Millions of Americans work full-time, year-round, for poverty-level wages. In 1998, the author decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that a job, any job, can be the ticket to a better life. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 an hour? To find out, she left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered. Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, she worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. She lived in trailer parks and crumbling residential motels. Very quickly, she discovered that no job is truly "unskilled," and that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors. This work reveals low-rent America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity, a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate strategems for survival. Read it for the author's perspective and for a rare view of how "prosperity" looks from the bottom. You will never see anything, from a motel bathroom to a restaurant meal, quite the same way again. In her new afterword she explains why, ten years on in America this book is more relevant than ever.
It held my interest, but I was slightly underwhelmed. What she discovered was nothing surprising or new: rents are high and it's not easy to
Plus, I found that the author herself seemed irritating at times. When working at Wal-mart, she tries to point out to the other workers that they're being treated badly and brings up the idea of forming a union, but then goes on to tell the reader, "All right, I'm not a union organizer.... The truth... is that I'm just amusing myself, and in what seems like a pretty harmless way. Someone has to puncture the prevailing fiction that we're a 'family' here...." Um, why? I don't see the point in stirring up discontent if you're not going to help them do something about it. The last statement she makes about her Wal-mart experience is that she thinks she could have done something, if only she "could have afforded to work at Wal-mart a little longer" (the experiment ended when she could no longer support herself through her job there). Maybe that was intended as an inspiration to others, but it just left me wondering why she didn't use some of her own money from her "real" life to stay on for a while longer if she really felt that she could make a difference.
Overall, though, this was a worthwhile read. Those who are unfamiliar with the problems facing low-wage earners might get a lot out of this book, but if you already know that plenty of working people are living in poverty through no fault of their own, there's not a lot of new information here.
I believe Ehrenreich proved her point, but I do have some criticisms. First, her depiction of management as ogres because they make more money. She literally describes their personal appearances in unflattering terms, including pointing out weight problems. Yes there are mean managers just as there are mean coworkers, but the problem lies further up the chain -- there's no need to add "having a paunch" as a reason someone should be villainized. That comes off as less journalistic and more petty. She goes a bit overboard with her villainizing at times, such as when she talks about the upper-class folks who keep the maids in business. It's right to point out the class differences, but to turn the homeowners (or the ladies of the house, rather) into Cinderella's Wicked Stepmother is a tad one-dimensional. But this is the working class's story, so we get more heartbreaking tales of their struggle to survive on abysmal pay. And it is difficult not to be moved by their stories.
Another criticism I had was that the cities Ehrenreich chose to work in weren't very eclectic. (Key West, Florida; Portland, Maine; and Minneapolis, Minnesota) She purposefully avoided big cities like NYC or LA, but I would have liked to see how she would have fared in these places. I'm not sure how accurate a representation of the working lower-class American she got in the places she worked avoiding the big cities, where much of the lower-class population lives.
This novel was cited in "Mental Floss" magazine's most influential books for its expose on the working poor and the conditions in which they work. But ten years later, has the book made it's mark? She confronts some major social issues that affect a good portion of the population. But has anyone listened? These days we give bailouts to floundering businessmen while the lower class fills up tent cities, modern-day Hoovervilles. Ehrenreich makes a good point that society is less likely to feel sorry for the poor when they paint them as lazy, ignorant do-nothings. She paints them different: overworked, underpaid, and physically and emotionally exhausted.
This book will resonate with anyone who took a low-paying job to get by, and hopefully give a little perspective to those who had it easier in life. I hope that if nothing else comes from this book, that people treat their waiter, their maid, their cashier a little more kindly in the future.
The major flaw in this book is Ehrenreich herself. She's not really poor and it's hard for the reader to emphasize with her because it's clear she'll walk away after only a month in the job (often leaving her coworkers in the lurch). She also doesn't work consecutive months at a time, instead spreading the jobs over a long period of time, returning to her "real" life in between, so she never goes more than a month at a time having to live paycheck to paycheck. She never gets close to her coworkers, the true poor, which would have added real insight to how the poor really live. When Ehrenreich develops a rash, she's quick to call her own doctor and use her credit card to pay for the prescription, rather than use over the counter medicine. Towards the end, Ehrenreich seems to tire of her assignment and seems contents to live in a series of hotel rooms rather than really look for affordable housing. Her last stint at Wal-Mart seems suspicious - she turns down a higher paying job and then continually complains not only about having to take a drug test but the way management treats the workers. She complains that Wal-Mart pays so little that workers can't afford to buy clothes there, only mentioning in passing that employees get a discount. With all the media attention focused on Wal-Mart, it's hard to believe her choosing to work there was accidental.
In the end however, the book does make a difference, at least to me. I'll think twice before carelessly tossing clothes back on the rack wherever I feel like when I shop and will tip waitresses 20% if not more.
The author Barbara Ehrenreich decides to see how the low income people survive on the pay that they receive. As I read this book
In this book Barb travels to different parts of the United States and gives herself a limited amount of money when she first moves to a new place to look for a low wage job. She first decides to find a job in Key West, Florida as a waitress. Her next stop is in Maine in the Portland Area as a maid, and her last stop is in Minnesota in sales.
