Nickel and Dimed (Barbara Ehrenreich) 3*

So Barbara Ehrenreich’s schtick is that she shows up in a new town with $1000 in savings and proceeds to find money, food, and shelter.  She fails all 3 times.

I felt like a Republican reading this.  Ehrenreich’s jobs averaged $7/hr, roughly $800 a month after taxes, and she calculated $500 as her maximum sustainable rent.  She never found a place at that price.

$500 was precisely my rent as a yuppie in Washington, DC.  It was a beautiful house with hardwood floors in a safe and hippie neighborhood in Takoma Park, shared amongst 3 people.  In cheaper Houston, when sharing a 2-bedroom apartment amongst 3 people, I was able to make my rent payment on 10 hours a week at my $7/hr campus job.  Ehrenreich even had a car, which I never did, and somehow my rent was cheaper even though my digs were nicer.

Ehrenreich’s problem (and apparently everyone other than me and my cheap-ass friends) is that she can’t manage money.  A resourceful single person can definitely make ends meet at $7, but her coworkers were living in cars, trailers, hotel rooms, and other people’s couches.  Ehrenreich herself kept living in furnished studios or hotel rooms, eating fast food because she didn’t have a kitchen, and going bankrupt within 2 months.  Dude, how about getting a roommate and sleeping on the floor for a month?  I need financial security more than I need a bed.  I know, I approach this like an immigrant.  I am an immigrant!  Natural-born Americans are maddeningly incompetent at being poor.

That said, the family version on single-digit wages, even for two earners, is a train wreck. Also, $7 isn’t the minimum wage.  Singletons can swing it, migrant workers can even save enough money to send to family back home, but no American family can’t live on $7/hr.  So Ehrenreich gets an extra star for lobbing an important thesis into the public debate:

When unemployment causes poverty, we know how to state the problem — typically, “the economy isn’t growing fast enough” — and we know what the traditional liberal solution is — “full employment.”  But when we have full or nearly full employment, when jobs are available to any job seeker who can get to them, then the problem goes deeper and begins to cut into that web of expectations that make up the “social contract.” …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.

That’s 3 stars for substance, plus one for social importance, minus one for undisciplined writing.

The book is much more interesting as an investigation into the service sector.  Ehrenreich kept getting really difficult hourly jobs, like being a maid for a maid service.  The maid segment was the toughest job and the worst paid (these tend to correlate), and definitely the most interesting to read about.

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One response to “Nickel and Dimed (Barbara Ehrenreich) 3*

  1. I was gonna be all pissed when you made fun of natural born americans, until I remembered that I’m an immigrant. So… ahem. Carry on then.

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