing home $1,000 to $1,100 a month, that gives you meager accommodations costing $250 or so, or, as I mentioned before, a roommate. I understand that under the constraints of this project, a roommate was not a option, thereby, again debunking "science" and reality of how low-wage workers survive and, in some cases, thrive.

2) Page 12 again, in talking about how expensive Key West is and how she must "settle." "Still, it is a shock to realize that 'trailer trash' has become, for me, a demographic category to aspire to." Gee, Barbara. How nice of you to call your $500 a month digs, "trash." What does this serve except to anger some readers (me) and incite others with a rally cry of "oppression."

3) Page 15.
    I had been vain enough to worry about coming across as too educated for the jobs I sought, but no one even seems interested in finding out how overqualified I am
Had been - okay, debunked. Am - no, she hasn't learned.

There IS no overqualification with manual labor. I'm a software developer. I type really well - upwards of 80 to 100 wpm error free. Does this make me overqualified to be a legal secretary? Goodness, no. I go to the gym regularly and can lift heavy objects above my head with general ease. Am I overqualified to be a rearrange shelves that are 5 1/2, 6 feet tall?

No. There IS no overqualified. And that's part of the beauty of it. There are jobs available for unskilled workers who might otherwise be unable to find work.

4) Page 16.
    I want to say, 'Thank you for your time, sir, but this is just an experiment, you know, not my actual life.
To give Barbara credit, she doesn't say this again, but rather she invokes some unexpected pride in what she's doing day in day out. I'll forgive her this one.

5) Page 18. Barbara talks with pride about her father, and then, er, doesn't.
    Or so said my father, who must have known what he was talking about because he managed to pull himself, and us with him, up from the mile-deep copper mines of Butte to the leafy suburbs of the Northeast, ascending from boiler-makers to martinis before booze beat out ambition.
No, Barbara. Booze is inanimate.

6) Page 36 - 37. Barbara is talking about the crew with whom she works:
    We talk about the usual girl things - men, children, and the sinister allure of Jerry's chocolate peanut-butter cream pie - though no one, I notice, ever brings up anything potentially expensive, like shopping or movies. As at the Hearthside, the only recreation ever referred to is partying, which requires little more than some beer, a joint, and a few close friends. Still, no one is homeless, or cops to it anyway, thanks usually to a working husband or boyfriend.
What is "expensive"? Shopping runs a pretty large gamut. (I don't talk about shopping either, Barbara). Movies - luxuries, right?

7) Page 39. Barbara moves. Yes, within Key West she moves. Why? "So I take the $500 deposit I have coming from my landlord, the $400 I have earned toward next month's rent, plus the $200 reserved for emergencies, and use the $1,100 to pay the rent and deposit on trailer number 46 in the Overseas Trailer Park, a mile from the cluster of budget hotels that constitute Key West's version of an industrial park." Why does she move? Because gas is "eating up $4-$5 a day." Why is gas so expensive? Because Barbara wasn't frugal or thoughtful about where she lived in relation to where she would be working. And, quite simply, you must be if you're on a tight budget.

8) Page 41. Barbara makes me guffaw. Why, you ask? Because she says this about an accusation (possibly/probably unwarranted) made about one of the cooks with whom she works.
    So why didn't I intervene? Certainly not because I was held back by the kind of moral paralysis that can mask as journalistic objectivity. On the contrary, something new - something loathsome and servie - had infected me, along with the kitchen odors that I could still sniff on my bra when I finally undressed at night. In real life I am moderately brave, but plenty of brave people shed their courage in POW camps, and maybe something similar goes on in the infinitely more congenial milieu of the low-wage American workplace.
POW camps! Barbara - this job is a choice you have made. Writing the book is a choice. And any hope of objectivity that remained is vaporized by a comparison like that.

9) Barbara takes a second job because she is cramped for money. I've done that, temporarily. You? It makes her tired, of course, and it lasts only one day. The author walks out on her waitressing job. She offers enough objective evidence that a reader can conclude, yes, it was a hellish night. What would you or I do if this job was, at the time, our only means of viable support. Deal. Barbara does not; she leaves. This is not mature or sensible behavior. Some of my best stories from fast food are from "the night the store got hit by lightning during rush hour," etc. This does not gain her respect in my eyes. In the middle of this parting diatribe, though, Barbara invokes the name of "science" again. "I had gone into this venture in the spirit of science, to test a mathematical proposition..." The redeeming part, though, if any, is that she's not proud, in retrospect, that she walked out.

Actions/feelings. Paperrockscissors? Actions win every time.

Portland, Maine

This is really more of the same, so I'll try to pick fewer snippets, as I'm certain this is getting long.

1) Barbara begins. "I chose Maine for its whiteness." Heather rolls her eyes. Yes, Barbara snaps her fingers and another thousand dollars appears - "let's start over." Realistic? No, certainly not. Whimsy? Yes, certainly so.

2) Page 52. The rental car surfaces. I assert again that one does not rent a car for a long period of time for day-to-day living when one holds a low-wage job. It's not economical, and it's not wise. But this is "science." Talking about picking up and moving, Barbara states:
    This is, admittedly, an odd venture for anyone not involved in a witness-protection program: to leave home and companionship and plop down nearly two thousand miles away in a place where I know almost no one and about which I am ignorant right down to the most elementary data on geography, weather, and good places to eat. Still, I reason, this sudden removal to an unknown state is not all that different from the kinds of dislocations that routinely segment the lives of the truly poor. You lose your job, your car, or your babysitter. Or maybe you lose your home because you've been living with a mother or a sister who throws you out when her boyfriend comes back or because she needs the bed or sofa you've been sleeping on for some other wayward family member. And there you are.
Spurious assertion? You decide.

