Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Enrenreich

Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich spends several months working at minimum wage jobs in several different locations around the country.  Her goal is to see if it's really possible to live on a minimum wage salary.

The first job Ehrenreich works is as a waitress in her own home of Key West, Florida.  She quickly finds that in order to afford housing, she needs to pick up a second job, and the only reason she could afford a down payment on an apartment is that she allowed herself some start-off money.  Working two jobs exhausts her, and she moves into a mobile home and drops the lower paying waitressing job.

Next she works as a maid in Maine.  Ehrenreich finds working as a maid makes her invisible, more than any of the other jobs she has.  Again, one job isn't enough, so she begins working at a nursing home on weekends.

The last job Ehrenreich takes is retail.  She works at a Wal-Mart in Minnesota.  In Minnesota, Ehrenreich lives in motels, as affordable housing isn't available.  She ultimately has to leave because she isn't able to find a second job in time, and can't afford anything on the $7 she makes at Wal-Mart.

What I found most interesting about this book was the look at the myth that all it takes to get out of welfare is getting a job.  There is the idea that if you can get a job, everything else will follow. This is not the case.  First of all, in order to get a job, you need a permanent address.  This is a real issue.  Many of the people Ehrenreich talked too lived with multiple other families, or in trailers, or in their cars.  Housing is not easy to come by.  And one job at minimum wage is never enough.  Everyone is working second and sometimes even a third job. 

Then of course there's the look at home low-wage workers are treated.  They're treated like they're stupid.  I remember working as an usher at a theater during college.  It pissed me off to no end when people would talk to me like I was an idiot, which happened quite frequently.  There seems to be an assumption that if you're working a minimum wage job, you're not smart enough to be doing anything else.

There's also a look at how minimum wage jobs can get away with treating their workers poorly.  The retail stores seemed to be especially clever about it.  You'd have an interview, and the next thing would be coming in for orientation.  There was never a formal job offer, so there was never any point where you get to sit down and ask about hours and wages and so on.  You're just thrown right in, and then you're an employee who can be fired and isn't comfortable asking those questions anymore.

It was certainly an interesting look.  Ehrenreich did this in the 90s.  I'd like to know what, if anything, has changed since then.  Are things worse?  Better?  I'd imagine housing must be harder to come by, as housing rates, even now, have inflated way, way faster than the minimum wage has risen.

I listened to the audio book version, and I enjoyed the narrator, Cristine McMurdo-Wallis' reading.  Her voice fit in well with how I pictured Ehrenreich.  She sounded properly tired and angry when I felt that must be how she was feeling.

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