Barb first starts off with looking for a place to live when she first arrives in Florida, Maine and Minnesota. As she is looking for housing she also looks for jobs by looking in the want ads or just seeing signs posted in stores, restaraunts etc. The interesting thing about the book is that the pay wages are so different in each area and also in the types of jobs she accuires. Her first job as a waitress only pays $2.43 an hr. plus tips. So depending on the type of waitress she is and the establishment can make the job a good or bad one. Plus the waitresses have to split the tips with the busboys.
Bottom line, if you're absolutely convinced that someone at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder should just pull themselves together and up by their bootstraps and become Donald Trump (hmmm?), maybe you should read this book. Or, better yet, volunteer at a food pantry...
I'd been meaning to read Nickel
The basic premise is that the author, Barbara Ehrenreich, lives a comfortable life as a writer / journalist. She realizes that books/studies about the working poor don't really go far enough to explain the realities of their day to day lives, and so she sets off to live as they live for a few months at a time. She eventually lives in several cities, works at a number of low-wage jobs and shares her experiences.
The main issue people seem to have with this book is that though she doesn't use her education or work history to land the jobs she gets, she still has an incredible amount of privilege. No matter what her job applications say, she is clearly educated, she has been taught money managing skills, and she is articulate. She also knows that this is just an experiment, and at any time she can simply buy a plane ticket back to her comfortable life.
It's true that this isn't a 100% authentic portrait of what it's really like to work unskilled labor jobs, or how it feels to wake up every morning and not be sure how you're going to feed yourself after your 12 hour shift. But the author was very upfront about this, her writing is not congratulatory, as I'd worried, and in fact she gives example after example of the ways her experiment don't reflect the reality of her co-workers.
So no, it's not perfect, but for what it is it's interesting and very well-written. It's more than just a journal of her experience, it's also chock full of figures and facts that demonstrate how thoroughly she did her research, and how deep the economic and social divides really run in this country. Like I said, this is an important book. I'm glad I read it and I encourage others to do so.
I would imagine most of us aren't aware of just how bad things had gotten. And how these people and their work are simply taken for granted. And when we do think about it, haven't we rationalized it by thinking: they must be recovering alcoholics, addicts, kids who ran away from home - they messed up their lives, why should I care? We should care because most of those on minimum page don't fit into categories, they could be us, and because we live in one of the wealthiest countries of the world, because they have children and mostly because we benefit from their labor.
Great and Painful Read!!
Now mind you, this book was a New York Times best seller - communities, libraries, and schools all over the country have read and discussed it, and still nothing has changed. What does that say about America? When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, government stepped right in to fix the meat industry and the labor industry problems. When Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, support for the abolitionist movement increased and the fight to end slavery was hurried. There are numerous other examples, but the question still remains: Why hasn't anything changed for the working poor in America after such an exposé? Why is it that the demand for change seems to be so quiet?
Maybe we are all afraid of what will happen if those struggling to get by were suddenly able to more-or-less thrive. There are only so many resources, and if the poor get more then "I" will get less. Maybe if the poor are paid what their labor is worth, everything for "me" will get more expensive. Maybe if the poor are able to live in the same communities that "I" do, "I" won't feel quite so special anymore (plus they will bring all of their dirty children and drug problems with them). While I am being tongue-in-cheek, these are things that those of us who do have more should be thinking. Perhaps some of these statements hit a little too close to home to be humorous. Sure we want to see people's lives improve and to see people come out of poverty, but not if that means that "I" have to give something up.
And what exactly does Ehrenreich do to get by? Albeit, this is not a scientific study; it is only one woman's contrived journey to discover how little money she could make and still "get by," meaning still have a roof over her head and food in her belly. Getting by does not mean medical care, it does not mean going to the cinema, it does not mean new shoes when the old ones wear out, it does not mean purchasing a car. It means the basic, very basic necessities. Now, because this was a contrived journey, she had a lot more going for her than the people she worked with. She had a car, she had some starting out money, and she had the ability to know this was temporary and that she could leave at some point. Still, she had difficulties paying for meals, finding affordable living arrangements, and obtaining the level of pay that would at the very least provide her with a slight cushion. More than this, she had psychological difficulties due to working for nothing, being undervalued as a person, and seeing so many more doors closed to her than open.
She worked as a waitress, a maid, a nutrition aide, and an associate (Wal-Mart lingo for customer service and general picker-upper of strewn-around stock). Mostly she made minimum wage - sometimes a little less and other times a little more. Regardless of her pay, she could still not seem to "make it." Her largest struggle was with housing, finding it impossible to save up enough money to put down a security deposit in an apartment that was either realistically too expensive on her pay or should be condemned. A whole myriad of other problems befell her, which are all too common for the working poor.
The most endearing part of the book comes not from Ehrenreich's story, but rather from the stories of the other people she encounters, the real working poor that do not get to go back to a lush life because this IS their life. They have it rough, and they are a lot closer to home than you think. Perhaps if the readers of this book realized how close they are to being an underpaid working stiff, the social problems that create this situation would seem more pressing, and the changes that are needed would come more promptly. Trust me, I have seen it happen to some very good people. The situation is not getting better; in fact, I think it is getting worse.
