Non-Fiction: “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich

Snickel and dimedo back in September – remember September, you guys? Back when the sun wasn’t going down at 3:30, and it was still sixty degrees out on the regular – I realized Banned Book Week was coming up. And originally, I was going to reread Lolita. I mean, I hadn’t read that in a very long time, and if there was any book banned, it was definitely that one.

Well, I have been doing a lot of reading on my lunch breaks at work, and one of the guys always asks me what I’m reading, and for the first time, i realized I would feel slightly uncomfortable if I said that I was reading Lolita. I mean, it’s a book, and Humbert Humbert I am not. But for a guy who had never heard Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” (which, I believe, is in and of itself slightly ironic), I was afraid I would have to spend part of the lunch period explaining what Lolita is about, and I didn’t feel comfortable doing that in a government setting. It felt icky to me.

So I’ll read Lolita at home, someday. But in the meantime, another book that I had spied on one of the many ALA Banned Book lists (and also one I owned but had never read) was Nickel & Dimed. This book had been recommended to me years ago by my former roommate Amelia, who minored in Economics. (Wait, or was it a double-major with Poli Sci? I can’t remember anymore…) I managed to find a copy at Bull Moose a few months ago for a whopping $3.97 (you guys, if you’re in the area of a Bull Moose that sells books, GO TO THERE, THEY’RE AWESOME), and when I saw it on the Banned Books List, I was very, very confused.

I mean, look – I get why some books are on that list. Now, I’m not agreeing that the book should be banned, or any book for that matter — except Fifty Shades of Gray, because reasons. But I can see, in most cases, the small-mindedness which would cause a book to be challenged. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance – sure, the use of the ‘n’-word is prevalent, and no parent should want their child to throw that word around as casually as Huck does, but when reading Huckleberry Finn one should also recognize the historical context – that word was common parlance during that time and location, and used very frequently and casually.  Mark Twain wrote of his time and culture, and someone should (hopefully) realize when reading it today that that type of language and those attitudes towards other human beings should be an historical artifact. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

When I read Brave New World last year, one of the reasons the book was on the Banned Book List was because of the promiscuity it championed. Parents didn’t want Little Johnny or Sally to read that book and think it was (*gasp!*) okay to have sex outside of marriage!  Or for fun, even! Oh, the horror!

And even I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – that’s non-fiction, and that is on the List because of the horrific actions suffered by Maya Angelou. But that type of history shouldn’t be swept under the rug -it’s important for teenagers to read these books, because it gives them a wider, braver understanding of the world and the people in it.

But … why was Nickel & Dimed on that list? It’s a non-fiction account of an investigative journalist who goes undercover as a minimum-wage worker, and attempts to make a living on said minimum wage. In what way would that harm the sensibilities of teenagers attempting to learn about the world?

As I read it, I began to understand why some individuals would want to see the book removed from curricula: it promotes that those who work for minimum wage have human emotions and human needs, and that trickle-down capitalism does not work.

Oh, the horror.

Ms. Ehrenreich – whom I should refer to as Dr. Ehrenreich, as she does hold a Ph.D. – began this journey in the late 1990s, before the first minimum wage hike:

How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? How, in particular, we wondered, were the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour? Then I said something that I have since had many opportunities to regret: “Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism – you know, go out there and try it for themselves.” [p. 1]

And that’s what she did. She gave herself $1,000 to begin her journey, so she could afford rent and other sundries before her first paycheck (admittedly, a fund most individuals do not have the luxury to afford), moved out of her house in Key West, and tried to get a job as a hotel’s housekeeper. The first obstacle she ran into was that at every hotel she attempted to get a job, they recommended she waitress instead. Ms. Ehrenreich presumed that it was because of her skin color – as she was not Latino, she was perceived as being higher-class than someone who would be a housekeeper; hence, the waitress positions.

She managed to find an apartment and also managed to survive waiting tables for fifty hours a week, something she hadn’t had to do since college. After her time in Key West, she moved up to Maine and joined a maid’s service. The rent in Maine was too much for an apartment (which, tell me about it), so for her tenure here, she had to rent a hotel room by the week in Old Orchard Beach. Thank goodness it was the off-season for her.

