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

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
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's review
Nov 27, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: economics, social-theory

Very quick explanation of the premise of this one: a woman, who is a writer/journalist, is talking to her publisher about what she wants to write about next and says, “someone ought to write a book about how hard it is to get by on the minimum wage in America.” The publisher says, “Okey-dokey (the book is set in the US so I’m trying to give you a feeling of verisimilitude) you’ve hired.” (High fives all around)

Before I started this book I really worried. I mean, I’m a bit of a worrier anyway – but mostly I worried that this would be the sort of book that my mother would hate. The sort of book my mother hates is the sort of book that is written by someone she calls ‘middle class’ (actually, she would probably call them middle-class twits) and these people would then presume to be able to write about what my mum would call ‘the working class’.

These people, these ‘middle-class book writing types’ basically give my mother the shits. It is nothing personal, you understand – it is much more intense than the merely personal. So, it was with gritted teeth that I started this one.

I’m glad to report that not only did I really love this book, I even think my mum would enjoy it.

First of all, Barbara recognises that she is basically an impostor. She recognises that her ‘experiment’ is really only going to be just that – I mean, she is not going to literally endanger her life, health or wellbeing just to make a point. All the same – this is the sort of reality TV program that would never make it to television. Particularly not in the USA.

That fact is something that really struck me while reading this book – I mean, even before she mentioned it herself. Early in the book she compares herself to Upstairs Downstairs – that is, a British television show about class distinctions. I thought it was very interesting that she had to rely on a British show for a cultural reference to the ‘working class’. Later she points out that working class people may well exist in America – but they definitely don’t exist on American television. I couldn’t help reflect that films like Dockers, Billy Elliot (particularly the themes around the strike – but also the themes of homosexuality), Brassed Off, or Kes simply could never be made in America. Isn’t that incredibly sad?

Now, my dear friend Wendy told me once that in some states the minimum wage can be ‘discounted’ if people earn ‘tips’. It took me a while to believe I had understood what she was saying, but if I’d read this book when I’d first intended to read it – when it first came out – I’d have known this already. Tipping is something I find quite repulsive. I hate everything about it – but then, I don’t like watching dogs beg for food, so I guess getting people to beg in much the same way is only going to make matters worse.

What do you think it is about America – I mean, the land that is supposed to believe in equality of opportunity and democracy – that somehow encourages so many people to get off on making people beg and demean themselves? The discussion in this book about the Maids (house cleaners) is illustrative of this. Companies even advertise that they force their workers to clean floors on their hands and knees. I remember my mother talking about a great-auntie of mine who worked for some rich bastard in Belfast. He would expect her to scrub the street in front of his house on her hands and knees. I believe she ended up not being able to walk. Like I said, hard to see how anyone could get off on this sort of humiliation.

I believe in the value of labour – that people are better off if they can work and if their work can be valued. I believe we are social creatures and that we only feel true self-worth if we believe we are making a real contribution to the society we live in. So, when we create an underclass of untouchables, a caste that must work themselves into ill-health and who never have any hope of being able to make ends meet or of getting out of poverty – then that is a choice that we make and one that says as much about us as people as it says about us as a society.

This book doesn’t offer simple solutions – in fact, besides her suggesting that people join together in Trade Unions and find ways to improve their pay and conditions, she makes virtually no suggestions at all. Even this is not presented as a panacea. If anything she worries that anger and resentment will build to the point where it will become unstoppable.

The pre-employment tests given to people applying for jobs are particularly evil and in Australia would probably be illegal. Now, this is really saying something. We have just had the most reprehensible and obnoxiously rightwing government imaginable but even they would have found reason to pause over the explicit anti-trade union discrimination that seems a common place in these employment tests.

It is hard to imagine the dice being more brutally loaded against these people.

The most memorable line in this book for me was the little girl who pointed to a black or Latino child (I can’t remember which now) and said, “Look mommy, a baby maid”. Aren’t societies with caste systems so terribly interesting?

