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

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
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Aug 31, 08

Recommended for: Paris HIlton's parents

Dear Barbara Ehrenreich,

How do I resent thee? Let me count the ways:

1. You are a wealthy, highly educated person who went on a half-assed, anthropological slumming vacation.

2. When said vacation was over, you told your coworkers: "Surprise! I'm not a poor person after all! I'm going back now to my comfortable life!"...and then you were surprised that those coworkers were mostly worried about the fact that they'd have to work the next shift with one less person.

3. You also were surprised that the aforementioned coworkers were neither impressed nor appreciative that you turned out to be a wealthy, highly educated person writing a book about how hard it is to be a poor person.

4. You were slightly offended that nobody saw through your waitress costume; you assumed that smart people are visually recognizable, and it didn't seem to occur to you that real poor people might also be smart and educated.

5. The experiences you had while pretending to be a poor person may have instilled in you some amount of sympathy for poor people, but you will never really know what it's actually like to be poor. It was certainly nice enough of you to decide that you shouldn't judge a class of people until you'd walked a mile in their shoes...but you only managed to walk about three paces before your feet hurt and you decided you had seen enough.

A real poor person does not have a couple grand to "start" with, or to stay afloat between jobs, after finding his or her working conditions intolerable and suddenly quitting. Nor does a real poor person, when he or she develops some nasty rash from said intolerable working conditions, have a private doctor who will phone in a prescription for soothing ointment. Since a poor person does not have access to said doctor, he or she has to just suck it up and go to work itchy.

I'm glad that this book might bring some much-needed insight to middle-and-upper-class people to whom it had never before occurred that it's actually really shitty to make minimum wage, that people working shitty service jobs have bad attitudes for very good reasons, that a person can work very hard and still be very poor, and that there are myriad external obstacles that keep poor people from pulling themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps.

What I am NOT glad about is that this could have been an excellent, enlightening book about the less abstract aspects of our country's economic structure...but it was not. Instead, it was just a nauseatingly narcissistic exploration of the author's personality.

What many people seem not to understand is (among other things) that there is not only one kind of poor person (or only one kind of "working class" person), that poverty is not just a condition, but a cycle, and that contemporary poverty is not some ahistorical thing that just recently appeared when people started having poor money-management skills and learned how to make crack. Contemporary poverty is a result of Capitalism, but one doesn't have to be a commie liberal to know that.

Sure, there are many poor people who are crack addicts. There are also many, many rich people who are coke addicts. I'm sure that if poor people could afford real cocaine, they would buy that instead of crack, but alas, good cocaine is too expensive for poor drug addicts who make bad decisions.

People who are not poor make many of the same decisions that poor people do (like acquiring a drug habit, or having children, or quitting a job). One big difference is that people with enough money can afford to make bad decisions.

Another big difference is that your life feels a hell of a lot different when you don't have an easy out. Maybe working as a waitress is kind of fun and interesting and not too stressful if you know you'll only be doing it until you get bored. It's another thing entirely when your only other real, long term option seems to be some other kind of awful service job, and when you know that this is your life, not a break from your "real" job and "real" life. When you feel tired and desperate and angry and resigned all the time, when every day you perform the emotional and physical labor of serving people who treat you like shit and pay you practically nothing, how are you supposed to gather enough energy and hope to seek out a better life? You probably can't. Instead, you probably are going to buy some beer or weed and enjoy the few moments of your life that you can. Maybe that's a "bad decision"...or maybe it's just a survival strategy.
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Comments (showing 1-35 of 35) (35 new)

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Claudia Sigh. Thank you for articulating this awful book better than my enraged brain ever could. Genius!