Her last stint was in Minneapolis, which was supposed to be having a booming economy. Jobs were plentiful, it was true, but there was a severe housing shortage. While in Minneapolis, she worked at Wal-Mart and nearly caused a union uprising.

I’m going to get more in depth, but basically, she discovered the injustices and struggles every minimum-wage (or below-wage) worker experiences. The lack of respect from management, the constant distrust, the monitoring of your every move … but also the sense of family and, in some cases, survivor-hood that develops between yourself and your coworkers. If there is anyone who has struggled to make ends meet, you should read this book. But actually, now that I think about it, the people who should read this book are those who have never had to struggle; never felt the pain in your stomach when you realize you need to save your last ten dollars until payday for gas, which means you’re not buying any groceries until payday; those who have never had to wonder if this check they’re writing is going to bounce; never had to suffer indignities bestowed upon yourself simply because you are working a lower-paid job than someone else. Those are the individuals who should read this book, and it should be required reading for those in Congress.  Although, with the exception of Elizabeth Warren, I wonder if some of them can read.

(Also: remember, this book was written prior to the year 2000. None of the individuals Ms. Ehrenreich came into contact with had student loans, because they didn’t go to college. So as you read this book now, realize that many of these situations haven’t changed, but more individuals are feeling these struggles to live as well as having to pay off enormous mountains of debt. Just … muse on that.)

ANYWAY.

Some sobering statistics:

With the prevailing wages running at $6-$7 an hour in my town and rents at $400 a month or more, the numbers might, it seemed to me, just barely work out all right. But if the question was whether a single mother leaving welfare could survive without government assistance in the form of food stamps, medicaid, and housing and child care subsidies, the answer was well known before I ever left the comforts of home. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, in 1998 – the year I started this project – it took, on average nationwide, an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one-bedroom apartment, and the Preamble Center for Public Policy was estimating that the odds against a typical welfare recipient’s landing a job at such a “living wage” were about 97 to 1. [p. 2-3]

Remember, this was written in 2000. You know what hasn’t happened in that time? The minimum wage hasn’t risen to $8.89, that’s for sure.

During her waitress stint, Ms. Ehrenreich was astonished to learn that she didn’t get a real break during her shift, and something she said about smoking, of all things, really made sense:

I complain to one of my fellow servers that I don’t understand how she can go so long without food. “Well, I don’t understand how you can go so long without a cigarette,” she responds in a tone of reproach. Because work is what you do for others; smoking is what you do for yourself. I don’t know why the antismoking crusaders have never grasped the element of defiant self-nurturance that makes the habit so endearing to its victims – as if, in the American workplace, the only thing people have to call their own is the tumors they are nourishing and the spare moments they devote to feeding them. [p. 31]

Trust me, when you work in retail,  you cherish every freaking second you get to yourself. I’ll admit – there were a couple of times I wished I smoked so I could get out of the building for five minutes. Stupid freaking healthy workplace environment.

So the next place she takes herself to is Maine:

I chose Maine for its whiteness. [p. 52]

I cannot tell you how loudly I laughed at that. Because it is true – demographically speaking, according to the 2010 Census, the population of Maine stood at 1,274,923. Of those, 1,236,014 identified as Caucasian. That is 96.9%. Now, granted, the Census doesn’t literally count everyone, I’m sure, and that doesn’t take into account human error or human lying, but that is still a sobering statistic.

One of the first places she applies at when she lands in Maine is a Wal-Mart, where she is subjected to one of the most horrific things a job-seeker encounters: the personality survey. If you have never had to fill one of those out, then congratulations – you’ve never tried to work in a customer service environment with a tradition of severe management psychosis. The personality survey is an attempt to weed out the “good” candidates from the “bad” candidates, by asking a series of probing, contradictory questions about productivity, work ethic, and morality:

What these tests tell employers about potential employees is hard to imagine, since the “right” answers should be obvious to anyone who has ever encountered the principle of heirarchy and subordination. Do I work well with others? You bet, but never to the point where I would hesitate to inform on them for the slightest infraction. Am I capable of independent decision making? Oh yes, but I know better than to let this capacity interfere with a slavish obedience to orders. […] The real function of these tests, I decide, is to convey information not to the employer but to the potential employee, and the information being conveyed is this: You will have no secrets from us. We don’t just want your muscles and that portion of your brain that is directly connected to them, we want your innermost self. [p. 59]