This book constantly reminded me of Margaret Atwood – there was something about the voice, something about the themes, something about the tone. In fact, think of a non-fiction book written by Atwood and this might well be the book you would end up with.

This book isn’t nearly as bitter and twisted as this review might make it sound – I’m happy to admit that this is a subject which makes me quite bitter and twisted. Parts of the book were very moving and other bits very funny. She has a lovely way about her – I’m particularly fond of self-deprecation, I find it an incredibly attractive feature. I also find intelligent women nearly completely irresistible. That she is both of these had me falling helplessly (and perhaps even a little pathetically) in love.

Barbara produces a list of reasons why the US character would allow this mistreatment of such a large section of its citizenry to exist. All the usual suspects end up on the list – you know, US obsession with ‘success’ and the tendency to blame ‘failure’ on the individual and so on. But one of the things I kept thinking was the way American humour so often seems to come down to a degrading string of insults. Humiliation and insults do seem to play an interesting role in the American psyche and this had me wondering if this is part of the reason why tipping is so embraced there while here in Australia we have no idea what to do in ‘tipping situations’.

Before I get flamed – Australia is just as bad, one would only need to go to Bali for proof of that, and we also treat single mothers, Aboriginals, selected migrants and an endless string of others with utter contempt and loathing. I’m more interested in why – in a country that believes it is self-evident that all people are born equal – that such self-evident inequality of treatment could be so seemingly blindly tolerated.

But then, as Barbara points out – the fundamentalist Christians she has contact with also seem to exhibit the exact opposite of what one would take their core beliefs to be. What would Jesus do? From the behaviour of his followers one can only suspect he would do the complete opposite of the stuff he said in his Sermon on the Mount.

This is a wonderfully thought-provoking book and one that I enjoyed very much.
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Comments (showing 1-35 of 35) (35 new)

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Meen I wish I had something insightful to add, Trevor. I worked for tips for most of my adult, especially before I went back to school, life. I never felt like I was groveling, but that's probably more because I worked as a bartender and a cocktail waitress. The few times that I did serve food I hated it because it did feel so servile. (When I'm serving alcohol, I am actually the one in control, if that makes sense.)

It's been a while since I read this one, but I think probably the biggest problem in the U.S. as relates to this topic is that individual responsibility/accountability ideology. Even though there are mountains of contrary evidence, most of still buy into the Horatio Alger mythical up-from-your-boot-straps kind of ideology. And if you can't get up from your boot straps, well then the problem must lie with you, not with the system.


PS. I never say "okey dokey"!


message 2: by [deleted user] (last edited Nov 27, 2008 08:44AM) (new)

I come from a working class family. My parents know that they would not be able to raise a family nowadays on working class salaries. Even when I was growing up they had to take on additional work from time to time and rely on ultra-cheap labor (me).

It really is something how the fantasies of social Darwinism and trickle-down economics have caught on in the United States. The most amazing thing is that so many people who would benefit from progressive policies have bought into both fantasies. But based on Obama's overwhelming victory, maybe they're having second thoughts.

Oh and high-fives are so 1990s. Try fist bumps.

message 3: by Kim (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kim Ok, I see where you are coming from with the tips, but let me flip the coin, nickel or dime, if you will. Let's say you go to this job where you have to wait on people anyway and do get minimum wage (because I doubt you would get better in this kind of job, just look at how they pay teachers for comparison). So, you have to do this whole grin and bow act anyway, rushing yourself to give the best service possible, if you have some sort of personal respect for how you do a job no matter how lousy it is. You get some real @%%holes who are rude and want to do that whole slave/master thing, you get some nice people, you get some just regular people. You go home with the same lousy pay no matter how great your service is (because this is what this job is about, service and there is no getting around it, you're not planting roses). BUT, if you get tips, you get some jerks, but they are not the majority, mostly regular people who leave 15 per cent at least (20 if they have had to do the same lousy job) and some great people who leave even better. If you have regulars and they like your service, they ask for you and continue to give you good tips. They bring you presents at Christmas. Oh, and Christmas and New Year's you get even better tips. You come home with more of a stash than if you would be making minimum wage many nights, some nights not so hot, ok. You don't report all the tips, because yes, that is pretty common practice, so you don't pay tax on it. You get the boost of knowing that those people you worked really hard for recognized that you did a good job. Me, I'd go for the tips. Work my but off trying to do a lousy job well just for my own self esteem and for bigger and better tips and write off the one's who want to play slave/master as the detritus of society who won't be worth my best service in the future, unless I just happen to be in a good mood.

