Low-Wage Philanthropists


Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

Years ago, when I was a sophomore in college, I wrote for the campus left-wing magazine, which was staffed by earnest idealists and rarely, so far as I could tell, read by anyone at the school. Instead all the attention went to the conservative magazine, which was always offending people with splashy, obnoxious pieces and pranks. At one brainstorming meeting in our dank, paper-cramped basement office, a writer proposed doing a story on the homeless around campus.

Somebody should go under cover, he said, and really find out what it’s like to be homeless. Live the life. Feel the experience. It would be bold; it would get attention. Murmurs of assent flew round the room. Then one of the editors came in, late, and listened intently to the discussion, her head cocked. This woman, now a professor of African-American studies, was the leading radical on campus, and her face had recently been blazed across the front page of the newspaper, twisted with righteous indignation as she protested apartheid.

“I cannot believe this,” she said finally, drawing out each word. “People are really suffering, and you want to go out there and pretend?”

I’ve never forgotten the feeling I got in the pit of my stomach at that moment, the sinking realization that we were treating poverty like a role in a play, one we thought we could take on and understand-we, the young, the healthy, the at least nominally educated-and then discarded at the end of the article. Was it journalism, or was it playing games?

I remembered this feeling when I picked up Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Nickel and Dimed, because going undercover is what she did, as a way of bringing attention to the low wages and affordable-housing crisis in this country. In three different cities (Key West, Portland, and Minneapolis), for a month at a time, she posed as a homemaker returning to the workforce after years away. The jobs she found paid between seven and ten dollars an hour-she was a waitress, a maid, and a clerk at Wal-Mart. Earning what is actually more than minimum wage, Ehrenreich tried to afford housing, groceries, and the basic necessities of life. What could she learn from doing this, I asked myself, that she couldn’t have gotten from interviewing people and asking them about their lives?

As it turns out, she learned a lot. Among the many sad things in this sad book, she learned that a life of grinding hardship can inure people to the way they are being mistreated, by their employers, their apartment managers, and their society, so that they no longer feel outrage or even surprise at the injustice of the situation. When Ehrenreich “outs” herself to these people-I’m a writer, she tells them, and this is my undercover investigation, not my real life-they have virtually no reaction whatsoever. No matter whether Ehrenreich (and I) occasionally feel uncomfortable with the subterfuge; one of the lessons of the way of life chronicled in Nickel and Dimed is that if you work as a waitress, you are a waitress, no matter who you were before, or what you think your real life is supposed to be.

Ehrenreich’s journey begins near her hometown of Key West, Florida, where she moves into an efficiency apartment and gets work as a waitress. She calculates that if she makes $7 an hour she should be able to afford $500 in rent, with money left over for food and other expenses. She soon figures out that she can barely get by; in fact, the only reason she can get said efficiency apartment is that she allotted herself $1,300 for start-up costs like first month’s rent and deposit, initial groceries, and extra money for medical or other emergencies. Lacking deposit money, her co-workers live in expensive pay-by-the week trailers or motels. Not having a car severely restricts the places some can live. A few who do own cars live in them. Most people, as Ehrenreich winds up doing, hold second jobs just to survive.

“There are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the other contrary, there are a host of special costs,” she observes. “If you can’t put up the two months’ rent you need to secure an apartment, you end up paying through the nose for a room by the week. If you have only a room, with a hot plate at best, you can’t save by cooking up huge lentil stews that can be frozen for the week ahead. You eat fast food or the hot dogs and Styrofoam cups of soup that can be microwaved in a convenience store. If you have no money for health insurance-and the [restaurant]’s niggardly plan kicks in only after three months-you go without routine care or prescription drugs and end up paying the price.”

What grinds people down isn’t just these financial logistics. Employers use an arsenal of techniques to keep workers feeling insecure and grateful to have any job at all. Drug tests, personality tests, constant running of want ads (to show that you can be replaced at any time), long hours, demanding tasks, lack of affirmation and approval: It all adds up to chronic deprivation, enforced malnutrition of the body and the soul.

In Portland, Maine, Ehrenreich works as a maid, and she devotes a lengthy section of the book to the visceral disgustingness of cleaning other people’s homes, how painful and degrading it is, how invisible the workers are to those who employ them. (Although the domestic workers in Maine are largely white, in most other parts of the country they are undocumented immigrants whose race and illegal status add to their invisibility.) A young woman named Holly, ill with pregnancy and exhaustion, injures herself on the job, but won’t go home; Ehrenreich tries to intervene, to no effect. Holly’s sense of professionalism and responsibility are both stirring and frustrating, given how poorly she is being treated. In several instances Ehrenreich tries to rile her co-workers, but most of them seem passive about their situations. The reasons for this are myriad, but that same chronic deprivation is surely a major contributing factor.

In Minneapolis, where rents skyrocketed during what was then a prosperous economy, Ehrenreich cannot find a place to live at all. She works at Wal-Mart and lives in a motel so unsanitary and dangerous that she cannot sleep at night. Unable to stand the place, she winds up spending her $1,300 emergency money at the Comfort Inn. The housing situation in Minneapolis is the same in many other parts of the country. “If there seems to be general complacency about the low-income housing crisis,” she writes, “this is partly because it is in no way reflected in the official poverty rate, which has remained for the past several years at a soothingly low 13 percent or so.” The official poverty level is still calculated by taking the cost of food for a family of a given size and multiplying by three. Yet food is relatively inflation-free; rent is not.

The working poor are “the major philanthropists of our society,” Ehrenreich notes, giving of their health, their money, their time, so that others can live at their expense. She points out that there is no such thing, ultimately, as unskilled labor; all jobs require concentration, physical stamina, knowledge and ability. In the summary at the end of her book, she lists, proudly, all the things she succeeded in doing at her various jobs. Her genuine pride impressed me, borne as it is from respect for the people who do these difficult jobs not just for a month but years at a time.

Nickel and Dimed is a compulsively readable book. It combines a journalist’s ability to sketch people and places with well-researched statistics, most of them in non-intrusive footnotes, that give foundation and context to the lives of the people portrayed in the book. It’s also readable because it contrasts with so much political rhetoric about the economy, which is abstract and global. We hear far more about prices in the stock market than the supermarket. In this book-as in real life-we experience the economy on the micro level, a level of practical and anxious calculations: How can a person survive, week by week and dollar for dollar, paying for rent, groceries, and gas?

Maybe my flashback to that college-day sensitivity about game-playing journalism arose from the same squeamishness that surrounds frank discussions of money in our society. It’s fascinating, and it feels prurient, to learn about the down-and-dirty details of people’s lives. Ehrenreich’s undercover operation allowed her to find this information out for herself. These facts make up the economic realities of the working poor, and it is clear from Nickel and Dimed that we cannot afford any imprecision in that debate. Many people on both sides of the welfare debate have accepted the idea that jobs are the cure for poverty’s ills. Ehrenreich proves, devastatingly, that jobs are not enough; that the minimum wage is an offensive joke; and that making a salary is not the same thing as making a living, as making a real life.

Alix Ohlin was last seen in the Great Smoky Mountains, and is reported to be living somewhere above the Mason-Dixon line.