I could get into a rant about the above paragraph, and how it is so completely, 100% true, and how retail managers try to give you this phony spiel about how your personal life is important to you and therefore it’s important to us too, but not on weekends, or holidays, or after 6 p.m., or when there’s a floor set coming up, and while you may have some personal stuff going on in your life and it’s very important, could you please leave it at the door when you come in for your shift, and it’s too bad that your grandmother passed away but you only get three days off for bereavement and the funeral’s on the fourth day so we’ll need you back in for your 2-10 shift, and more horrible, atrocious things, but basically yes, once you fill out that personality survey, they own you.

Ms. Ehrenreich gets the job with The Maids, and while the cleaning practices will shock you so much that I wonder if that’s the real reason this book was on the Banned Books List – wealthy housewives were horrified to learn that their cleaning service was merely moving dirty water around and not actually cleaning anything – I’m not going to get into them. I will post this quote, because it speaks to the feminist inside of me:

I learn that Mrs. W [the homeowner] is an alumna of an important women’s college, now occupying herself by monitoring her investments and the baby’s bowel movements. I find special charts for this latter purpose, with spaces for time of day, most recent fluid intake, consistency, and color. […] Maybe there’s been some secret division of the world’s women into breeders and drones, and those at the maid level are no longer supposed to be reproducing at all. Maybe this is why our office manager, Tammy, who was once a maid herself, wears inch-long fake nails and tarty little outfits – to show she’s advanced to the breeder caste and can’t be sent out to clean anymore. [p. 82]

How many times have we heard mothers vilified in the same sentence as Welfare, food stamps, and low-income earners? There have been conversations today that those on food stamps or other government programs shouldn’t be raising families. SO RAISE THE MINIMUM WAGE TO LET THEM GET OFF WELFARE.

Ms. Ehrenreich works at The Maids Monday through Friday; to make ends meet, she also works at a retirement facility, serving meals to their patients. About three weeks into her monthly stint at both jobs, she wonders

If you hump away at menial jobs 360-plus days a year, does some kind of repetitive injury of the spirit set in? [p. 106]

Jeepers, I sure did dogear a shit-ton of pages. I’d apologize, but I feel it’s important to discuss this stuff.

So Ms. Ehrenreich leaves Maine and heads to Minneapolis, where she does in fact end up at a Wal-Mart. In her interview, she learns about Wal-Mart culture:

[The interviewer] personally read Sam Walton’s book (his autobiography, Made in America) before starting to work here and found that the three pillars of Wal-Mart philosophy precisely fit her own, and these are service, excellence (or something like that), and she can’t remember the third. [p. 125]

Oh, my god.

Much of her time in Minneapolis is dealing with the severe housing shortage – she housesits for a while, then ends up having to stay in a Motel 6. I think she manages to get an efficiency apartment in the last week of her experiment, but she is constantly juggling the distance from where she could find an apartment to the suburban Wal-Mart, the cost of gas, and other amenities. It is difficult to find the perfect balance between housing, transportation, and job location.

This next bit sums up the retail life something fierce. I apologize in advance for the lengthy quotation, but guys, this is important. It all starts when one of Ms. Ehrenreich’s coworkers gets sent to another department where she doesn’t know the product as well:

It’s the difference between working and pretending to work. You push your cart a few feet, pause significantly with item in hand, frown at the ambient racks, then push on and repeat the process. “I just don’t like wasting their money,” Melissa says when she’s allowed back. “I mean they’re paying me and I just wasn’t accomplishing anything over there.” To me, this anger seems badly mis-aimed. What does she think, that the Walton family is living in some hidden room in the back of the store, in the utmost frugality, and likely to be ruined by $21 worth of wasted labor? [p. 180]