Trevor When Irish people come over here I've found I even need to teach them how to say "Top of the morning to yea" and how to tilt their heads to one side whilst winking in a fetching way. You'll be trying to tell me you don't say "By golly" next - but I refuse to believe you.

Now, where have I left that hat with the wine corks hanging off it?

Trevor Sorry Kim, we crossed - I do understand what you are saying, my problem is I don't believe one should work on the expectation of charity. I don't believe that the increasingly large number of people forced to work in the service industry should be forced to 'do what it takes' to get tips. When McDonalds started they didn't pay the girls working for them anything at all. This makes service jobs a kind of prostitution.

Once upon a time in Australia we had a system of minimum wages based on Awards that provided a 'living wage'. Often you would have needed a fairly broad definition of 'living', but it was (and is) adjusted annually. I do think dignity of work is very important - and can't see why, if someone is working in the service area and is over worked and therefore can't fluff over your customers that they should feel they don't need to tip you. You know, the terrible paradox where the harder you are expected to work in an understaffed workplace the less likely you are to get tips.

Meen Trevor, you should know that most service jobs here don't receive tips. Nothing in fast food does. The only ones that I know of that have a lower-than-minimum wage to adjust for tips are "sit-down" food service jobs and beverage service jobs.

I actually liked my beverage service jobs. You can make REALLY good money serving drinks. (Drunk people love to part with their money.) And it always felt very independent. But there is a fine line b/w serving and "prostitution." One of the best non-holiday nights I ever had at one bar was when I let the sailors try to land crumbled up bills in my cleavage from across the bar. But like I said, alcohol service is a whole different vibe...

Minimum wage in the US is ABYSMALLY lower than "living wage." Here in AL, for a singe parent with one child living wage is about $10/hr. US minimum wage just went up to $6.55. Of course, living wage would be adjusted for having more kids, but minimum wage stays the same! And voila, homeless families! (OK, there are several other structural factors, but you get my point.)

And no, I don't say "By golly," either. I do say "motherfucker" a lot.


message 7: by Kim (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kim Hmmm...prostitution. Aren't all jobs somewhat reliant on this sort of "charity"? I mean, if you want to get a better salary or move up the ladder don't you have to please somebody? Seems like the only way to avoid this is to work for yourself, and even then you are reliant on the consumer's charity if they like your product or service. Believe me, I abhor it all, the whole equating of human work in monetary terms. The whole boss-worker relationship is always a bit twisted, even in the best of scenarios.

That being said, I am shocked to hear the McDonald's story. I wonder how they got away with such a thing? That whole fast food scenario is exactly what working without tips is all about though. They can't wear uniforms with pockets so they don't get tips, no matter how good their service. Everyone is paid a salary based on their position in the hierarchy. Doesn't change much in the whole prostitution ring. Still have to smile and give "customer service", still have to bow and scrape to someone who gets off on the power trip of being the "boss", unless you're lucky, but that is rare in the food service.

People are overworked and underpaid in most jobs. A fact that in itself can not be justified. The whole market economy doesn't seem to work really. But I wonder if there really are any true solutions given man's human nature. Seems like there will always be a greed for power and possession, or am I being too cynical here?

Interesting to note there was a report on the BBC today about how "The Communist Manifesto" by Marx is becoming a popular read of late in Germany. Are we just wandering around in circles?

