Book Review: Nickel and Dimed

Thanks be to Matt for lending me Barbara Ehrenreich's, "Nickel and Dimed", subtitled, 'On (Not) Getting By in America', some time ago. This humble little log entry / book review serves as my attempt to return a favor as well as the book itself. Ehrenreich, a relatively well-known American author who writes extensively on various societal matters, had the perfect idea one day for a book project. As explained in the introduction to 'Nickel and Dimed', the setting - a stylishly expensive French restaurant - would prove ironic. What if, wondered Ehrenreich, a young and ambitious journalist were to temporarily cast away the economic advantages and privileges of the middle and upper classes and immerse her or himself fully into the working class life? What could be learned from such an experience? Certainly, millions of people - members of the working class themselves - know very well how such a life is lived; they have no choice but to live it every day. To what extent, however, are these people succeeding in having their stories told, sufficiently articulated, and heard? Ehrenreich herself felt unsatisfied with what knowledge was available of the working class members. There were the government poverty, wage and price index statistics, to be sure, but how reliable were they? Were there, wondered Ehrenreich, what she termed 'hidden economies' among low-wage earners? Would these enable them to somehow comfortably stretch their $7.00 and $8.00 per hour wages sufficient to cover the necessary expenses of day by day living? The numbers found in the statistics, thought Ehrenreich, simply did not seem to add up. These people, for the most part succeed in staying alive. For Ehrenreich, the unanswered query was, "How"? With enthusiasm, Ehrenreich's editor supported the project idea but with one caveat; he was not about to entrust the project to anyone other than Ehrenreich herself. Thus begins the tale of Ehrenreich's experiences over the next several months working at several low-wage jobs - as a waitress, hotel maid, Wal-Mart salesperson, house cleaner, nursing home aide - in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota.

Well into her fifties but perfectly healthy and very fit, Ehrenreich endeavored to 'bury' all traces of her professional white-collar qualifications and competencies in order to work the jobs that low-wage earners work, to earn the wages they earn, to find and live in the housing they can procure, to experience by choice the lives they endure by necessity. Substandard and hard to find housing, extreme job stress, predatory managers and unkind customers, lack of access to healthcare, repetitive stress and other work-related injuries, poor hygiene, malnutrition, desperation, fear, low self-esteem and utter hopelessness - all of this and so much more can be found in the pages of this book (and all too often across the table in the person serving you your hot meal with a smile and enduring your indignant wrath with the patience of Job. You might want to file this for future reference the next time you bitch about your two scoops of sugar instead of the one for which you asked). The best and the bleakest example of what Ehrenreich encountered can be seen in her description of 'Pauline', a co-worker of Ehrenreich when she worked for a house-cleaning company in Maine. I will quote at length from page 116 of this edition below. Here Ehrenreich is describing, among other things, the utter dependence of her co-workers for their senses of self-esteem upon the approval of their supervisor, 'Ted'. "I see the power of his approval most clearly on Pauline's last day. She is sixty-seven and has been on the job longer than anyone - two years - enough to rate her a mention in the newsletter published by corporate headquarters. Her back has long since given out but she's leaving now because she's scheduled for knee surgery in a couple of weeks, the result, she says, of too much floor scrubbing. Still, Ted makes no mention of her departure at the morning meeting of her last day, nor does he thank her privately or wish her well at the end of the day. I know this because I offer her a ride home that day when it appears that her usual one isn't going to show up. As we drive through the rainy streets of South Portland, she talks about the surgery and the weeks of recovery that will follow it, and then the need to go out and find another job, preferably one that doesn't involve so much bending and lifting and crouching. But mostly she talks about Ted and her feeling of hurt. "He's never liked me since I had to stop vacuuming because of the back," she says, "I've asked him why I get paid less than anyone" - and her level of seniority is, I think, what she means - "and he says, 'Well, if you could just vacuum...'" There's no bitterness in her voice, just the mortal sadness of looking ahead, toward the end of one's life, at the gray streets and the rain." The picture Ehrenreich paints is as vivid as it is troubling (and vivid because troubling). I could go on and on with the details but will not. That would take too long and I would become depressed all over again.

