Nickel and Dimed

Nickel and Dimed: on (Not) Getting By in America
Barbara Ehrenreich
2001
Read by Cristine McMurde-Wallis

Okay, time to go hang myself.
Talk about Middle Class Guilt–no, SHAME, as Ehrenreich says in her closing chapter. SHAME on you Middle Class people with affordable necessities at the cost of the Working Poor. SHAME on your pitiable Welfare Reform.

Ehrenreich breaks the bubble of complacency by investigating what its really like to live as the Working Poor. She gets minimum wage jobs in three different states and tries to live solely on her income. I knew that it was bad, but I didn’t know it was as bad as she experiences. She lives in ratty hotels that charge nightly rates because there is no low income housing. She spends six hours one day getting $8 worth of shitty processed food from a food bank. 60% of people on welfare already have jobs. You read this and you become more and more convinced that something in America is just wrong. And that’s before she gets a job at Walmart.

I remember refusing to read this in Gender Studies 200. Absolutely refusing, mind you, and telling the professor as much in a private interview. I just couldn’t get over Ehrenreich’s pretentious tone. She told a few min wage workers that she was actually undercover and they didn’t care! Amazing! I quit right then. I didn’t even get to the parts where she mentions her PhD numerous times. I knew what Working Class was like because I spent three summers working at Mo’s, a seaside restaurant. I had friends that were illegal immigrants. And she dared to act all high and mighty!

Looking back on it, I don’t think I was so angry about the pretentious writer as I thought I was. I don’t even think I was angry at the Professor. I was angry at the whole class, the whole idea of us Undergrad Upper Middle Class Ivory Tower bitches sitting around and talking about the working class as if we could possibly understand just by reading a book. I was angry that a Gender Studies class was trying to open my mind and experience other cultures, and all it did was make me feel more isolated within my own class. Privileged white girl, discussing a book written by a privileged white girl with other priviledged white girls in a class taught by another older privileged white girl. Vertigo, anyone? I was so frustrated because it didn’t matter what I read, I had no point of reference. I didn’t know any poor people, I didn’t know the value of money… wasn’t the fact that I was at a Private College proof enough? No matter what I do, I am an outsider looking in, and you can’t break that.

So I did my time in a retail job, grew up a little, and now that I have a job helping low income teens find their first job, I have a point of reference. This could be their story. So yay. Now bring on the misery.

Despite her pretensions, she tells a pretty interesting tale. It also kind of made me realize why I hate my current job. Its not the people with high stress jobs that come home tired, its the ones with no responsibility at all. Those repetitive motions that don’t require a lot of thought weigh on you. I do a lot of data entry. I can barely survive by listening to audiobooks. Also the whole “time theft” bullshit is something I commiserate with. I remember doing that… slowing down my tasks to a snails pace so that I don’t get assigned to something worse or my hours cut. I used to do that at my current job too. THAT really kills you. Nothing’s worse than doing useless things. She makes the point that you feel miniscule, so useless, that if you won’t do something, work as hard as the others, feel you have some rights, they will fire you and take on one the millions of people waiting to take your job. Seniority is nonexistent. Job security, nil. You can be fired for almost anything.

This applies to Ehrenreich once saying something like “if they didn’t annihilate every part of your fighting spirit and assumption that you are in fact a human being, these wouldn’t be so bad of jobs.” I completely agree. I remember the constant pestering of the managerial staff at Joann’s, the daily remonstrances about not meeting some quota or doing a tiny corporate-condoned task perfectly right. The kind of neck breathing where every sentence they say is “do this” and it always means “right-the-fuck-away.” And corporate! Every week a new thing to sign, saying they’ve changed a tiny part of our horrendously long code manual and we have to sign off on it. The mortification of losing rights to lockers, then keeping things in our apron pockets overnight, then keeping things in our pockets during the day and on and on and on. And what’s the point? So some corporation can earn a bit more money. Not so big on employee motivation, corporations. It is simple oppression.

If that isn’t bad enough, we learn about Walmart. Yeah, that behemoth of civil injustice. I didn’t know that four states have sued Walmart for not paying their employees for overtime wages and Walmart STILL doesn’t change… though, truthfully, I probably could have guessed. That, along with her own experiences, give impression of a looming demon, blotting out the sun and crushing you under the pressure of a giant Rollback Smiley Face. Yes, Walmart, you are the Devil, and the Devil always wins.

After a severely depressing tirade on the Middle Class, Barbara ends her story with a painfully idealist “someday the proletariat will rise up and take what is theirs” yadda yadda bullshit. And I can’t help but think, “no.” Because Walmart wins, corporations win, welfare cuts win… Every time I got a little too depressed while reading this book I said to myself, “it’s okay, it’s been ten years. It’s probably better now.” And then I think of the Recession, and the government cuts, and smartphones…  Then of course there is now the problem of the middle class shrinking, and my own worries about how do I pay bills with a smartphone and internet and student loan payments that I will be paying forever. And how much do I need to earn to live a “comfortable” life anyway, do I need graduate school and more student loans and mortgages and multiple incomes and what about kids and saving money for the future and…. Sighhh. Fun times, this economy.

Anyway, I still have Feminine Mystique to review, which is going to be another funboat. Right now, though, I’m reading William Shatner’s autobiography, read by the Captain himself. Which is pretty awesome. 

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