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

Warning: May Contain Spoilers!
Don’t like?  Read the book first.

This book has been often found on book fail lists.  One of the reasons why I picked it up was to figure out whether or not it was as bad as people made it out to be.  I have to say, I didn’t actually find it a fail.  It’s not a fantastic book by any stretch of the imagination, but it wasn’t a fail

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America is a social experiment book reminiscent of John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me.  The whole idea is that the author, Barbara Ehrenreich, goes “undercover” in a way and finds minimum-wage jobs and see if she can actually live on them the way a good chunk of America currently is.  What she finds are the underlying problems that come with trying to live off of a minimum-wage job.

A lot of people had problems with her tone in the book.  I’ve heard several accounts of her being whiny in the book but to be honest I didn’t think she was that whiny.  What she does is contradict the idea that minimum-wage workers are unskilled.  She shows how unfortunately manual labor (Not just factory work but waitressing and housecleaning) is taxing, uninteresting and and degrading.  Now, anyone reading this book who has worked these jobs understands that.  But I get the feeling that there a quite a lot of people who have read this book who never worked jobs like that in their life and have no blasted idea about it.  She points out that the “skills” come in the form of huge feats of stamina, focus, memory, quick-thinking and fast-learning.

I’ve heard about the flaws in her experiment too.  For instance, she made a stipulation that she would have a car no matter what.  This makes sense to me.  For one, because she was doing this experiment in several states and you don’t necessarily know that any of them will have a public transport system, much less a good one.  For two, I work minimum-wage and I work with quite a few people who would sacrifice electricity, heat and food, among other things, to keep their car running.  I know a lot of people who can’t get to their work without a car or who have to take a huge hour cut (HI!  That’s me) because they don’t have a car and the amount of public transport needed to get to work limits how much and what times they can work at.  I don’t find it unreasonable at all to have a car.  They also ragged on her for her lack of shared housing, choosing trailers and motel rooms instead.  Let me tell you, I looked into shared housing.  NEVER AGAIN.  I WILL NOT room with someone I don’t know.  Especially since there’s a limit to the amount of background checking you can do if you’re not hugely computer savvy.  If you don’t believe you can trust your stuff around them, don’t do it.  Plain and simple.

But part of the problem I think people my age (I’m 25) have reading this book is that they forget it’s set in 1998.  Over a decade ago guys.  There’s a lot you have to take into account.  But one thing still stands.  Those “personality tests” she decries are still used and they’re still transparent and they still suck.  Those drug tests still pretty much don’t work.  They’re only good for weeding out hardcore junkies.  I didn’t find her concern for the safety of her co-workers to be grating.  Her concern was natural, and it’s hard to understand why some people would sacrifice their own health for money, especially if you’re injured on the job because you are entitled to worker’s comp and if they fire you for it, I can guarantee you that when you file for unemployment they’d make your employer give you your job back.  It’s stupid to not rest because it just causes problems that cost you money further on.  It’s not a lack of logic, it’s simply wondering how people can forget simple things.  Like, if you have a sprained ankle, and you don’t let it heal properly, the temporary injury turns into a permanent one that costs you more money down the road.  It’s not smarter to work while injured.

She wasn’t as snotty and liberal as some people have made her out to be.  She naturally wants people to fight for what’s better and some of it you can do without losing your job (legally losing it anyway and THAT is something you should always fight against.  Never let them fire you illegally without a fight.)  And while I will not deny that she had an “out” that’s because this is an experiment.  There has to be a point at which it ends anyway, and whether you deem it as a success or a failure.  While ordinary people don’t have an “out,” they do have stuff to help.  I have skin problems, and I have a dermatologist I can see when I need to.  Most of my friends (all in the same boat as me) have a regular physician, get regular check-ups and can go to any emergency clinic for when they get sick.  You don’t HAVE to fight through it.  It’s not a mark that you’re a better poor person.  Just that you’re a stupider one.  The lower class workers still take antibiotics and several of my friends take birth control pills.  And might I add that she tried several over-the-counter avenues for her skin problem and finally had to call a dermatologist because she wouldn’t have been able to work otherwise.  THAT is exactly what poor people do.  And when she smoked pot (which I think absolutely everyone I have ever worked with does on a regular basis.  Who doesn’t smoke pot?) she did what everyone I know does: she tried to quick detox.  NO detox system is “patented medicine cures.”  They are all over-the-counter cross your fingers and hope it works cures.

And from what I could tell, she never just made this big revelation about who she was.  The only time she ended her experiment early was at the end when her stipulations required her to, indicating that a portion of the experiment had failed.  She did tell some people about who she was, but was never really shocked at how people had reacted (only really shocked at how many people considered themselves “writers” despite never making a career of it or getting published.)  It wasn’t this big thing she did at the end of every phase.

Final Thoughts:  While it wasn’t a great experiment (the structure could have been laid out better, among other things) and she was whiny sometimes, this book was not nearly as big a fail as I had been led to believe.  I’d give it a 3 out of 5.  It was a decent read, with some good points, but it wasn’t as stirring as Black Like Me and I probably won’t reread it.


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