Meen Seems like there will always be a greed for power and possession, or am I being too cynical here?

Evolutionarily speaking, that does seem to be a masculine trait. I do think it's possible for us to socialize children (male and female) to value more cooperative forms of interaction. (I mean, we already know that some cultures manifest those values less than our own.)

As for Marx, you know, he gets a really bad rap b/c of Soviet Communism. (And b/c of McCarthyism in this country.) His vision is actually pretty salient now, I think. We should be engaging with his ideas critically and learning about them free of all the knee-jerk hysteria of conservatism. Our most recent economic woes demonstrate that unrestrained markets are not at all good for all of us (or even most of us, and especially not for the non-human among us). There has to be some balance. Whatever arguments were to be made with his ideas, I have always admired Marx for looking around him and going, "This shit ain't FAIR." 'Cause it's not.

Eric_W Another great review, Trevor. We read this book for my reading group several years ago. All of your points are right on, but Ehrenreich came across as too pedantic and paternalistic, which, I think, compromised her message. The reader also knows that her experience could be truncated at any moment should she decide to do so, not to mention that she started from a position of wealth and was returning to it. Not to mention that her little escapade was making her a lot of money.

The whole issue of what constitutes a "fair" wage for any given job makes a fascinating discussion. My wife and I tried to figure some of that out the other day in the car. She thinks MD's here make too much money. So I wanted to know what was just right; then how about librarians, teachers, plumbers, trash men, etc. It's truly impossible to come to any agreement.

One reason for the plethora of low-end jobs a la McDonald's is that they hire high school kids who live at home and don't have the same expenses as others. On the other hand, my granddaughter works at one and really likes it.

I was really frosted the other day by an article in the Washington Post about how tough it was for a recently divorced mother making ends meet: her total annual income? $300,000 per year.

Although somewhat dated, an interesting -- and more scholarly -- counter-point to Ehrenreich's book is Making Ends Meet How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work.

message 10: by David (last edited Sep 06, 2009 07:11AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

David Another book for which I enjoyed Trevor's review far more than the book itself! (Faith and begorrah, top o' the morrnin' to ye. *Winsome toothy grin*)

message 11: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Lovely review and thoughts, Trevor. I don't think I could read this because I'd be fuming all the time. Viva la revolucion!

message 12: by John (new)

John Trevor, your review rises to its occasion -- Ehrenreich's essential but disheartening occasion. The one point I'd add is how odd it is that hers remains one of the very few non-fiction investigations into American scraping by, despite what a common & defining experience it is for people all over the country. Yet the subject's rarely explored in non-fiction, at book length. Over in *fiction,* though, the minimum-wage & put-upon are everywhere. Any sensitive imagination sniffs out, at once, where the real drama is.

Trevor I can't get Worldcat to work, for some reason, and so can't find out if this book is available here Eric - but I'll try to read the preview on google books if I get a chance this arvo. Thanks for pointing it out to me Eric. The $300,000 a year struggling mum also makes my blood boil. People have lost all sense of shame.

message 14: by Athens (new)

Athens I worked my way out of this lifestyle.

Trevor You are lucky, Paul, as the cards are decidedly stacked to ensure very few get to work their way out - work is fine, it's the out part that's increasingly statistically improbable. There was a time when people did everything they could to move from Europe to the US as to the land of opportunity - now there is more social mobility in Europe than there is in the US. My favourite factoid recently is that there is an increasing number of people moving back to India from the UK - apparently the caste system in India isn't nearly as restricting as the class system in the UK. Bizarre how these things change.

message 16: by Mosca (last edited Jun 05, 2012 05:58PM) (new) - added it

Mosca Trevor,

Another masterpiece of yours.

Barbara Ehrenreich, like Arundati Roy and Noam Chomsky, is one of those people who I have listened to many, many times on the alternative media; but have never read in text. And I have never listened to her without finding myself nodding repeatedly and vehemently in agreement. (No, Trevor, you can't have her; I saw her first!) I have also heard her speak of this book a number of times; and do want to read it.

