There is no book, essay, or blog post more important for you to read than Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001).
I’m late to this book, which should be considered the paramount ethnography of the working poor and mandatory reading for all Americans. The eBook has sat abandoned in my iTunes book library, waiting for me to open it for years while I’ve been too busy reading Yvonne Vera or Coetzee. They’re worth it, of course, but it pains me to have just now finished the defining, canonical text of my field.
Ehrenreich travels to three different cities in the three different regions of the U.S. with a seemingly simple mission. She tries to find a place to live, food to eat, and all of the other requisites for living, all while working a low-wage job. At that time, the jobs she worked paid from $6 to $7 dollars per hour. For some perspective, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI Inflation Calculator claims that $6 per hour in January of 2000 has the buying power of $8.87 today. $7 has the buying power of $10.35. Perhaps the numbers vary by region, but that should shock you. Those are not wages we collectively view as abject, debilitating poverty.
Ehrenreich begins her investigative mission working as a waitress outside of Key West for a month. Here, she transitions from one restaurant to a second, from an efficiency apartment to a trailer closer to her newfound workplace. In Maine, Ehrenreich works as a Nutritional Aid or food server at a nursing home for Alzheimer’s patients on the weekend and as a maid during the week for a franchise cleaning company while living in a long-term motel apartment. In Minneapolis, Ehrenreich works at Wal-Mart while living in one motel with a particular set of safety and comfort challenges.
In each chapter, Ehrenreich identifies the aspects of living a low-wage life that shock her upper-middle-class sensibilities. I deeply respect her for that. In my opinion, Ehrenreich never pities the laboring class or grows frustrated by some essentialist pitying characteristic. If she does, she calls herself out, checking her privilege at the confines of the doorframe she owns. Ehrenreich is the advocate. The translator, not the one with a voice. The men and women she meets in each line of work are as important as she is. If I was disappointed in any of her journalism, it was the lack of interviews from her neighborhood. At the same time, Ehrenreich, like many employed low-wage laborers, is rarely galivanting for friendship. When she isn’t working, she’s finding food, a cheaper place to live, or trying to numb her aching mind and body by attempting self-care. No, you don’t see her neighbors or listen to the voices in the home community. There’s a reason for that. It’s work.
The experiment itself proves that surviving on a low-wage income as a single adult is impossible. In Maine, Ehrenreich almost achieves a state of survival while working seven days a week and, not to rely on pitying words, enduring physically breaking work. While working as a maid, Ehrenreich ruminates on the moment one client explains the difficulties she has with the shower stall in her bathroom:
“Seems the marble walls have been ‘bleeding’ onto the brass fixtures, and can I scrub the grouting extra hard? That’s not your marble bleeding, I want to tell her, it’s the worldwide working class—the people who quarried the marble, wove your Persian rugs until they went blind, harvested the apples in your lovely fall-themed dining room centerpiece, smelted the steel for the nails, drove the trucks, put up this building, and now bend and squat and sweat to clean it” (112).
The maid chapter is this: bodily harm, sprained ankles, backs that give out and rashes that form on the body. Descriptions of bodies become vile, stained with shit and sweat and grime while being demeaned by cashiers at their convenient store lunch spots that probably make the same hourly wage. The maid chapter is tough to read. Tougher, I’d say, by the amount of corporation-induced bodily strain. The women that work for the company can’t drink water in the homes they clean. If they hurt themselves in the line of duty, they probably won’t be paid for the shift they have to miss and can’t get medical care. They’re hungry, expending thousands of calories that will never be adequately replaced on Doritos and crackers. This chapter, more than any other, should insight rage at the bodily abuse taken on by laborers who are forced to remain invisible by our collective “propriety;” our belief that the laborers that clean our shit are worthless.
Ehrenreich also analyzes the gross misunderstandings we have, even implicitly, about the working poor. She doesn’t have to directly address the concept that the poor don’t work hard, because the hours of backbreaking labor she describes with language such as, “Don’t stop, don’t think, don’t even pause for an instant, because if you do, you’ll be aware of the weariness taking over your legs, and then it will win” (106). More than the grossly inaccurate collective imagination the middle-class has for the poor, she also refutes the drugged and drunk hypothesis, showing the job drug testing, food assistance programs that offer no cash assistance, and firings due to drug-related rumors. Smoking because it’s the only affordable addiction outlet.
From my own perspective, smoking has always been a characteristic we can rightly attribute to the poor for a variety of reasons. I started smoking when I was fifteen, when a friend, who was working-class, gave me a Marlboro menthol she swiped from her mother. All of my working-class comrades are smokers. Primarily because cigarette companies target the poor, making millions off of the five to eight-dollar packs of cancer. It’s more than that. As a retail worker for four years, taking a cigarette break was the only respite I had to leave the store and get off my feet. Our floor was marble on top of concrete—and that cigarette break was my oasis, my moment to sit on the concrete ground of the parking garage for ten minutes and not have someone need something from me. Ehrenreich bonds with her coworkers over cigarette breaks, using it as networking time, interview real estate, or simply a minute to not work. In one analysis of the poor smoking, Ehrenreich writes:
“I don’t know why the antismoking crusaders have never grasped the element of defiant self-nurturance that makes the habit so endearing to its victims—as if, in the American workplace, the only thing people have to call their own is the tumors they are nourishing and the spare moments they devote to feeding them” (47).
Or, if that doesn’t kill you for the times you coughed loudly while a worker in a kitchen uniform leaned against the concrete wall of the back door to have five-fucking-minutes of silence, she also notes: “So ours is a world of pain—managed by Excedrin and Advil, compensated for with cigarettes and, in one or two cases and then only on weekends, with booze” (111). I’ve always held this belief, primarily because I’ve lived it, but also in plain economic numbers. The poor won’t get a $90 massage or a $125 steam facial for a relaxing appointment of self-care. $11 won’t pay your electricity bill. It will, however, buy a six-pack of Bud Light and a pack of Pall-Malls. When you need self-care on a budget, I can guaran-damn-tee a sixer of beer and a pack of smokes will set you back in working order.
Ehrenreich concludes her work on the state of poverty in America with a straightforward call-to-action. We believe poverty can be sustainable. We believe, however inaccurately, that having a class of poor people in the labor sector is requisite to Capitalistic function. Ehrenreich notes the bullshit you know to be true, no matter how easily you erase the hidden poor from your mind. That’s why this book is dangerous. That why this book is necessary.
“These experiences are not part of a sustainable lifestyle, even a lifestyle of chronic deprivation and relentless low-level punishment. They are, by almost any standard of subsistence, emergency situations. And that is how we should see the poverty of so many millions of low-wage Americans—as a state of emergency” (256).
Header photo by @tyrusarthur