Karen Exactly how I feel but have been too angry to find the words to say.

message 3: by Emilysartwork (new)

Emilysartwork I read this book a few years back and indeed felt that empty feeling of how sorry some people seem to feel about the working poor, but don't mind having them clean toilets for them!

message 4: by Mike (new) - rated it 1 star

Mike Beliveau I have been reading this book for a while now. I am about half way done and feel no need to continue. I enjoyed this summing up of what I consider a dull and detached view of a much larger problem in this country. People may say I should finish reading this book before I make a comment, but I only spend so much time on the toilet.

message 5: by Carolyn (last edited Jan 28, 2010 08:19PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Carolyn Good points. I especially love #4 - that other people working for low pay might also be smart and educated.

Angel Jenkins Thank you!!! you expressed everything i hated about this book. As a life long member of the poor club, I found this book insulting and demeaning. So the rich girl dressed poor and played pretend. It doesn't come close to the reality of how us paycheck to paycheck people survive.

message 7: by Shell (new) - added it

Shell Particularly liked the " half-assed, anthropological slumming vacation" comment; easy to judge when you have the option to bale, call a cab, and go home.
Thanks for your thoughts, I really didn't want to finish this book anyway.

message 8: by Tippy (new)

Tippy Jackson Loved, loved, loved this review! I also liked point #4, and that last paragraph really conveyed the sense of resigned helplessness. Wow. Thanks.

message 9: by Michael (new)

Michael Exactly.

message 10: by Kat (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kat Tangney I'm not sure I agree with you entirely. A well-written review but your point #4 is statistically inaccurate. I work in a low income job and nearly everyone except for two people abandoned their education. This doesn't make them stupid of course, but it makes them uneducated. So your point #4 is flawed.

message 11: by Julianne (new) - added it

Julianne Carrie, thanks for the review! I'm still thinking about reading this book just to understand her perspective, but now I know what to expect.

@Katie, I think what you're saying is that since research shows that the majority of low income workers do not reach high levels of traditional education that Ehrenreich is justified in believing that her coworkers were not educated. It seems, however, that Carrie is suggesting that Ehrenreich's mistake was in automatically assuming that those people were both unintelligent and poorly educated when there is every possibility that they were both. It may be statistically unlikely, but it is still possible to pull the single red sock out of a drawer full of blue socks on the first try.

Aaron A. "people with enough money can afford to make bad decisions." That's one thing that a thirty-day experiment can't convey, the razor-thin margin of error you have as a minimum-wage worker. Just as you see that glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, your car breaks down. The nest egg is gone, plus you miss a day's work, which means you're going to be late on your phone bill, which means late fees, and so forth. Getting out of poverty takes hard work and good decisions; I don't dispute that. But all that work can be undone in a flash by one moment of bad luck.

message 13: by Esteban (new)

Esteban del Mal Hear, hear!

Carrie Hi Katie,

I think education levels among low-income workers vary depending on a number of factors--geography and type of job are the first two that come to mind. My coworkers at a diner in a small rural town were very different than my coworkers at a retail store in New York.

I didn't mean to imply that all low-paid workers are highly educated, as that's obviously not true. My comment was based on my own experience as an educated person who for most of my life was stuck in low-paying, demoralizing jobs, and from my observation of friends who have had similar experiences. I was thinking of the many times that customers in the retail stores or restaurants where I worked would speak to me as though I were vastly more stupid and simple than they were.

message 15: by Magdelanye (new)

Magdelanye BE is one of those authors I've been meaning to tead more of, having read Witches Midwives and Nurses, plus that female complaints one, way back in the feminist heydays of the 7os. Perhaps her earnest plodding style put me off adding to my current tbr list.
Be that as it may, I acknowledge the respect she is accorded in academic feminist circles and was surprised to read such a scathing critique of not only her methodology, but her motivation and the value of such exposes. I was even more surprised to find myself agreeing with you Carrie on your major points.And with most of the thoughtful comments, especially the last one by AAron. Spot on.
I myself work Part time minimum wage, the lowest of the job scale and I hold a university degree as well as several certificates. Poverty is debilitating and dehumanizing and poor bashing and blaming the victims (of capitalism) is endemic.
Can we blame BE though for her privilege? Her hubris? Her lack of insight into the effect of her deception once it was revealed? Her patronizing assumptions? I have to concede her a few points for chutzpa.

