May 18, 2009

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

This is a review of "Nickel and Dimed : On (Not) Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich.

The concept of the book is to run a real world test to see if the author could "get by" on a low wage job. The author worked in Key West, Maine and Minneapolis working as a waitress, maid and at Walmart for a month each to test her ability to make ends meet. While it is an interesting and at times an entertaining read, the book fails to accomplish its goal of demonstrating the real difficulty in low wage work.

Nickel and Dimed was a entertaining and easy read. First of all the concept of testing out the difficulty of living on low wages is an interesting idea to me. The stories of her daily work and interaction with management and co-workers were interesting. I laughed out loud more than once. But unfortunately I was most entertained by the stupid things the author did and said.

Let me be clear that I think it can be very difficult for someone to support themselves on minimum wage. Its not impossible for a single person to survive but it isn't easy. Supporting a family on one minimum wage income is not very realistic if not basically impossible. I generally agree with the authors belief that its hard to make it on low income wages but I feel she did a horrible job proving or arguing the point.

My biggest fault with Nickel and Dimed is how poorly she proved her point. First of all she set out with the assumption that it couldn't be done. Its not hard to fail if you believe you will fail. More than that she didn't do much at all to really prove her point. She was able to find work pretty easily. She rarely talked about the actual dollars she was spending. She didn't seem to do a good job at being frugal at all in my opinion. About all she did was demonstrate that work can be hard, bosses can be jerks and low cost housing can be hard to find. I didn't need to read a over 200 pages to find that out. The biggest difficulty she had was the cost of housing. If she had simply gotten a roommate then her budget problems would have been fixed. She could have made a lot better argument for her point if she covered such topics as the cost of health care insurance, the cost of child care, unexpected emergency bills or high cost of gasoline but she didn't go into these topics much if at all.

Unfortunately the author had some significant personal biases that detracted from the actual topic. While working as a waitress she decided that 'visible Christians' were bad tippers and felt necessary to share that opinion with us. It was a pretty judgmental and stereotypical declaration that I don't expect is based on anything credible except a couple anecdotal incidents. The author is an atheist. So it seems to me she's really just voicing her anti religious views. She also spent a significant amount of time whining about how she disliked drug tests. She went so far as to suspect that its 'demeaning effect' was appealing to employers. These points are pretty irrelevant to the struggles of an individual earning low wages. They really only seem to be in the book as a reflection of the authors biases. The author later revealed an obvious bias on that topic when she feared she might not pass a drug test due to her "chemical indiscretion in recent weeks". I guess if you use marijuana as she had then the idea of a drug test might be a concern. An atheist drug users dislike for religious people and drug tests doesn't have anything to do with how hard it can be to make in on low wages. When she went into those topics it was distracting and detracted from the legitimacy of her points.

The author seems to have some problems with management or maybe authority in general. She frequently assumed or implied that the people in charge had evil motives for everything. The worst example of this kind of thing on her part was when she called the owner of the house keeping business a 'pimp' for no real reason I could see other than that he was a man who employed women.

At times Nickel and Dimed came across with a condescending or arrogant tone. Here's a good example of that "You might think that unskilled jobs would be a snap for someone who holds a PhD." To even suggest that having a PhD means you'll be a good waitress or maid or have an easy time of those jobs is arrogant and condescending in my opinion. She declares in her conclusion "I am an unusually fit person" which isn't what I'd call humble. I found it amusing how she was surprised that nobody she worked with seemed to care that she was writing a book.

With all its faults, I have to admit that I actually enjoyed reading the book. The concept was very fascinating. The writing and story was interesting enough to keep my attention. But the author failed to make a good argument at all and had some views that would offend many people. Its sad though since I do think there is a real story to be told about the difficulties of the working poor in America. Nickel and Dimed simply doesn't do the topic justice at all.

There is a preview of the book on Google Books if you search for the title.

But the bottom line is : I can not recommend this book.

If you're interested in the topic then I'd recommend instead watching the "Minimum Wage" episode of the TV show 30 Days from Morgan Spurlock. You can watch the full episode on the Hulu site. They do a LOT better job of discussing the actual finances without all the attitude that Ehrenreich had.

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