by Rev. Laura Barclay
Published around a decade ago, Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich recounts the first-hand story of a journalist who sets aside a year to pursue working class jobs and discover how waiters, maids, and Wal-Mart employees survive on such low wages. This book was assigned by CBFNC’s Wealth and Poverty Task Force as an introduction to the experience of poverty in America through a middle-class lens. The experiences still ring true ten years later with America in the middle of a recession, and the gap between the rich and the poor widening.
The book is divided into three parts for the three different cities and jobs she tackles. For her first job, she waits tables at two different restaurants in Key West. Her co-workers live in hotel rooms with other employees and in their cars parked in the lot behind the restaurant. Waiters are not allowed to enter through the front door because it detracts from the middle class ambiance of the customers, so they have to use the back entrance.
Barbara’s second job finds her at cleaning service in Maine. Backbreaking and demeaning, her job requires her to clean houses, sometimes scrubbing the floors in front of the customers while they watch and critique when she misses a spot. One of her co-workers is pregnant, but cleans through the nausea because her boss does not allow sick days. They barely get breaks, and many cannot afford to buy more than a snack at the gas station for lunch.
The third final job is at Wal-Mart in Minnesota. After a mind-numbing all-day orientation on Wal-Mart procedures and the evils of unionizing, she spends her days under the watch of a critical manager while folding and sorting ladies’ clothes. She lives in a motel where the sewage backs up and mold fills the air. Even with these poor accommodations, she runs out of money and is forced to quit her project. How do those who do not have the luxury of quitting poverty survive?
Throughout the book, she references horrifying statistics that give context to her experiences. Perhaps the most disturbing statistic is that 60% of Americans do no make a living wage—equated by the Economic Policy Institute to be $30,000—and that was almost 10 years before this recession (213). Of adults seeking to obtain emergency food, sixty-seven percent have jobs (219). When polled, ninety-four percent of Americans believe that those who work should be paid enough to provide for their families and keep them from slipping below the poverty line (220). Yet, our country remains one of the few in the industrialized world that do not provide adequate healthcare, childcare, good public transportation and subsidized housing. The private sector is left alone with the impossible task of trying and failing to provide for its workers. The massive layoffs and failures of the recession make it all too clear that the private sector alone cannot support the working class.
She concludes the end of the book with a bleak picture of the low-wage workplace. Workers are forced to find jobs close to home, because they are not as mobile as their wealthier counterparts. If they are lucky enough to have cars, they may not be able to afford the gas. These workers do not have the access to computer resources for resume building and job searching, further restricting their search. When they do find a job, they are subject to searches, drug tests, and strict rules against gossip to keep workers from organizing for better conditions—all borderline violations of civil rights. The constant demoralizing and criminal treatment because of socio-economic status no doubt affects the workers’ psyche and health, not to mention kills their dreams of one day crawling out of poverty.
This is a great resource for translating the poverty experience to the middle class. Barbara Ehrenreich is a fierce advocate for the poor, especially during the last chapter where she evaluates her experience within the greater context of poverty. The discussion questions at the back of the book make it perfect for a church or social book club. Reading this book is a great opportunity to reflect about the poor in our own communities, both employed and unemployed, and think about ways to build relationships with the poor and advocate for their rights.
If you are interesting in advocating for the poor, here are a few places to start: