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Nickel and Dimed (thoughts)

January 11, 2008

First off, it’s time for the drawing winners!  I just used a ‘random number generator’ site, and the following two bloggers can be expecting books in the mail: Myrthe won Ex Libris and Dewey won The Collector.  Thanks to everyone who put their name in, and here’s to another year of blogging great books! :D 

I mooched Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich ages ago, probably in my first mooching frenzy when I discovered the site.  And finally, with my new year’s resolution playing in my head, I decided to pick it up last week.  The premise if interesting: a reporter goes to three towns and gets a low-paying, ‘low-skilled’ job.  Then, she tries to see if she can survive on the wages for two months.  The problem is, as Ehrenreich freely admits, she gives herself advantages real poor people wouldn’t have, such as a car and an opening ‘cushion’ of money (I think around $1,000).  Nevertheless, it’s still interesting to read about her experiences working (she’s a waitress in a low-grade diner, a cleaner for a Merry Maids type company, and a Wal-Mart ‘associate’).  Since she’s a reporter, I was expecting this to be a heavily researched expose, with some personal experience thrown in (rather like Fast Food Nation).  Instead, this felt like a memoir, with just a few statistics thrown into footnotes every once in awhile.  I say this so that people know what they’re getting into!

 The writing style, while lacking bells and whistles, flows quite nicely.  Ehrenreich’s very good at conveying her immediate living conditions and emotions to the reader. Ay one point, she gets rash:

At first I think the itchy pink bumps on my arms and legs must be pioson ivy picked up at a lockout…Or maybe the cleaning fluids are at fault, except that then the rash should have begun on my hands. After two days of minor irritation, a full-scale epidermal breakdown is under way. I cover myself with anti-itch cream from Rite Aid but can manage to sleep only for an hour and a half at a time before the torment resumes. I wake up realizing I can work but probably shouldn’t, if only because I look like a leper.

My main issue with the book, other than the lack of research, was the little moments of elitism that creep in. At one point, Ehreinrich expresses surprise that ‘low-skill’ jobs actually require workers to learn things! *gasp* Or, she keeps expecting her co-workers to somehow notice that she has a PhD. And at the end of every stint, she tells her co-workers that she’s really an ‘undercover’ reporter, and then she gets really frustrated that they don’t care more. As if they don’t have bigger issues going on in their lives!

Nevertheless, these moments of elitism aren’t super-common, and the book was an interesting peek into the difficulties of the working poor. She forces the reader to realise all the day-to-day problems that are difficult to overcome, like when the working poor can’t save any money, so they can’t put a deposit and two months rent down for an apartment, so they’re forced to live in expensive, pay-by-the-week motel rooms. I think it’s definitely an important book for people who don’t know anything about the poor, but don’t expect an investigative approach!

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. Myrthe permalink
    January 11, 2008 8:25 am

    Yayyyyy!! Thank you so much, Eva! :-) I’ll send you an email, but it might take a few days, because I am kind of short on computer time these days. I am in Holland right now, visiting friends and family and doing some other things I have to do. And yes, I will return to Armenia with a nice stack of books. Details to follow on my blog. ;-)

  2. January 11, 2008 9:56 am

    I remember hearing about this book when it came out. Sounds like an interesting read. I might have to add that to my “In Their Shoes” list

  3. January 11, 2008 10:20 am

    I rather wish she’d “done it right”—with more understanding going in, less elitism, and more research. I’d be more enthused about the idea of reading it. As it is I can’t help feeling that it sounds like she really doesn’t do her subject justice.

  4. January 11, 2008 11:37 am

    I enjoyed this book very much when I read it — being pretty much a member of the “elite,” with my educational advantage and professional job. I agree, though, that when her elitism sneaked in every once in a while, it was annoying. I was a big fan of boycotting Walmart before I read the book and even more so after reading it, and I’ll never look at a “clean” hotel room the same way I did in my innocent past, will you?

