It was 1998, the Welfare Reform Bill had just passed and the writer Barbara Ehrenreich wanted to know how the four million women about to be booted into the labor market were going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour. When the question came up over lunch with Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham, she suggested, in a gush of inspiration, that someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism and go out there and try it for themselves. Lapham agreed and immediately nominated Ehrenreich as that someone, thus initiating her odyssey into wage-labor living. Over the course of two years, the author and essayist waitressed tables in Florida, scrubbed houses in Maine and obsessively zoned the women’s department at Wal-Mart’s in Minnesota. Her record and analysis of these adventures is Nickel and Dimed, a piercingly witty and intimate exposé of life (or lack of it) on poverty-level wages in America.
Like Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and Griffin’s Black Like Me, Nickel and Dimed is a story written from below. Ehrenreich plunges into her subject matter becoming both character and commentator in this tragi-comic narrative about working America. Influenced by her Ph.D. in biology, she decides to investigate the living-wage life scientifically. She lays a few groundrules for herself; she even posits a hypothesis. Maybe she would discover some hidden economies in the world of the low-wage worker. After all, if almost 30 percent of the workforce toiled for $8 or less, as the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute reported in 1998, they may have found some tricks as yet unknown to her.
As with any scientist, or writer for that matter, Ehrenreich brings her bias to this learning adventure. She is no St. Francis, eager for the spiritual gains of renunciation. When her cohorts in the 70’s became proletariat wannabes, she declined. Her own unchosen encounters with poverty had taught her it was not a place you would want to visit for touristic purposes. Instead, she approaches her experiment with hard-nosed realism and a conviction, nurtured in her working-class childhood, that poverty can be overcome with hard work and a can-do attitude. Whether it’s juggling orders for four or five tables at an overcrowded restaurant in Florida or wielding a back-mounted vacuum cleaner throughout a mansion in Maine, Ehrenreich tries hard at every job she undertakes. Very hard.
Nonetheless, despite her advantagesethnicity, education, motivation, healthpoverty’s plot overwhelms Ehrenreich in every setting. Even after a job switch in Florida, elevating her hourly wage as a waitress from $5.15 to $7.10, a budget deficit still dogs her. To cut costs, she relocates to a trailer park, where dislocation rules night and day except for a thin stream of pedestrians heading for their jobs at the Sheraton or 7-Eleven. There are not exactly people here, she observes, but what amount to canned labor being preserved between shifts from the heat. Ultimately Ehrenreich flames out in Florida while trying to hold down two jobs.
The money chase is not much different in Maine or Minnesota, where she is unable to translate the basic variables of wage work and housing into a sustainable equation. There are no secret economies that nourish the poor; she realizes, on the contrary, there are a host of special costs. Nickel and Dimed is an exposé of those costs. The bodily cost of toil: Ours is a world of pain, she writes, managed by Excedrin, Advil, cigarettes and occasional booze. The psychological cost of belonging ignominiously to an invisible class, of being one of those who, for some perverse reason, did not make it in the land of plenty. It’s easy for a fast-food worker or nurse’s aide to conclude that she is an anomaly, Ehrenreich notes, because the poor have disappeared from the culture at large, from its political rhetoric and intellectual endeavors as well as from its entertainment. Even religion seems to have little to say about the un-American plight of the poor. The money lenders, she argues, have finally gotten Jesus out of the temple.
But Ehrenreich has not forgotten the working poor, and she tells their bitter brave story with such hard-hitting humor that you laugh and laugh even as you cringe. And ponder. Throughout her journey in the land of toil, Ehrenreich, the artifice, studies the real McCoy’s all around her. She tracks the housing search of the waitress Gail, who moves from a shared room in a downtown flophouse to a truck parked just outside her workplace because her male roommate, endured only for financial reasons, is driving her nuts. She agonizes over the fragile health of young, pregnant Holly, who somehow manages to feed her husband, herself and an elderly relative on $30-$50 a week. Even after injuring herself on the job and admitting to dizziness, Holly, a fellow maid, will not cut her hours and go home.
The working poor, Ehrenreich writes, are the major philanthropists of our society, neglecting their own children so that the children of others will be cared for, living in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect. Their poverty, she argues, is an unacknowledged state of emergency. As American domestic concerns continue to be subsumed by an increasingly militarized national agenda, one can only expect this crisis to deepen and the Hollys and Gails of America to proliferate. Many thanks to Ehrenreich for at least making their stories known.