What I will do is share some personal reactions to the book. I was disturbed in the most visceral manner possible to read of the working conditions of low-wage earners described in this book. A history major, I am reasonably well aware of the horrific lives led by factory workers during the early stages of the industrial revolution. I am aware of how 'invisible' these lives were to most commentators, politicians and 'people of culture' at that time. I am also aware, however, of the various political and humanitarian efforts to address and correct these problems. This book, however, laid bare for me my ignorance about working conditions among low-wage workers that persist to this day. I knew that said conditions were not so good; I did not know that they were so bad. Why, I can't help but ask, are things so bad for so many? Why didn't I (and probably you as well) know more about such widespread misery? I was also struck by what I learned in terms of practical epistemology. Feminist commentators have written and spoken about "women's ways of knowing" and of the dangers of reification - of relying on the numbers offered through statistics and measurements without seeing and feeling and knowing the reality behind said numbers. What can be said about the dangers of reification with regard to understanding the lives of many women could also be applied to our attempts to understand the lives of the poor.

This book makes such dangers clear. We can be smugly complacent in our knowledge, for example, that subsidized housing and assistance in the form of free food are on offer for the poor. These things exist. They are affordable. The numbers bear this out. How could anyone argue with them? What Ehrenreich shows, however, is that regular housing of any kind is often in such poor supply that the poor are often forced - as was she - to live in hotel rooms. Ironically, circumstances arising from poverty itself often force people to pay more for housing than they normally would were they not impoverished. Monthly rents for apartments, after all, tend to be a lot lower than daily fees for hotel rooms. What goes for housing also goes for other services ostensibly set up for the benefit of the poor. Free food that is overly processed (and thus unhealthy) garbage, government services offered during the very hours that the working poor are most often on the job and other problems that are invisible through a reading of the statistics are on full display in these pages. Also of great relevance to this book is the matter of worker productivity. I can recall management consultant Peter Drucker writing about the matter of productivity in his book, "Post-Capitalist Society". In this book, Drucker notes how a certain Frederick Taylor revolutionized the world of work through his famed 'time and motion' studies. Through his observation of factory and other blue-collar workers, Taylor determined that for a great number of jobs, one ultimately efficient standard of practice could be put in place and mandated for each worker to perform as prescribed. Should the worker perform in this most efficient of manners, productivity would rise and everyone (or so it was hoped) would benefit from the greater work output. While it may be open to debate how equitably were distributed the fruits of this greater productivity, few would argue that Taylor's work has indeed resulted in a startlingly higher level of productivity. Drucker's main point of contention as of the early 1990's was that while Taylor's methods were put to good use in the manufacturing and agricultural industries, they were not yet being put to effective or widespread use in the service industry. Drucker's prescription was for increased out servicing of service jobs in order that large companies could take over and put Taylor's methods to large-scale work.

The effects of Drucker's prescription can be found in Ehrenreich's aforementioned account of her experiences working in Maine for a house cleaning services company (one with over three hundred franchises nationwide). Here, all work is indeed prescribed in great detail by the company. The result is speed, to be sure, but nothing else to the benefit of either the over-worked and impoverished employees or the home-owners who are all too often unaware of just how disgustingly bacteria-laden their homes remain after a quick vacuum, spill and swipe by the workers. The numbers on your clean sheet of paper show us the triumphs of Taylor's 'scientific management' and modern capitalism; your E-coil infested kitchen counter cautions us to beware the dangers of reification (and crappy rags). Life can be tough. Must it be so tough for so many, though? Who knows? The story of the working poor that Ehrenreich provides seems so very unfair. One wonders what the response should and can be to such an unfair situation, though. Human nature can be an ugly thing and it seems to be a fundamental part of human nature to exploit others. Attempts to escape the exploitation of capitalism have at times and in places led to the far greater (if fashionably all too often ignored) exploitation of communism. Surely, though, there must be a better way for us all to work, both individually and collectively, for a better world. Or is there?