“The idea that led to this book arose,” Ehrenreich begins by writing, “in comparatively sumptuous circumstances.” She then describes a $30 lunch at a French restaurant with Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s, who, when Ehrenreich casually mentions that someone ought to investigate the consequences of welfare reform by going out and trying the low-wage workplace “for themselves”, jumps on the idea and beckons Ehrenreich to take the dive.
Ehrenreich goes on to explain that the notion seemed at first crazy to her. She was a long way from the days of radical journalism, and her own extended family had enough brushes with and proximity to poverty that doing what she did for a living—sitting at a desk and writing—seemed not just a privilege “but a duty”—something she “owed to all those people […] who’d had so much more to say than anyone ever got to hear.”
Ehrenreich did of course overcome her concern, and the book is the chronicle of her efforts. For the remainder of her introductory chapter, Ehrenreich details the parameters she set for her endeavor. First off, three rules: she was not allowed to fall back on skills derived from her usual work; she must take the highest-paying job offered to her and do her best to hold it; she must accept the cheapest housing she could find.
The problem is that she wound up, by her own admission, breaking all three of these rules in one way or another. Moreover, she had to don certain disguises and set certain limits in the interest of investigating what was most interesting to her—which was not, for example, waiting at a bus stop all day. She described herself in interviews “as a divorced homemaker reentering the workforce after many years”—quite close to the truth, in fact, but of course avoiding any salient details regarding the reasons for her reentry—and determined that she would always have a car, would rule out homelessness as an option, and would never go hungry. The safety net—ATM card, bank account, actual home—would always loom large.
Ehrenreich concludes the chapter with a few additional disclaimers. Her good health, her means of transportation, and the fact that she did not have children in tow already set her apart from the prototypical low-wage single mother. Her being white and a native English speaker led her to avoid certain locales—like New York and L.A.—where the working class is predominantly non-white and where “a white woman with unaccented English seeking entry-level jobs might only look desperate or weird.” Perhaps more important, psychologically Ehrenreich was playing a wholly different ballgame than that of her low-wage co-workers. She wasn’t working for the money; she was working as research. “I went home every day not to anything resembling a normal domestic life,” she notes, “but to a laptop on which I spent an hour or two recording the day’s events.”
That said, in other ways there was less play-acting going on than one might think. One does not pretend to be a waitress, for example; when Ehrenreich worked as a waitress, even for a short period of time, she was a waitress. She was not marked out by employers for special intelligence or education, but rather for inexperience. The “role” she was playing was not even so much a role as a vague concept, muddled and complicated by the diversity of humanity. Ehrenreich writes: “Low-wage workers are no more homogenous in personality or ability than people who write for a living […]. Anyone in the educated classes who thinks otherwise ought to broaden their circle of friends.”
The notion of a day-by-day theater will loom large in this book, as it is essentially the chronicling of a writer’s assuming a role. Ehrenreich starts off with a flurry of disclaimers, in an effort to distinguish her endeavor from some sort of Method actor’s exercise. She aligns herself with scientists, not performers, noting that she holds a Ph.D. in biology and that what she is undertaking is akin to an experiment, an effort to “plunge into the everyday chaos of nature, where surprises lurk in the most mundane measurements.”
Fair enough, but fiction writers have said much the same thing in the past. They seek to dive into the thicket of real life with their prose—save the problematic fact that all that they write has been pre-constructed in some fashion in their minds, and is thus no more a reflection of real life than the writer’s image in a mirror. Ehrenreich’s journey is marked by its own constructions: the car she insists on keeping, the ATM card she insists on holding, the hunger and homelessness she insists on evading. She dubs these constructions “reassuring limits” to her tribulations; but what is poverty with a limit? Is not the notion of true, abject poverty fundamentally one of limitless depths?
Ehrenreich’s chief point in her introduction is to explain that she did not try to “play poor”. Hers was not a Marie Antoinette quest, not an effort to pretend. After all, one does not pretend to work a low-wage job; one either works it or does not. “With all the real-life assets I’ve built up in middle age—bank account, IRA, health insurance, multiroom home—waiting indulgently in the background,” she concedes, “there was no way I was going to ‘experience poverty’ or find out how it ‘really feels’ to be a long-term low-wage worker.” Her aim, instead, was objective, scientific: to determine whether or not a low-wage worker can match income to expenses. It’s a nose-to-the-ground job, a close look at specifics as a way to perhaps extrapolate on the post-welfare-reform landscape. Whatever it is, it’s “straightforward”.
