Max's Reviews > Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
by Barbara Ehrenreich
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Feb 15, 2008
Recommended for: Lay sociologists who like lefty nonfiction
Following a long tradition of immersion journalism, Ehrenreich sheds her identity of middle-upper class writer and goes to work waitressing, cleaning houses, and slogging a Wal-Mart job to show that it is near impossible to survive in the late-dot-com boom of Clinton's America. What makes her experience interesting is her voice, but what takes away significantly from her attempt is the constant reminder that she is a wealthy, highly educated, white American and that she is lucky to have her support networks. While I appreciated her disclosure (and it is frequent) of her clandestine real-life, it also served to undercut much of her perspective about what it is like to live at that level for life. It is most notable when she tries to organize the Wal-Mart employees towards a union. She always has the option of going back to her own life - as hard as she commits to her research project she will always know that there is the safety net of her wealth and education. But for the millions of working poor, they will not buck the unfair system, they will not refuse to take a drug test, they will suffer whatever base humiliation presented because all they know is life isn't fair and they have limited options. Ehrenreich doesn't blame the working poor for their plight - far from it - but often her explanatory sections read like the Bwana roughing it with the natives. She certainly has guts - her living situations were desperate at best, and she put her body through the ringer to suffer the daily stressload that comes with working for near minimum-wage. But because she does not deeply explore the lives of the people she comes into contact with, her story does not read like a modern-day Working; it does not truly reveal the entire life of the Worker. She tries to engage her fellow employees in conversation about how they make their ends meet, but after she reveals her true mission to them it is at the end of her experiment and she doesn't follow them home to really explore how single mothers handle child care, how Gen X kids become managers and escalate and how they come to learn how to exploit people. She relays some of one conversation she had with the man who owned the cleaning company, but it was still while she was "under-cover". Ehrenreich has written a light travelogue to being a working poor person, a month-long foray into the jungle. It is by no means a ethnography.
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