message 16: by jo (last edited Jan 25, 2012 06:35PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

jo hi carrie. your review hits on some obvious weaknesses of Nickel and Dimed. you do a good job of bringing them to their outrageous surface, but... the book could hardly have been written any other way, could it? it's a bit like Norah Vincent's stunts. you take 'em for what they are.

but if you disregard these obvious methodological weaknesses, N&D tells a lot that needs to be said. there are two other ways in which what this book says could be said: by a researcher or by a witness -- you know, the real thing, the real person. in order to write the book, this real person would have to have stopped being really real, which is a problem -- not because that would make the book less authentic, but because it's not very likely. but books by witnesses are written all the time (i used to read a lot of first person narratives of mental illness and psychiatric hospitalization). whether they are published, first, and read, after... hmmm, not so likely.

as for the researcher, well, there are books written by researchers that try to stay away from barbara e.'s pitfalls. one of those is Travesti by don kulick. you can check it out. it's a great read and it's way more rigorous than N&D. at the end of the day, though, even don k. gets to pack and go home.

i think that N&D opened a lot of eyes when it was published. does it have a ton of problematic spots? sure. can it irk the reader? no doubt. but it also teaches people something that they don't know, and that's cool. i appreciate that barbara e. put herself through that to write this slim (and possibly smug) book. to my knowledge, no other book about the plight of the working poor has reached an audience this vast. this is something.

i was just thinking this morning about having a cleaning person (i don't have and don't need one: it was a thought born of laziness and desperation). barbara e. says unequivocally that she couldn't do that to another woman. this has stayed with me for ten years. now i couldn't do it to another woman, even if i had the money or the need. N&D taught me that.

message 17: by Magdelanye (new)

Magdelanye I need to add a bit to my hastily posted comment this morning. First, I also feel I must mention a GR oddity, unless there really is a genie in my machine.After reding Carries reveiw, I was composing a comment here last night and I opened another tab to check on the titles of the books I had read. I got one and switched back to write it in my comment, when there was a commotion and then a sign from GR that I have never seen saying there was a loading problem. The tab with this page and my comment was gone. So was the Ehrenreich tab. And when I went back to gmail to retrive the link, it was gone too.

I decided to postpone another attempt and went for a last update on my home page where I noticed to my horror that it declared that I had become a fan of BE! I never did! I had to go and unfan mayself. How weird is that?

At any rate, I was struck by the variety of reviews on the book, including a couple of glowing ones by my friends. I guess at the end of the day, I have to agree with Jo, which is what I was trying to get across in my earlier post. The sad fact is that there are so few books on the poverty that exists in the midst of affluence.AS Jo said ", no other book about the plight of the working poor has reached an audience this vast. this is something."

There is a book I can recommend by Jean Swanson called Poor-Bashing: The Politics of Exclusion

This does not detract from my admiration of Carries review and the acuteness of her insight and the value of her assesment.Unfortuately, PH has a lot of relatives who need educating. The book is not for US, it's for THEM.

Carrie Magdelanye and Jo,

I do agree with you that Ehrenreich has done something helpful by writing this book. I'm glad that her efforts have encouraged some people to think differently about poverty and crappy jobs. That is something--but my opinion is that it's not enough. The book still felt like an insult to me.

message 19: by Magdelanye (last edited Jan 27, 2012 10:09AM) (new)

Magdelanye Carrie, My ultimate opinion, that the book serves an important function for those who might prefer to remain ignorant, in no way removes my appreciaiton of your eloquence in stating your reaction.