As an older American born and raised in the American South (Pre-Martin Luther King), what is most remarkable to my "ears" (other than your pathetic "American regionalisms") ;) is how shocked and surprised educated people from other countries are to discover how really appalling the American class system actually is, and always has been.

As an man of apparent Irish heritage, you will probably agree that being a product of Anglo-Saxon heritage has not given the American experience the real push towards equality it likes to percieve in itself.

I forgive Barbara Ehrenreich for not offering ready solutions. So much of this is so ingrained here. And so much of it is denied. Just for her to bring this stuff out in the open is an accomplishment by itself.

In the US, denial is a birth defect most (white) Americans are unaware of. For God's sake, today most Americans appear to be unaware that "we" lost the Iraq War!

message 17: by Athens (last edited Jun 05, 2012 10:35PM) (new)

Athens I personally know a man who came here from Pakistan as a youth with barely enough money to buy a bicycle. He is now a civil engineer and a multimillionaire.

No offense meant, but I cannot see his story as one of being "lucky".

He decided to succeed and he did exactly as he decided.

I know other people who have worked their way out of relative poverty to own homes, cars, have families, and achieve good financial situations. They are savers and now successful investors, the exact opposite of living paycheck to paycheck.

Trevor Thanks Mosca - I've read a few books by Ehrenreich now and find her always a fascinating read. I particularly liked her Smile or Die.

Paul, I think the problem of one of small sample sizes. A bit like thinking that race isn't an issue in the US now that there is a Black President - if you get the choice I would highly recommend not choosing to be black in the US, it is decidedly bad for ones health.

The question that needs to be answered isn't why the occasional person makes it out of poverty, but rather why social mobility is decreasing overall in the US and the UK, particularly when it is remaining much the same or increasing elsewhere.

message 19: by Athens (last edited Jun 07, 2012 10:07AM) (new)

Athens I would use the sample size of the entire planet for this assertion:

You get wealthy or successful in the US or any other country by deciding to do so and then following through.

Nobody gets rich by complaining about being poor.

Gloria Diaz Way to go Trevor! Liked your review. I also really enjoyed this book. People gripe about Ehrenreich being "wealthy" (if she is, I'd like to know her annual income and decide for myself if she is in fact, wealthy) but very few people living in poverty get book deals. Yes, it would have made a lot more sense to have someone living the "nightmare" so to speak write about what it was like, but probably the majority of people working and living in poverty are too busy working two, three or four jobs (I did that once) to write about their lives. I only know of one person who was on the dole who was a writer, and that is J.K. Rowling. Obviously, she's done well for herself, but how many other people out there, either on the dole or working crap wages are writing about their experiences? It's very hard to get a book deal, and if you are already proven as a writer, it's a bit easier. That is Ehrenreich. Regardless of her economic status growing up or her economic status now, she probably was the "go-to" person to write this book. A fellow named Adam Shepard wrote a rebuttal book, "Scratch Beginnings" but in some ways it's as offensive as people found Ehrenreich's book. Why? Because Shepard graduated from an expensive private university, and went "slumming" as Ehrenreich did, and called it quits when his mom got sick. So in some ways, he is just as 'fake' as Ehrenreich seemed to many people.

Truth be told, some people just don't "graduate" from shit jobs, and for whatever reason, they are stuck in low-paying jobs. I see it in my retail job, where co-workers in their mid to late 50s with no college degrees and no interest in going back to school are pretty much stuck working retail, because their office/manufacturing jobs have been long gone. It sucks. I myself will probably go back to school in order to have more choices in terms of work. But at least I know what I like and what I'm good at. And hopefully, it will lead me to better job opportunities.

Gloria Diaz Athens wrote: "I would use the sample size of the entire planet for this assertion:

You get wealthy or successful in the US or any other country by deciding to do so and then following through.

Nobody gets rich..."