  5. J.S. Peyton permalink
    January 11, 2008 12:43 pm

    This book has been on my bookshelf for YEARS! It just keeps getting pushed further and further back until I forget that it’s even there. I only remember I have it whenever I see her other book BAIT AND SWITCH (of a similar premise, I think) in the bookstore. Perhaps reading your posts on this will inspire me to stop pushing it to the back of the line.

  6. January 11, 2008 1:02 pm

    I read this book a little while ago with high expectations and I agree with Heather, I don’t feel as if she did her subject justice. I felt like she kept talking about how hopeless the situation is, yet rejoicing that she’s only in it temporarily. I would have loved for her to really get into it and stay more than a month at any one place, and experience a major set back. I just wish, like others, she had researched it more.

  7. January 11, 2008 2:19 pm

    Ha ha, I love what you said about the elitist attitude. I have this book on TBR Mountain, so it’s interesting to hear your thoughts.

    So happy I won a book! Could you tell me more about the random generator site? I need more ideas for choosing winners. I can’t have people making up silly names or guessing teas forever.

  8. January 11, 2008 5:05 pm

    I had almost identical feelings about this book when I read and reviewed it last year. I was expecting more out of it as well, and was not entirely impressed with her research, and attitude.

  9. January 11, 2008 6:19 pm

    I read the book two or three years ago so many of the details escape me but I remember reading the part about Wal-Mart with interest because I often wondered what it was really like to work in one of their stores. I’ve been in the stores and witnessed a few of their employee pep rallies and it felt almost cultish to me. I don’t think I could participate in one of those little rallies and keep a straight face.

    I don’t remember gaining a whole lot from her other job experiences but I did get a sense of how difficult it is for people to break out of the poverty cycle, so I suppose the book serves a good purpose.

  10. January 12, 2008 6:48 am

    I liked the book too — and I agree with you about her privilege showing through now and then. But it was a very good read and it certainly taught me a lot — I admire her!

  11. January 12, 2008 8:19 am

    I think the thing is that we really don’t come into close enough contact with many of the people in this situation. I’ve been brought up short, time and again, by the lives of the women who work as sitters for the ill and elderly. A difficult job at best; regardless of how expensive it is to hire round-the-clock sitters, the pay is devastatingly low for what is required of those individuals. Looking at the people who fall into those low-skilled jobs from an intellectual viewpoint doesn’t begin to explain the daily difficulties…

    Regardless of the flaws mentioned, I think I may need to give this one a try.

  12. January 12, 2008 8:37 am

    I’ve always thought I ought to read this book, but after your excellent review, suspect I probably won’t. I think I would be more interested in the research and statistics side of things – I think many of us are aware to some degree of these issues and it would have helped the author’s case to present more specific information.

  13. January 12, 2008 10:32 am

    Myrthe, no problem! Have fun in Holland. :)

    Kim, it definitely works better as a memoir.

    Heather, I agree…I really expected a facts-based approach. Oh well-maybe that book will be written eventually!

    Emily, I agree! For me, though, I’ll never hire any of the Merry Maid-style companies…they barely use any water and don’t worry about germs! Ugh.

    J.S. Peyton, I’ll look forward to your thoughts on it. :)

    Ebony, I once again agree completely.

    Dew, yeah-it was weird, she kept saying how her dad worked in the Pennsylvania mines when she was little, but there was definitely a lot of elitism shining through.

    Alisia, that seems to be the general theme!

    Sam, the Wal-Mart stuff reminded me of high school! Only weirder. I agree that for people who think all someone needs to do is ‘get a job,’ this book would be a good eye-opener.

    Dorothy, it taught me quite a bit as well!

    Jenclair, it’s true that the intellectual approach alone loses the humanity. That’s why I think the ideal book would blend the two…I really want the Fast Food Nation author to take on this topic.

    Tara, let me know if you find another book out there addressing more of the statistics side!

  14. January 13, 2008 12:06 pm

    I’m planning on reading David Shipler’s The Working Poor this year…perhaps that will be the one!

  15. January 13, 2008 3:16 pm

    Ohh-that sounds interesting! I’ll look out for your review. :)

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