Democratic Underground

Nickel and Dimed
July 25, 2001
Book review by geniph

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Hardcover - 256 pages (May 2001) Metropolitan Books
$13.80 at — Buy it!

Click here to buy this bookI no longer see motels the same way since reading Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

I've always thought of roadside motels as overnight crashpads for travelers; just a place to rest your head between bouts of driving. You know the kind I mean - the kind where you park right in front of the door and you're lucky if there's toilet paper, let alone a mini-bar of soap. The kind of place you'd never consider staying in for two nights, or staying past 11 a.m., for that matter. I never thought of living in one, and didn't realize what a high percentage of the American population does - I mean, after all, motels are expensive to live in.

I now find myself examining the cars in motel parking lots, and wondering about the people who drive them, where they work, how many people are sharing those tiny rooms, and how long they've been living in the motels. For the purposes of this book, the well-known essayist Barbara Ehrenreich chose to find out for herself how well a person can survive on near-minimum wage. Working at various times in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota, she took whatever work she was offered, and does stints as a waitress, a Wal-Mart "associate," a housecleaner, and an aide in a nursing home. The experiment was to see if she could actually live on her wages while working full-time; the only "luxury" she allowed herself outside of her regular wages was to have a car.

One of the first things she found was that, "trailer trash was now a demographic to aspire to." A person making $7 an hour will have several difficulties finding affordable housing; the chief difficulty (besides the paucity of housing for the low-income in most communities) is that almost any rental requires the first month's rent and a security deposit in advance. Unless you're living in your car - which she found was the case for many of her coworkers - it's nearly impossible to save up that kind of cash on $7 an hour. Thus, the motels, which don't require as much money upfront, but end up costing the low-income worker two or three times as much as a small apartment might.

She found, in the course of her experiment, that many other things that a middle-class person takes for granted are completely out of reach for the 40% of the population who aren't making a living wage. She scrambles for housing, food, the money to launder her scant wardrobe, gas for her car. At one point, despite her resolution to make do without food stamps or other assistance, she has to go to a food bank, and finds the gift of food almost unusable, since her motel room lacks either cooking facilities or refrigeration. Even working two jobs, seven days a week, she still nearly has to resort to a shelter; had she become injured or ill, even the $19/night shelter would have been beyond her means.

She finds the indignities accepted as commonplace by the low-income workers are shocking to those who have not lived and worked under those circumstances; the right to void one's bladder was only guaranteed by law within the last few years, and is still denied in many workplaces. Drug tests and psychological screening examinations, with questions such as "It's sometimes okay to come to work high," have become routine. Employers refuse employees the right to drink water while they work, coerce them into working uncompensated overtime, fire them when their work-related injuries render them unable to work, subject them to constant harangues and humiliations that most of us have never experienced and cannot imagine enduring.

Among the things she found were that no job is truly unskilled; even the lowliest occupation requires great mental and physical tenacity and endurance. She concludes that 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."

I found the book eye-opening, thought-provoking, frequently hilarious, and often very poignant. I highly recommend it; it should be required reading for anyone likely to be, hire, or receive service from, a low-wage worker. In other words, everyone.

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