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Down and Out and Working

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books, 2001.
Hardcover, 221 pages, $23.00.

Nickel & Dimed

Steve Brouwer

When I was in Denmark three summers ago, a friend was aware that his physician's salary, about eighty-five thousand dollars per year, amounted to chump change in the USA. But he did not realize that his fifteen-year-old daughter's summer wage, ten dollars and fifty cents an hour for twenty hours a week at the local department store, was a princess-ly sum. When I wondered how the kid got this special deal, she piped up, "It's the minimum wage." Not bad, I thought, since she could look forward to free university training and a lifetime of free health care.

Biography of Barbara Ehrenreich [The Nation]

"Housing Less Affordable as Rent-Wage Gap Widens," Diane Wedner, L.A Times

"Starbucks Wants Double-Tall Non-Union Roasting Plant," Seattle Independent Media Center

"The Everyday Quitter: Highs and Lows of Minimum Wage Work," Randy Russell [Utne Reader/American Job]

"Assholes at My Station: A Waitron's Tale of Horror," Paul Rosenberg [Utne Reader/Lumpen]

The Minimum Wage, U.S. Department of Labor

Living Wage Resource Center, ACORN

Business Leaders and Investors for a Living Wage

Third Worldization of America [Third World Traveler]

"The Vision-Impaired Rich," Barbara Ehrenreich [
The Progressive]

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In the United States, a country even richer than Denmark, an hour's work only gets you half as many kroner, and forget about medicine and school. To Barbara Ehrenreich, a social critic with a practical and scientific mind, the implications of this reality have been troubling: How does anyone survive at the bottom of the U.S. labor market while earning anything close to the minimum wage? Because she's unusually brave and imaginative for a writer, Ehrenreich researched this question by getting off her butt and going to work—first, as a waitress in Key West, Florida; then as a housecleaner and nursing-home aide in Portland, Maine; finally as an "associate" (that is, an hourly laborer) at Wal-Mart in Minneapolis. With little difficulty she proved her hypothesis: it's impossible for a single person to "live" in many parts of the United States—that is, to pay for rent, utilities, food, and transportation but hardly anything else—on six or seven dollars an hour for a forty-hour week.

Ehrenreich's valuable book takes us to the underside of the economy. She forces her presumably more affluent readers to acknowledge how much thankless drudgery lies behind the so-called boom times all Americans were supposedly enjoying until September 11th. Ehrenreich supplies enough statistical evidence to refute those who claim that only a wayward few—say one or two per cent of the population—have missed the pleasure boat. About thirty per cent of American workers earn eight dollars an hour or less; most of them labor in the vast expanse of service industries that provide most U.S. jobs. Ehrenreich did not work for Mom-and-Pop businesses where the owners were struggling to pay themselves an adequate wage; she worked for corporations that have routinized and dehumanized service labor as systematically as the assembly lines that standardized factory labor at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Thanks to this author's unfailing honesty and rich sense of humor, the upscale readers to whom the book is pitched will re-learn what most once knew but many have tried to forget: there is no such thing as unskilled labor, and most semi-skilled work takes effort and attention. Ehrenreich, who prides herself on physical fitness, laughs at her struggle to keep pace with her co-workers. Whether she's running from kitchen to table to table at the chain restaurant, stumbling after her fellow cleaners (The Maids) with their strict instructions for cleaning time and methods (using water just wastes too much time), or swooping around the corner to restock another shelf at Wal-Mart, one of her greatest fears is of letting down her fellow workers—that they'll have to do their own work and hers too. By the end of each month—her allotted time at each workplace—she is pleased to note that her skill level and speed are approaching the norm but distressed to realize that her body and spirit are getting run down—especially when she has to take a second, part-time job in order to pay the bills. She wonders how many more months it would take for her body to break down, not to mention her spirit.

Ehrenreich's jobs are predominantly women's jobs. On the one hand, even as she fantasizes about informal labor organizing, she muses about her own docility and willingness to please. On the other hand, the job she enjoys most—because of its emotional give-and-take and its change of characters and mood—is the one that demands extra-special efforts to please: waitressing. Nobody seems surprised that Ehrenreich, a well-spoken middle-aged white woman, needs a low-wage job. She has chosen locations that are overwhelmingly peopled by whites, and there's no shortage of people looking for work even though the labor markets are described as very tight. The real shortage is affordable living space. Old studio apartments and flea-bitten trailers are snapped up at prohibitive prices, leaving the author in rundown, unsafe motel rooms that rent by the week.

I concluded the book with admiration for Ehrenreich's spunk and a feeling that readers like me—fifty-ish ex-radicals and liberals—had better muster some spunk of our own, before Big Oil and Little Bush manage to kill off every remnant of the New Deal. Quite a few pages before the author told me so in her final "evaluation," I also concluded that if her low-wage experiment was difficult for Ehrenreich—bearing the "invisible privilege" of her whiteness—then it had to be utterly impossible for many people of color and for most of the mothers that were recently kicked off welfare.

It is demoralizing to work all week at Wal-Mart and still be unable to feed your children. It is even more humiliating to labor under the authoritarian, aggressively anti-union corporate culture of this, the nation's largest employer. If employees can handle the drug testing, the personality tests, and the warnings not to engage in "time theft" (daydreaming on the job), they might see their wages rise from $7.00 to $7.75 after two years (Wal-Mart has to pay a little more in Minneapolis than in some other parts of the country.) Since the mother of small children will need food stamps, subsidized daycare, and a Section 8 apartment voucher to keep her family together at this ridiculous wage, who is going to pay the bill? We are. All U.S. taxpayers are picking up the tab, thereby augmenting the profits and subsidizing the stockholders of every corporation that fails to pay a living wage.

Where are the outraged middle-class tax protesters when we really need them? They ought to be picketing their local discount stores. Or their parents' nursing homes. Or their kids' day care centers. And where are the working-class protesters? There were no outraged waitresses, cleaners, or associates picketing the places where Barbara Ehrenreich toiled. There were not even any workers sitting around the lunch table, plotting implausible scenarios of revenge. Lack of protest is the most discouraging phenomenon depicted in this otherwise courageous book. Has the corporate culture become so pervasive that working people can't stand up on their hind feet and howl? What happened to the spirit that animated the socialists and anarchists and trade unionists of one hundred years ago? They got slapped down again and again but always came back to fight another day.

Green, James, Taking History to Heart: The Power of the Past in Building Social Movements. University of Massachusetts Press, 2000. Paperback, 352 pages, $19.95.

Orwell, George, Down and Out in Paris and London. Harvest Books, 1983. Paperback, $13.00.

Zinn, Howard, et al., Three Strikes: Miners, Musicians, Salesgirls, and the Fighting Spirit of Labor's Last Century. Beacon Press, 2001. Hardcover, 174 pages, $23.00.

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