Nickel and Dimed Tom Janulewicz Book Lovers

book Nickel and Dimed

reviewed by Tom Janulewicz

Published in Issue No. 55 ~ December, 2001

If you are reading this review, then chances are you do not earn your
living in one of the professions that Barbara Ehrenreich assayed while
researching Nickel and Dimed. If you are only earning seven
dollars and change an hour, then odds are you trade off computer
ownership and Internet access in favor of things like food and
lodging. By the same token, if you are reading this review, then
chances are you are almost certainly beneficiary, either occasional or
daily, of the labors performed by Ehrenreich’s contemporaries.

Nickel and Dimed represents her examination of the consequences
of welfare reform in the United States. She set out to learn how
people who make their living working at low wage, service-oriented
jobs — the sort of jobs champions of welfare reform usually tout
when they speak of job creation in the United States. To this end,
Ehrenreich decided to put herself in the shoes of the people —
and in her experience, these workers are primarily women —
trying to make ends meet on six to seven dollars and hour. Nickel
and Dimed
recounts her experiences working as a waitress and hotel
housekeeper in Florida, a house cleaner and dietary aide in Maine, and
a Wal-Mart associate in Minnesota.

Ehrenreich established a series of parameters to structure her
experiment. At the most basic level, her goal was “to spend a month in
each setting and see whether I could find a job and earn, in that
time, the money to pay a second month’s rent.” Although limited
in scope, this decision reflects the fundamental challenge facing
low-wage workers in the United States. As she notes in the
introduction, “Almost anyone could do what I did — look for
jobs, work those jobs, try to make ends meet. In fact, millions of
Americans do it every day, and with a lot less fanfare and dithering.”

Once she enters the low-wage workforce, the account of
Ehrenreich’s experiences quickly takes on a Dickensian air.
While visions of Florida restaurants and Maine maid services
don’t provoke the same visceral reaction as accounts of
nineteenth century London workhouses, the careful reader will note
certain similarities. At times, Nickel and Dimed reads as a
repetitive tale of long hours, tedious tasks, stress injuries and
petty-minded bosses. Whether Ehrenreich is waiting tables, cleaning
houses or returning discarded merchandise to its proper place on the
Wal-Mart floor, the nature of her labor doesn’t change all that
much, and the rhythm of her writing reflects the similarities among
her various occupations. To her credit, she supplements the anecdotal
drudgery with copious statistical footnotes and insights about her
coworkers’ little workplace rebellions, her employers’
charismatic appeal to the people they employ and her customers’
various failings and offhand cruelties.

While the work itself ranges from the dull to the harrowing, the
illuminating reality of Nickel and Dimed is that low-wage work
is barely sufficient to meet the basic human needs of food, clothing
and shelter. Every penny earned needs to be spent to meet these basic
needs, with little or nothing left over to cover luxuries like health
care or insurance. Certainly, the individual conditions and
experiences of Ehrenreich’s coworkers vary — some (i.e.,
those for whom their job constitutes a second family income) are in
better financial straits, others seem even more desperate — but
on the average, Nickel and Dimed tells the story of working for
subsistence. When a worker, like one of Ehrenreich’s fellow
maids is unable to scrape together the price of a can of soda, when a
dinner out at T.G.I. Friday’s or a Dairy Queen sundae become
seemingly unattainable luxuries, when a store clerk does not earn
enough to afford a marked down shirt from the store in which she
works, when success and career advancement gets measured in terms of a
seventy-five cent salary increase over the course of two years, then
it becomes obvious that low-wage life is hardly the pathway to

This, then, becomes the grim truth of the book: there is no getting
ahead in the world of Nickel and Dimed. Between taking a job
and receiving that first paycheck, low-wage workers face challenges
that threaten to set them even further behind in their pursuit of the
American dream, to say nothing of the fact that the career path that
takes a person from these jobs to Easy Street is almost impossible to
divine. First of all, some employers — like a home improvement
store at which Ehrenreich applies in Minnesota — require
employees to purchase work clothing and equipment, the cost of which
gets deducted from their paycheck. Then, almost all the places where
Ehrenreich worked held back her first week’s pay as an incentive
for her to return for the second week of work. Finally, workers are
expected to meet their basic needs of food, clothing and shelter
— health care becoming just another one of those luxuries that
workers learn to cut from their budget — with what is left after
taxes, equipment deductions and salary deferral. In fact, in some
cases, shelter alone becomes a budget breaker. Ehrenreich explains
that as real estate prices around the country skyrocketed in the
1990s, the cost and availability of “affordable” housing became
equally lofty.

The challenges of low-wage work begin well before the first penny is
docked from the first week’s paycheck that the employee
won’t even see until they prove to their employer’s
satisfaction that they deserve to be paid what they earned. Before
reporting to work, applicants are subjected to personality assessment
and drug screening tests. Ehrenreich quite correctly asks whether such
testing is about screening potential employees, or whether it has more
to do with the advertising, marketing and public relations acumen of
the multi-billion dollar assessment industry. While testing taps into
the fundamental mistrust of workers that is inherent in capitalism,
such testing costs companies more than employee theft or low
productivity ever could. As an example, Ehrenreich cites the results
of one federal drug testing program where the cost of detecting one
drug user was $77,000.

Then there are the almost Orwellian mechanics by which an applicant
becomes an employee. In one job, Ehrenreich writes of going from one
state to the other as if by magic, from providing a urine specimen to
being told when to report for work. There was no job offer, no
discussion of salary. Clearly, such an approach to hiring —
which puts all the power in the hands of the employer —
doesn’t afford a new hire the opportunity to negotiate salary or
benefits, or even to know the details of those terms until they appear
on a paycheck, minus deductions. Coupled with the form of the hiring
process is a public, and published, disdain for and hostility toward
unions, which at least one employer portrayed as “no longer having
much to offer workers.”

In the end, Ehrenreich gets to return to her life to report her findings.
While we as readers benefit from her insight and research, the fact
that she gets to go back home at a time of her choosing means that we
can never fully trust her perspective. While she fully participates in
the work she undertakes, Ehrenreich is never completely detached. Even
when fully immersed in the physical — and in some cases
emotional — exertion of her labors, she retains the baggage of
her former life. As such, her reactions at times rage from cynical
detachment, to the sort of indignation that is the province of the
privileged. Ultimately, there is no way for a journalist to completely
mitigate this tension between assignment and identity, but when
Ehrenreich’s reporter’s eye is fully focused and her
account brings us fully into the moment Nickel and Dimed brings
us as close as many of us probably care to venture to how the other
half struggles to live.

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Tom Janulewicz lives with his wife and daughter in Shirley, Massachusetts. He is serious. And don't call him Shirley.