22. Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich

8 May

Nickle and Dimed

Okay, so this book is life-changing.

It was also so difficult-to-put-down, suspenseful and enthralling that I was reading it in taxi-cabs (which makes me nauseated, but it was worth it) and while actually walking, in public.

In 1998 investigative journalist Barbara Ehrenreich tried to survive on minimum wage in three different cities in three different ways (waitress, maid, Wal-mart worker, plus second jobs). She took the approach of someone starting at square one, without much in savings, useful work experience, or family or community support. She was testing out the premise that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps here in America, if only they work hard enough.

And of course, alternatively, refuting the idea that poor people are poor because they aren’t trying.

Ehrenreich survived, sort of, though even working one or two jobs she would probably have ended up homeless or in the shelter system if her experiments had gone on for more than a month. Her goal, which was to make enough the first month for a next-month’s rent, was never realized. Let’s cast our minds back to remember that 1998 was near the peak of a bubble, when jobs were plentiful and housing was more affordable. Things are worse now.

Obviously, many people do survive at minimum wage. But the important part to understand is “How?” Ehrenreich excelled in relating her experience clearly, with the relevant details and stakes attached. So when she struggled to get her one pair of work pants clean without the extra change to do laundry, or was given a sandwich by a pitying co-worker, the tension was extreme. She demonstrated in concrete detail that people do survive, yes, but they do so under conditions of such constant work and physical and emotional stress that, well, no, they don’t have a lot of extra resources left for bootstrapping. And you wouldn’t either.

As we come into an election season in America, I find myself thinking a lot about how we could build a better world. For which, you need to understand how the world currently works, and that’s why this book was so exciting to me. It offered a brilliantly simple formula for understanding many puzzling aspects of our political life.

Ehrenreich puts the reader temporarily in the shoes of someone at-her-wits-end poor, stressed out, and busy. If you apply that formula, “people living in poverty are horribly stressed out and crushingly, grindingly busy”  to any social question involving them, it provides an answer that make sense.

Some examples: I share a community with a large, very poor NYC housing project, and the type of questions you hear are Why don’t these parents show up at the PTA? Why don’t they use the library? It’s free! Why aren’t they ever on the beautiful playground in the center of their own housing project that all the white people use instead?

All of these facts are slightly mystifying to the wealthy observer, and seem to have obvious conservative-pundit answers that couldn’t possibly be true. Answers like “They don’t care about their kids.” “They don’t care about books.” !!?!  Contrast the likelihood of that with a sensible answer like, “They are at work. Or they’re involved in the ludicrously time-consuming mechanics of survival without a job or any money. And their lives are so stressful just keeping the essentials together that ha ha PTA, whatever.” Which answer makes sense?

Ehrenreich’s book offers the brilliantly simple understanding of poverty as NO TIME +  STRESS. It removes the moral theater, the idea that some people just deserve it, are weaker or beyond helping. No time + terrible stress = Totally Normal People, But Poor.

And once you understand that modern poverty is a war waged against time, solutions present themselves. People busting their asses for minimum wage need more affordable housing, better-paid jobs, and less degrading management policies. They need a little more time and a little less stress. And they know that. And you know what that makes them? I’m so sorry to say this, but it makes them Trump voters. Voters for a political candidate who promises a protectionist and anti-immigrant economic policy that says it will bring jobs back to America and limit wage competition from low-paid illegals.

It’s like that old question, “what’s the matter with Kansas?”, answered! And not even a mystery. (For the record, Ehrenreich is a huge lefty and thinks that what these people need is stronger unions. She would not agree with the ends I’m putting her book to.)

So anyway, I don’t know if Trump will deliver on his promises, but using my NO TIME + TERRIBLE STRESS = PEOPLE AREN’T IDIOTS formula it seems much less alarming why people would vote for him. They’re not awful hate-filled people, mostly. They’re people in economic duress. Liberals who find them to be horrifying bigots simply are too wealthy to understand the basic conditions of their lives. (Anyone reading this blog post, for example, has way too much time.) And these people would rather speak for themselves rather than voting for the candidates who claim to speak for them, offering blah blah blah government services blah blah blah.

Anyway, that’s a little off-topic of Nickel and Dimed, which was written nearly 20 years ago in a different political climate. Other people might have different takeaways than I did. But in any case, I entreat EVERYONE to go read it.



8 Responses to “22. Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich”

  1. Ivalleria May 9, 2016 at 2:26 pm #

    Actually, a friend too shy to comment just wrote me to say that she’s pretty sure my neighbors in the housing project are not Trump voters. And I realize she’s probably right. I was kind of mixing up my argument. Ehrenreich’s book explains one set of things about the people I do know in my neighborhood, and then I am imagining that it also explains the Middle American Trump voters whom I don’t know.

  2. Grab the Lapels May 9, 2016 at 11:43 pm #

    Hooray! Someone read a book I recommended! *proud of self*

  3. fiftywordsdaily June 2, 2016 at 10:22 pm #

    Wasn’t aware of this so I’m off to track it down now, based upon your excellent review. Reminds me of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London – another marvelous book. Many thanks for highlighting this so clearly.

    • Ivalleria June 3, 2016 at 1:08 pm #

      Down and Out in Paris and London is one of my favorite books! Thanks for commenting.

      • fiftywordsdaily June 3, 2016 at 3:40 pm #

        Oh me too. I love Orwell’s strident prose style – what a writing voice he had! Great pleasure to comment on such an interesting post. Thanks again.


  1. #20BooksofSummer Update! How’s Your Reading Game? | Grab the Lapels - July 7, 2016

    […] and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America (which I recommended to Valerie and she reviewed. I haven’t read the book, but have read sections in composition anthologies) and Jonathan […]

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