Nickel & Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich: Should be required reading for all

As a member of the educated and disproportionately privileged professional class, as well as being the product of immigrant upbringing, it is with some embarrassment that I admit to stereotyping those in poverty as not hard working enough, lacking self-control, or results and participants of substance abuse.  Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich, has given me cause for pause.

The premise of the book is straightforward.  Ehrenreich, a white woman in her 50’s, temporarily leaves behind a world in which she has a doctorate degree, a mortgage and the corresponding material comforts, and a steady job with 401k, to strike it out in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota with the goal of determining whether it’s possible to survive through hard work on a minimum wage.  During this time, she works as a cleaning lady, a waitress, and at as a clothing sorter at Walmart.  While I won’t go into the details about her experiences, suffice to say by the end of the book she finds that she was barely able to survive on the wages she earned to put a roof over her head, to travel between it and her places of work, and to keep herself adequately clothed and nutritionally sustained on a diet of fast food.

On the surface, the main message of this book is to underscore the importance of education and indeed–above all this should be required reading for students as a means to decribe the trials of everyday life and what it takes to survive on without the benefits of value-added skills.  Beyond that–I found this book heartbreaking and at many times throughout felt a tremendous sense of injustice and depression that people experience this in our “1st world” American society.

We all know that unemployment is at highs not seen since the great depression,  but what is not as obvious and measureable is how many people are in what Ehrenreich terms “poverty as acute distress”–meaning that despite working sometimes multiple minimum wage jobs (and thus not considered unemployed) some can barely afford a lunch of Doritos or hot dog rolls to keep from fainting at the end of a work shift.  The main problem is affordable housing.  While there are plenty of jobs which provide the federally mandated $7/hour which translates to $170/week or $680/month after taxes, where in the United states can any rental property be found for the affordable housing ratio of 30% or ~$230/month??

Besides not being able to feed oneself, other hardships faced by those with low-wage jobs include:

1) Living day to day out of a suitcase if one cannot afford permanent housing.  This means living without luxuries you and I take for granted like having dishes to eat from, a stove to cook from, or even a refrigerator to store unfinished food.

2) Not being able to store unfinished food precludes the ability to cook healthy meals–minimum wage workers typically subsist on a diet of fast food.

3) The vulnerability women face while living in temporary housing situations.  As such, the home is no longer a sanctuary after a long day’s work making it hard to truly unwind.  In one situation with paper thin walls an even more fragile windows, Ehrenreich avoided her “home” going there only to sleep at the end of a long evening, with one eye open.  She soon developed tics and involuntary habits of picking at her clothing, which abated when she moved somewhere safer.

4) The catch 22 of having to dress a certain way to work, but not having the money to procure the shirts needed.  We’re talking about a $5 white colored polo-shirt that was the dress code to work at Walmart.  Keeping work outfits clean between trips to the laundromat was a whole other issue.

5) Looking for a job while not having access to an answering machine.

Perhaps the message has hit home especially poignantly because of our recent trip outside of the bay area bubble to another state where unemployment is around 10%.  I wondered throughout the trip how a region could survive with so few apparent industries apart from tourism, a well that has dried now that most Americans are just trying to scrape by and don’t have the money to spend on vacations.  This area seemed to have a self-contained nature, where service jobs provide the income people use to spend on buying things, causing the need for more service jobs.  Upon further thought, my hunch is that far from being “different”, that self-contained service economy might be the makeup of most of the United States.

The observation also seeded the question in my mind–Is there really a need for companies like Wal-Mart, which trades us demeaning, mind-numbing low-wage jobs for the ability to buy poor quality material goods at ridiculously low prices?  This breeds a culture of disposable acquisition, where things are too easily obtained and provide too little satisfaction, which in turn leads to spending beyond means.

Ehrenreich ended her study concluding that it was possible to survive on minimum wage, but that any large unexpected expenditure such as a necessary doctor visit, an injury, or needing maintenance on her car would have been a drastic set-back to her ability to manage finances.  That said, some efficiencies certainly could have been had, like sharing housing with another person.

I came away from this book wondering how I could make it required reading for the kids in our school systems.  The illustrations of the small cruelties encountered while surviving day to day in an unskilled job would be ample motivation for disinterested teenagers to stay in school.  As I child minimum wage seemed like alot to me, but this book describes in vivid detail that the costs do not balance.

Not knowing any educators who influence our national curriculum however, I’ve resorted to telling everyone I know about this book.  🙂

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