The New American PovertyMichael Harrington is probably a beter approach.

message 20: by Leon (new) - added it

Leon Aldrich Sounds similar to U.S. missionaries going overseas helping the less fortunate, when there is plenty to do right in their own backyard?

message 21: by [deleted user] (new)

LOL@ recommending it for Paris Hilton's parents!

message 22: by Carolyn (new) - added it

Carolyn Snow Honestly, in a service job like fast food (which I've done many times), it's easier to just act stupid. It makes customers less mad at you when you make a mistake. Being smart is not helpful in a job like that, except when it comes to being fast and accurate. Sadly. The customers WANT a dumb fast food employee to serve them -- albeit with a bright smile, chipper air, and speed.

Dennis I enjoyed reading this review, but have to admit I don't really understand the point. Is it that someone who is educated and wealthy has no right to publish a book on her attempt to work under conditions less than her own day-to-day upper middle class life, because she could never do it justice? Can only a person actually oppressed by low wages and the associated ennui genuinely reflect the psychological and emotional discord of the territory? If the author's objective is to shed light on the plight of the poor, even if she herself is not actually in that socioeconomic demographic, is her endeavor still not worthy? What are the "less abstract aspects of our country's economic structure" that should have been explored instead? I would be curious to know your answers.

Larry Bassett Carrie's profile data is set to private.

This interesting review has popped up again a year later but, regrettably, access to Carrie's GR profile is blocked by Carrie.

But I do want to repeat the suggestion of another person that books by Michael Harrington are another source of information about poverty in America.

Personally, I prefer Harrington but I appreciated reading N&D as well.

message 25: by Jeffrey (new) - added it

Jeffrey Mcandrew You sound very bitter. You cannot respect her intentions?

message 26: by Teresa (new)

Teresa Malaga sorry girls, I am totally agree with Ms. Hilton review and I was a single mom living with 3 jobs and I had to sucked, swallowed foot , headaches but I had to pay rent , electricity and take my kid's shelter I was really shucked , concerned about her topic which is totally award totally agree the world must know that

message 27: by Teresa (new)

Teresa Malaga Leon wrote: "Sounds similar to U.S. missionaries going overseas helping the less fortunate, when there is plenty to do right in their own backyard?"

jajajaja my god totally true I had lived and saw that reality which they come to America make different story

message 28: by Teresa (new)

Teresa Malaga Jeffrey wrote: "You sound very bitter. You cannot respect her intentions?"

it is not bitter I can call that justice, be clear about a subject that you had experienced in life which to me nobody can not tell me that you can not make I did it but I am not rich still poor but the misery that social security had result of nickel and dime government sucks after being worked 35 years out of 42

message 29: by Teresa (new)

Teresa Malaga Dennis wrote: "I enjoyed reading this review, but have to admit I don't really understand the point. Is it that someone who is educated and wealthy has no right to publish a book on her attempt to work under con..."

is like a wealthy lady goes and talk about domestic violence and being living by welfare? don't you think is kind awkward? give some credits please of course she had tried to make a point but she said she had to make charges to her credit card and preventing to become homeless.. that was the part she had missed it I was homeless and I had to get up suck it up and worked like hell which she is not part of the game sorry .. she could be better write a book as a professional with degree in biology to be fisherwoman how about that?

message 30: by Teresa (new)

Teresa Malaga Carolyn wrote: "Honestly, in a service job like fast food (which I've done many times), it's easier to just act stupid. It makes customers less mad at you when you make a mistake. Being smart is not helpful in a j..."

you how many times I had listen my mother's name when I had worked as waitress?

Larry Bassett I am reading The Heidi Chronicles and Other Plays which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1989. It is the same but so different: women struggling so hard "to have it all," family and career. But Wendy Wasserstein does not confront the dynamic of poverty, an intensely complicating factor in anyone's effort to make it in this world. I wonder what Heidi would make of Ehrenreich's book?

Janet Wow! I hadn't thought of all the points you made. I haven't even read them all just yet. But I will.

Dalton. thank you! , i could only make it to chapter 2 before i realized that this book should have been named 'a wealthy white woman's play date with poverty.

Jessica Partynski Favorite review. ever.

Natalia bravo!

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