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Jan 26

Student Review: Nickel and Dimed

Nickel and Dimed

Nonfiction

 

Bella Alexander provided this student review of the non-fiction memoir Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. 

Fickle and Timed

What is there to do when the living wage can’t actually be lived on? For most working Americans, it’s finding ways to cut back, even if that means making the decision between paying the rent or feeding their children. But for Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed, it resulted in a whole lot of complaining, some relatively minor stress, and an eventual return to her cushy upper middle class life. This book had an intended message that I found to be quite powerful, that is, the wages around the country that we expect working Americans to survive on, even utilize to pull themselves out of poverty, are extremely inadequate. However, although I commend Ehrenreich’s efforts regarding her going out and attempting to experience the life of a wage slave-might I add, when the economy was perhaps a better place for minimum wage workers than it is now-her writing style continually exuded a very detached, almost “holier-than-thou” perspective on what she went through. Even though Ehrenreich and I walked away with the intended message of her toils, what stood out to me more than the purpose of the composition itself was the attitude of upper class citizens towards those lower than them on the socio-economic ladder, represented by the subtle quips and snarky comments made throughout the book.  Ehrenreich was set on proving that the living wage is not livable. That is what she accomplished. But in my mind, Nickel and Dimed is not only a testament to how skewed our take on the minimum wage really is, but also a testament to the bias that the wealthy have towards the poor and the severity of social stratification between classes in our country, as told by someone who embodies the aforementioned phenomenon.

In Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich embarks on a mission to prove that the minimum wage simply isn’t enough. From serving in Florida to scrubbing in Maine to selling in Minnesota, we follow Ehrenreich on her pilgrimage through the life of a working class citizen and are with her as she experiences almost first hand the struggles and realities of situations simulated by her own. She pays special mind to the documentation, analysis, and observation of people she encounters throughout her brief time making it in the world of the working, and overall comes away with a reinforced understanding that the living wage is truly unlivable.

Ehrenreich makes it clear within the first few pages of her memoir that she did not want to do this experiment, stating that it was meant for “someone younger” than herself, “some neophyte journalist with time on her hands.” It is with this sentiment that Nickel and Dimed begins, and also with this sentiment that the entire book is written. Ehrenreich gets a taste, similar in fashion to how a child who does not like broccoli tastes broccoli, of the life of a working class citizen. Despite setting rules for herself regarding finances, jobs, and housing, she self-admittedly smashes each of these rules to pieces at one point or another, sometimes even more than once, which in my mind all but demolishes the scientific validity of her experience, which is ironic because she out rightly states in the beginning of her book that she wanted to make this as scientific an experiment as possible, and this is fitting that she should want this, I suppose, as she does have a PhD in biology that she refuses to let the reader forget.

In addition, Ehrenreich’s writing is chalk full of contradictions. For example, she states "The 'working poor' are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor to everyone else." However, she still, in my mind, fails to fully grasp this concept herself while she continually resents and reproaches all those who she was forced to serve. Another flaw within Ehrenreich’s writing is her at times too humanitarian based actions, as if she were some savior come to rescue her lower class work mates from their depths of despair, as when she was working at WalMart and talked with a fellow employee about improving their situation that perhaps they could have done it had she been able to afford working there any longer.

All in all, Ehrenreich is very aware that she has no place or right to be telling this type of story from the perspective of people she will never fully understand because she chooses not to. Her brief escapade into the world of the working poor was limited in both will and true insight, therefore making her personal experiences essentially irrelevant. However, despite her nauseating personality and upper class slander, the point was delivered with some rather valuable content to accompany it.

There is a saying that goes something like, “Don’t judge someone till you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” In Ehrenreich’s case, she reluctantly decided to make the tumultuous journey into the world of the poor in their beat up sneakers, shuffled along for several steps or so, decided that her feet hurt too much and that the shoes were ugly, then sprinted back to her cushy life. If this attitude is commendable in our society, save for the overall message which in my mind could have been portrayed almost as effectively from behind a desk considering the overall invalidity of Ehrenreich’s little adventure, then what really is there to do for those trying to get by on the living wage that clearly can’t be lived on? If they’re not Barbara Ehrenreich, all there is to do is survive.