Then too, I was bothered by Ehrenreich's tone somewhat. She's obviously coming from a position of privilege, and I think it kept her from truly, deeply seeing the lives of the working poor. The prime example, for me, is the fact that she continued to take Claritin during this "experiment." Allergies are serious business, and they are more common among working class people (many of whom deal with some pretty obnoxious chemicals day in and day out), and Claritin was a pretty expensive prescription medication at the time of this book. In other words, if she truly wanted to understand the situation of the working poor, she should have stopped taking that medication for the duration. As someone who suffers from allergies, I know how debilitating they can be, and so I don't necessarily fault her for not going to that extreme. But at the very least she should have acknowledged her compromise on that issue, rather than simply mentioning it off-hand as though it weren't significant. But I don't think she truly understood how significant it was, and that lack of understanding runs throughout the book.
What did she find out? That poor people work very hard and barely make enough to survive. Any small health problem or the need to change jobs or housing can take the money that is used for sustaining food. Towns and city plans make affordable housing difficult to find near available jobs. Fresh, nutritious foods are not easily available near either the cheap housing or jobs and refrigeration and cooking sources/implements are often not included in rent even for furnished apartments/trailers.
I've put "Fear of Falling" on my list for future reading. I highly recommend this book. NEither the vocabulary nor the concepts are beyond the capacity of middle school children.
Ehrenreich's refusal to give up her entitlements (and indeed her endowments) makes it so she doesn't have to truly experience poverty. She discusses the poverty line in the Evaluation but she only complains that it measures something arbitrary; she doesn't note that what it does not measure are exactly those things that enabled her to walk out of a job when she was upset. She doesn't need the salary, she has other things to fall back on.
From personal experience I have to say that she got quite a bit wrong. In the Introduction she wonders why when she comes out to some of her coworkers they are neither surprised nor upset, instead only ask her if this means she won't be returning for her next shift. She thinks this is because (a) writing is thought of as a hobby, not a job and (b) that she wasn't successful at fooling them. What she does not ever realize is that they ask that question because that is their primary concern. Someone is going to have to cover that shift and it could be them. It could be a godsend because they need the extra money or it could be a disaster because switched shifts means switched transportation/childcare/and a host of other issues Ehrenreich doesn't seem to acknowledge until the Evaluation.
I've worked some of those jobs. I've been told that bathroom breaks take me away from my desk and therefore interfere with the work of the business. I've stood on my feet for 11 hour shifts snatching a dinner break on my feet in a corner of the crowded back room. I know that single mother who supports herself and three children on what she makes from working at a convenience store and a gas station and who faces financial ruin if she has to take time off because her middle son is sick. I've had my purse searched every day at the end of every shift despite my years of good work. I've been "honey" and "sweetie" and paid more than I could afford in order to meet a frequently changing dress code.
One thing that particularly bothered me was when Ehrenreich did not stand up for George, the dishwasher who was accused of theft. She compares working at this restaurant to being in a POW camp and uses that to excuse her lack of courage. She's wrong. The fault was hers, not the job. Plenty of us have seen our coworkers falsely accused and plenty of us have stood up. Don't blame the poor and the oppressed for your own failings.
I thought Ehrenreich did a superb job of presenting the pitfalls and hopeless situations of the working poor. Those of us who have been, or still are, in that situation will see incidents of our own lives in this
Those who still think that the American dream is accessible to everyone clearly don't live in a world of reality.
I have read several books of this nature and this one is my favorite. I highly recommend it.
She obviously saw the low-paying jobs to be beneath her. In her summary she actually says, "I was amazed and sometimes saddened by the pride people took in jobs that rewarded them so meagerly." I have worked all the jobs she did, with the exception of Walmart, and I firmly believe that a person should take pride in whatever work she is doing, and do the best she possibly can. The author belittled people for doing these menial jobs, telling the maid Hollie (who was proud of her job) that anyone could get that job . . . anyone could pass that stupid test. She was offended at having to clean poop off people's toilet seats and felt she had to educate the readers in the three kinds of poop on toilets. I could educate HER on poop in tubs, poop on nightgowns, poop on floors and walls. What part of "cleaning lady" did she not understand when she took the job? Are we supposed to do away with all the elderly and sick because they create poop that needs to be cleaned up?
She also had a poor work ethic. She only made it one day as a hotel maid, even though she admitted taking 4.5 minutes per bed when it could have been done in 3 minutes, and watching t.v. all day as she worked.
Then to top it off, she wishes there were no big houses because then there wouldn't be any maid jobs. I would like her to tell all the maids in America that she would like to do away with their jobs. (Not everyone can go back to a writing job.) She said she wouldn't hire a maid, even though she could afford it and her husband wanted her to, because she "didn't want that kind of relationship with another human being." In other words, she would deny someone a job because it would make HER feel bad; doesn't matter that there are people who would love to have that job (and no one would force her to pay poorly or be a bitch with her maid).
The idea for the book was fine, but the task shouldn't have been taken on by someone who felt she was too good for it.