3) Page 53. Barbara calls the Hampton Inn a "low-rent motel." Really, I kid you not. Funny, I think they're kinda nice. And not cheap. Yes, this has little to do with the book, but I believe it says a lot about perspective.

Barbara takes a job with Merry Maids and tells a very interesting story of her life as a maid. This is much more compelling than the first section, and I'll talk about it a bit in the section where I list positives about the book.

4) Page 78. Barbara describes the lunches of her coworkers. She defines for us, her audience, a "pizza pocket."

5) Page 92. Barbara lets off a "shit tirade" (my words), making it painfully obvious she's never cleaned a public restroom before. I have. Yawn.

6) Page 100.
    Then there's the supermarket. I used to stop on my way home from work, but I couldn't take the stares, which are easily translatable into: What are you doing here? And, No wonder she's poor; she's got a beer in her shopping cart! True, I don't look so good by the end of the day and probably smell like eau de toilet and sweat, but it's the brilliant green-and-yellow uniform that gives me away, like prison clothes on a fugitive. Maybe, it occurs to me, I'm getting a tiny glimpse of what it would be like to be black.
This earned a cough. Self-oppressed. How quaint.

7) Page 107. And here's the line that sums it ALL up so far:
    Anger is toxic, as the New Agers say, and there is no evidence anyway that my coworkers share my outrage on their behalf.
Barbara, that's DAMNED pretentious of you. If I am proud of what I do, what I earn, and the way in which I live my life, I say unto you, how dare you insert your quasi-pundit statements on my "behalf" to tell me how much my life sucks. Of course they don't share your outrage. These are PEOPLE. They have bigger things to worry about. What, they don't "know any better"? How would you know?

8) Page 108. Furthering point 7.
    For the most part, my coworkers seem content to occupy their little niche on the sheer cliff face of class inequality. After all, if there weren't people who have far too much money and floor space and stuff, there could hardly be maids.
I don't even need to comment.

9) Page 117. "Work is supposed to save you from being an outcast." No, Barbara. Work isn't first about self-actualization. It's about food and shelter.


Barbara has some human moments, when individual scenarios affect her in ways that she speaks without her outrage lens. I'll stop the annoying choppy format of above and post this portion as a narrative.

On Page 7, Barbara does note that the car she'll be using does give her an advantage. This is just good writing - to recognize an asset that doesn't quite make her life an even comparison with another person working in a similar situation. On Page 17, she notes that initially she feels incompetent as a server. Again, a very human moment that anyone can relate to. A page later on 18, she states "because, to my total surprise despite the scientific detachment I am doing my best to maintain, I care." As well you should, Barbara.

On Page 34, Barbara adds a little flavor when talking about some of the interplay with coworkers. It seems real, which is what a writer strives for. I can put myself in her place as she's waitressing. And near the end of the last section, Pages 114 - 119, she describes a run-in with management for sticking up for a wounded coworker. It's there that I actually have some hope that this will take a turn for the objective - that perhaps some of the snarky asides and pretentious tones will fade back into the introduction. I won't know until I finish the book. I'll be sure to tell you later.


This book is well written. There's no doubt about that. There's nothing objective and detached about it, though, both to the credit and detriment of the subject and author. Barbara wrote the book to prove a point - there is no "science" and no "experiment." There's outrage, but it's pretentious, snooty, and carries a distinctive tone that Barbara, in her ignorance of "this life" is better than these people who live it day to day. Barbara, yes, people ARE better than other people. I believe this. Why? Because of their ACTIONS, not because of their social standing or ability to hobnob with literary and other elites.

If this book presented only facts and no commentary about the facts until the last and final analysis section (that I've not yet reached), I'd be sold. The book is fascinating when I'm not coughing and chortling. (I haven't thrown it yet).

However, I believe there's enough information within the long section of this post to show that this book, so far, is directed whim. Well-written and directed whim.

Finally, If anyone doubts the "science" aspect to this, I'm happy to author a second, separate post directed at just that issue.


Posted by hln at October 13, 2003 10:03 PM | Books | TrackBack

Nice deconstruction, Heather. I suspect that book would annoy more than amuse me. (Although I did laugh out loud at her characterization of the Hampton Inn--yikes! what would she have to say about Motel 6?)

Posted by: Susie at October 14, 2003 12:57 AM

Susie, she actually stayed at a Motel 6 for about a week. She described the two as the different spectrums of "low-rent" motels - the Hampton being the nicer. The Motel 6 was $59 a night. Yeouch, eh?


Posted by: hln at October 14, 2003 06:30 AM

There's no shame in honest work. Learned it from my folks, passed it on to my kids.

Posted by: Ted at October 14, 2003 08:03 AM

Bravo. I have to say you've provided a thorough enough deconstruction that I know not to even bother reading this book. Besides, I've earned minimum wage and less, so I don't need to read a book to learn the scandalous truth that there are classes in this country.

I'm interested in the final analysis, though. What is her ultimate point?

Posted by: hans at October 14, 2003 09:56 AM

Probably, her ultimate point would be that you can't truly live on a minimum-wage job, and that "something should be done" but I'll bet she doesn't try to define what that "something" should be.

And, I'm betting on at least one inference of "they don't have to be poor. They could choose to be different," or something equally asinine.

I grew up quite comfortably, for a member of the lower working class, but I never, ever, in my 29 years, thought of the Hampton Inn as low class. I know my fiance didn't, either, and he grew up in better circumstances than I.

Posted by: Jennifer at October 15, 2003 06:09 AM