The fundamental problem, however, is that nothing is ever straightforward—not when fictional constructs rub up against the real world. What Ehrenreich produces in Nickel and Dimed is, as we shall see, fascinating and revelatory, but it is not the straightforward, scientific account of an experiment. It is something far more murky, far more muddled—and, I would argue, far more interesting.
It is telling to note, for example, Ehrenreich’s reasoning for keeping a car. “Yes, I could have walked more or limited myself to jobs accessible by public transportation,” she writes. “I just figured that a story about waiting for buses would not be very interesting to read.” This self-imposed limitation is in the interest of entertainment, or at least good storytelling. These are not the words of a scientist; these are the words of a performer. My analysis in the coming chapters will seek in part to examine the fine line between those two stances.
Over the last decade of the twentieth century, the American economy has been a roller coaster of ups and downs, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit record highs and dot-coms soared and then crashed. The summer of 2001 saw rebate checks sent to millions of taxpayers—the fruits of a large government surplus—but a few months later the House and Senate were arguing over economic stimulus packages to get a stalled economy moving again.
A large group of U.S. citizens remain largely untouched by these wide economic swings. Known as the “working poor,” these people work long hours at jobs at or near the minimum wage. They do not have savings accounts and retirement funds to worry about, and they do not invest in the stock market. When a new federal plan for welfare reform promised to get able-bodied welfare recipients off the dole and into jobs, social critic Barbara Ehrenreich and a friend, a magazine editor, wondered what sorts of jobs these new workers would find, and whether they could earn enough from them to maintain a basic standard of living. That wondering led to a series of articles in Harper’s magazine and eventually to Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.
To research the book, Ehrenreich conducted an experiment that is easy to describe: She moved to a new town and found a place to live (“the cheapest that offered an acceptable level of safety and privacy”), paying the first month’s rent from her own savings. She accepted the highest-paying job she could find without drawing on her college degrees or her writing skills and lived off what she earned. At the end of the month, she hoped to have enough money saved to pay a second month’s rent. Ehrenreich lived a month each in three cities over a time span reaching from 1998 to 2000, working low-end jobs during the day and maintaining a journal on her laptop computer when she could summon the energy at night.
There has been a long tradition of left-leaning writers exploring the lower classes in this way. Two well-known examples came out of the early part of the twentieth century, as Jack London described farm laborers inPeople of the Abyss(1903), and George Orwell looked at urban workers during the Depression in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Ehrenreich herself has examined issues of class and economy before. In the 1980’s she offered reflections on The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed (1990). She traced the rise of the professional middle class in the United States in Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (1989). Not only are the aspirations of middle-class America somewhat empty, she concluded, but the middle class is so visible—considered so typical—that lower classes become invisible. With Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich puts a needed spotlight on one overlooked portion of the lower class, drawing attention to a group of people with whom her readers interact every day, but who are usually ignored. Ehrenreich’s aim is not to shed light on her own heroic passage through poverty (she points out that “millions of Americans” do for years what she did for only a month at a time, “and with a lot less fanfare and dithering”), but to illuminate the day-to-day challenges of making ends meet on a low-wage income. The focus is on numbers—the dollars and cents, the minutes and hours—instead of on personalities.
In her introduction, Ehrenreich shows that she has a clear sense of what her experiment can and can not establish convincingly. She is aware of the ways in which she is not typical, aware of the advantages she brings to her new life: education, good health and good health habits, white skin, English fluency, and the knowledge that she can return to her own life at any time. She allows herself a car and an ATM card for real emergencies. She does not have young children who need supervision while she is away at work. Her experience, therefore, is not typical, but probably the best that can be hoped for “in the economy’s lower depths.”
For her first stop, Ehrenreich moves to Key West, Florida, a small city near her own home. Although she has tried to prepare for what she is about to do, she is immediately stymied. She has guessed that she can earn about seven dollars an hour, and that she should therefore be able to spend five or six hundred dollars on rent. The cheapest place she can find in Key West, however, is a trailer with no air-conditioning, screens, or fans for $675 a month. Ultimately she decides to take a one-room cabin thirty miles out of town, and drive the forty-five minutes back and forth each day. The lack of affordable housing will be a continual problem as subsequent chapters take her from Key...
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