Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich

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Five stars, read for Banned Books Week in September 2011.

Barbara Ehrenreich was at lunch with her editor one day, talking about national poverty (it was the early 90s and welfare reform was big in the news), wondering how the four million women who were about to be “booted into the labor market” were going to fare on their $6 and $7 hourly jobs. Her editor suggested that she try it for herself, and she decided to do it.

She spent three months working at low-wage jobs, one month each in Key West, Florida (where she lives); Portland, Maine; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. She worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a house cleaner, a nursing home aide, and a Wal-Mart associate—and as a white, educated, healthy woman with no children to support (but also no husband or roommate to contribute income), she found that she could not make enough money to live in even the most inferior circumstances.

She ate as cheaply as she could (which was difficult in Minneapolis, since she didn’t have a refrigerator), sometimes lucky enough to get some free breakfasts from an employer. She used pay phones when she didn’t have phone service in her room (and because back then, there were still pay phones to use). She didn’t go out, had “no expenditures on ‘carousing,’ flashy clothes, or any of the other indulgences that are often smugly believed to undermine the budgets of the poor”—her most extravagant purchase was a pair of $30 Dockers, for work, which she bought because she thought they’d last longer than the cheaper options.

In her first apartment in Key West, she made enough to cover food, gas, toiletries, laundry, phone, utilities, and rent (with only $22 extra per month for emergencies and things like medical or dental care). But she had to move to be closer to work, and the new rent—in a trailer park—was too high to be maintained with one job.

In Portland she was closest to a good balance between income and expenses, but only because she worked two jobs, seven days a week. Gas and electricity were included in her rent, and she got free meals on the weekends at her second job. But she was also getting an off-season rate at her apartment, and if she’d stayed until the summer, her rent would have more than tripled, making it completely unaffordable.

And in Minneapolis, she never did find an apartment she could afford, though she looked for the entire time she was there. She ended up living in a dirty motel with mice, mold, no window screen, no AC or fan, no refrigerator or microwave, and no lock on the door—for $255 a week, or $1020 per month. And not only was her pay at Wal-Mart not enough to cover this, her constantly changing schedule kept her from getting a second job. This is how all my jobs in retail were, so I know the experience well.

As I read this, I had to keep in mind that Ehrenreich’s experience happened under the best possible circumstances, in both the national economy—where things have only gotten worse for the poor since 2000—and her personal situation. Though her lodgings were generally disgusting and tiny, she was at least not sharing with children, roommates, parents, or other relatives, like most of the poor do; she was coming from a lifetime of good health and medical care, which the poor do not have;  she had a car; and, ultimately, she had her real life to fall back on.

Published 2001. Top ten most challenged books of 2010.

Reasons challenged: drugs, inaccurate, offensive language, political viewpoint, and religious viewpoint

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