And before I get into the other half of this piece: I had a friend who used to work one day up in the Women’s department. Now, his home base was primarily Footwear, and the rest of the time Men’s Apparel, but that one day a week he had to work in Women’s for one of the brands we were pushing at the time. And he said multiple times that he didn’t feel that … how did he phrase it? It was something along the lines of, “I’ll do it, because you tell me to and it’s my job, but I’m not as effective upstairs [in Women’s] as I am downstairs.” And his argument was not the same argument as Melissa’s above. He was gladly taking his paycheck, regardless of where he was working; he did not begrudge a cent given to him, and rightly so. He saw it from the customer’s point of view, where he was, admittedly, correct: women shop differently from men, he’s not as familiar with the women’s product as the men’s, so therefore, his skills weren’t utilized to the maximum potential. But his argument about working in a different department did not stem from the idea that he was wasting the company’s money.

So in the middle of this labor discussion, this happens:

[Melissa] suddenly dives behind the rack that separates the place we’re standing. […] Worried that I may have offended her somehow, I follow right behind. “Howard,” she whispers. “Didn’t you see him come by? We’re not allowed to talk to each other, you know.” [p. 180]

BECAUSE GOD FORBID TWO COWORKERS HAVE A CONVERSATION. GOD FORBID TWO PEOPLE SHARE STORIES AND EXPERIENCES IN ORDER TO BETTER THEIR WORK LIVES. BECAUSE GOD FORBID THAT THINGS OTHER THAN RESTOCKING SHELVES AND HELPING CUSTOMERS HAPPEN ON A SALES FLOOR. BECAUSE GOD FORBID YOU HIRE HUMAN BEINGS AND EXPECT THEM TO ACT LIKE ROBOTS.

Now, Wal-Mart — much like Mother Russia — does not like when you talk behind her back. Especially when that most dreaded word floats up in conversation – union. And this is how Ms. Ehrenreich commented on that situation:

So if low-wage workers do not always behave in an economically rational way, that is, as free agents within a capitalist democracy, it is because they dwell in a place that is neither free nor in any way democratic. When you enter the low-wage workplace — and many of the medium-wage workplaces as well — you check your civil liberties at the door, leave America and all it supposedly stands for behind, and learn to zip your lips for the duration of the shift. The consequences of this routine surrender go beyond the issues of wages and poverty. We can hardly pride ourselves on being the world’s preeminent democracy, after all, if large numbers of citizens spend half their waking hours in what amounts, in plain terms, to a dictatorship. [p. 210]

And in those various dictatorships, after taking those various personality surveys, what did she learn about the relationship between management and employees?

While I encountered some cynics and plenty of people who had learned to budget their energy, I never met an actual slacker or, for that matter, a drug addict or thief. On the contrary, I was amazed and sometimes saddened by the pride people took in jobs that rewarded them so meagerly, either in wages or in recognition. Often, in fact, these people experienced management as an obstacle to getting the job done as it should be done. […] Left to themselves, [the employees] devised systems of cooperation and work sharing; when there was a crisis, they rose to it. In fact, it was often hard to see what the function of management was, other than to exact obeisance.  [p. 212]

HELL TO THE MOTHERFUCKING YES, PEOPLE. JESUS GOD YES.

I promise this is my last quote from Ms. Ehrenreich’s book. I’m sure you’re wondering what else I could possibly have not included, as this is most likely one of the longest reviews I’ve ever done. But guys, if you don’t work retail – or have ever worked any low-wage job – you don’t get it. There is a corps of people I have worked with who have shared these exact same experiences – it doesn’t matter if your dress code is “blue shirt and khakis” or “green shirt and khakis,” or even “fashion-forward and fully made-up”: there will always be a severe disconnect between what is promised from management to employee (“we recognize you value your personal life, so we give you a work-life balance!”) and what is actually delivered (“look, all the other managers have families with little kids, so even though you requested it off as your number one choice, we’re going to need you to work Christmas night.” “…. So, I have to work because my womb has never been occupied?!”)

What you don’t necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you’re actually selling is your life. [p. 187]

So please – unban this book. Read it. Devour it. Hell, Christmas is tomorrow and Bull Moose is still open; buy a copy for someone. Buy it for your manager! It will be hilarious!

But most importantly, send a copy to your Congressman/woman – especially if they keep voting to keep the minimum wage at $7.25 an hour.

Grade for Nickel and Dimed: 5 stars

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