How many of your dreams have you fulfilled? I'm sure a lot of people had the idea of getting rich or successful, but they didn't. Bad luck happens. I'm sure those kids at Sandy Hook Elementary didn't assume someday they'd be gunned down. Bad luck for them though, huh?

Trevor Thanks Gloria

There is an easier way to test this stuff, it is to see how well social mobility actually works in different countries and as is made clear in End This Depression Now! and particularly The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future the US is one of the hardest places on earth to be able to move out of the social class you were born into. The American Dream has become a myth and Old Europe is a better place for social mobility now than the US. Such are the consequences of punishing the poor for their poverty. To criticise Enrenreich for speaking up for those without a voice in our society is simply evil - there is no other word for it, I'm afraid.

message 23: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Vegan I recently read an interesting article in The Week magazine (don't remember the original source) that said movement up is just as hard in America as in China, and that one's financial status is similar to ancestors hundreds of years ago. That financial status movement is, overall, not typical.

Carmen Amazing review.

Trevor It is a lovely book, Carmen - an Australian journalist did much the same later in a book called Dirt Cheap. And then Ehrenreich also did another version of this about the middle class in a book called Bait and Switch. I don't think I've read anything by her that I haven't liked. In fact, I've a couple of her books waiting to be read whenever I next get some time.

Thanks Carmen.

Trevor Oh, and sorry Lisa - only noticed your comment now - yes, FreeFall (I think) makes very similar points about how hard it is to move in our increasing caste system. I wonder how long our myths and are reality can run in opposite directions before something needs to give?

message 27: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Vegan Trevor, I don't feel hopeful, but I hope that I'm wrong. I love her books too.

Trevor She has one on the dancing manias that swept Europe in the middle ages - with the Tarantella and such - called Dancing in the Streets - that I'm really looking forward to getting time to read.

message 29: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Vegan Trevor wrote: "She has one on the dancing manias that swept Europe in the middle ages - with the Tarantella and such - called Dancing in the Streets - that I'm really looking forward to getting time to read."

That does sound interesting. I have so many books on my to read shelf that I'm trying to spend more time deleting than adding right now.

Trevor There is a book I've thought about twice today now called something like Essential Places - about a guy who is a 'traveller' (kind of like a tourist except more likely to be up himself) and who gets to a point in life where he knows he doesn't have enough life left to go to everywhere he would like to go - and so has to decide on the essential places he needs to see or re-see. People do the same with books. I think deleting books from a to-read list is a very good idea. Liberating, in fact.

message 31: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Vegan I agree but I find it difficult.

message 32: by Emma (new) - rated it 3 stars

Emma A couple of American movies I can think of (indies, natch) that deal with the working class are Winter's Bone and Frozen River. Both excellent, recommended.

message 33: by Gregsamsa (new)

Gregsamsa Let me add two things to your shock, Trevor.

Minimum wage for tipped individuals in the US is $2.14. If employees don't even get an average 8% tip, they are still taxed as if they did.

As for the Pakistani millionaire, I bet closer scrutiny would reveal help from others as well as luck, but that's beside the point; that's changing the subject. If it's OK to respond to the low wage earner with "you should work harder so you can get a better job" then it's OK to say they should not have that job, and so if we broaden that to NO ONE should have that job, then should our drive thru windows be empty? Our Walmarts unstaffed? Our tables unwaited? The argument isn't about whether they should be doing something else, but what is expected to be endured by people working jobs that will always exist no matter how many bicycle-to-billionaire stories there are.

Trevor I will see if I can track down the films, Emma - and Gregsamsa, I really had not idea that was the case - that is utterly appalling.

message 35: by Gregsamsa (new)

Gregsamsa Any politician who might advocate even the most minimal social safety net dared by the most conservative Aussie or UK politicians would be instantly branded a SOCIALIST with moving Soviet imagery in ads whose $ were laundered by "public service groups" for domestic, transnational, and even foreign corporate entities who now have the rights of personhood. ,

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