Kristen's Reviews > Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
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May 16, 12

bookshelves: own, non-fiction, make-you-put-a-gun-in-your-mouth
Read from April 28 to 29, 2012

I wanted to hate this book. I bought it with the intention of hating it. Overeducated liberal writer slumming it on minimum wage, to prove what? That minimum wage is not livable? Well who ever said it was? And looking at the reviews it’s clear this book is a Rorschach test for poverty, anyone poor enough to relate to the indignities she describes will invariable feel some resentment at the minimum wage martyr act, flagellating herself with your everyday life. And how easy it was for me especially to seethe with anger when the author repeatedly names my job alone as the one position she would simply not consider, no reason ever given, simply that working at the front desk of a hotel was out of the question, and what a shame as I guarantee that it would have provided innumerable opportunities for the sort of dead-end job self-abasement for which she was searching. Ironically I read this entire book at work over the past two days, on U of M graduation weekend, where more than any other time we are just overflowing with demanding self-satisfied yuppies, so needless to say I kept the cover faced down to avoid ironic pity smirks from smug assholes, in retrospect I should have flaunted the cover openly, hoping liberal guilt might bring in some tips.

That the people who actually work these jobs will find Ehrenreich insulting, naïve, and condescending is a given. In the beginning I certainly did, but in the author’s defense at no time did she ever claim this was anything but an experiment, she never pretends to be anything she is not, not to the readers at least. So what’s the alternative then? Actual housekeepers and salesclerks rarely being offered book deals while lunching at French restaurants with editors, the alternative is this book doesn’t get written and this conversation doesn’t happen. Her goal of illustrating the vast income inequality and the nearly inescapable cycle of poverty is laudable and something I agree wholeheartedly with. In the end her failure is her reluctance to follow much of her thoughts to their logical conclusions; she constantly touches on these very powerful moments that ultimately are wasted because she fails to recognize them when they come. In the end I think the scathing reviewer comments at the author’s expense are misplaced. An enjoyable read but sadly it misses its mark quite often.

What she does get right is how the criminalization of marijuana is a means of controlling the population. With the ubiquitous drug test favored by low wage employers geared solely towards marijuana, making one feel like a criminal over a little bit of herb, the result is dehumanizing applicants even before their first day. She routinely acknowledges that the only way she was able to fulfill the demands of these jobs is relying on the store good health built up over a lifetime of upper middle class living, not to mention starting out with a car and sum of money not available to her coworkers. She points out how any health or financial setbacks would ruin her completely. I would have liked to see more of a connection made between our demands for cheaper and cheaper goods and the cost paid by the working poor in America and beyond. And that the failure of public services in America to provide even the most basic standard of living are always paid for in the end by the cost of incarcerating more of our citizens than any western nation. A number of times she touches on the deep ontological angst that come from living in such insecurity, but as an outsider looking in fails to really capture its essence. And her assumptions that because she doesn’t see visible anger that people aren’t angry? They are. But simultaneously there is a real disconnect among the working poor who have been sold on the ‘American Dream’ fantasy and reality. The ugly result of people taking this myth too seriously are quite apparent in the most hideous aspects of the Republican Party for sure, but less obviously so in how the author had so thoroughly disassociated herself the working poor she is only one generation removed from.

At the heart of this book is the impossibility of existing in such manner, but yet people do. People live their whole lives that way. I read a Chekov short story at the same time, of exiles coping with life in Siberia. One man is unable to deal with his losses and yet still makes one attempt after another to carve out a life for himself continually repeated his personal motto “Even in Siberia people live.” Another man gives up, asking for nothing and so wanting for nothing. At the end a judgment is made by a third character against the man who wants nothing, as it’s better to be miserable than to feel nothing. The story ends with everyone crying themselves to sleep. Ehrenreich should have read that story; it speaks more to the condition of the working poor than her book does. Even in America people live.
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! You're amazing.


Kristen Thanks!


message 3: by Adam (new)

Adam Floridia I love this review. Thank you!


message 4: by Jason (new)

Jason Mills [Reads review.] Hey! Who are you and what have you done with the real Kristen?!


Kristen Not to worry Mr. Mills, I promise my newest review is classic Kristen.


Jessica Carmichael You just summarized the reasons why I both hated and loved this book at the same time. Thank you.


Plch I liked very much this book (I don't live in the US and it was illuminating for me) but I also loved your review, very well done.


Kristen Thanks for your comments Plch and Jessica.


Gloria Diaz Define "overeducated." I thought in the United States, education was something to aspire to, not mock. At this rate, in 20 years, the rate of college graduates will go down to perhaps 10 percent in the U.S.


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