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Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting
By in America
Review by Phyllis Eckhaus
Trying to survive on poverty wages really screws with your mind. Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich’s account of her personal journey into the world of unskilled labor, sets out to demonstrate that low-wage workers can’t make ends meet, and—no big surprise here—she succeeds in proving her point.
But it’s Ehrenreich’s startling subtext that makes her book fascinating, pulling at the reader like an undertow. The real revelation is how rapidly her experiences as a food server, maid, Wal-Mart clerk and nursing home attendant—all taken on merely as a journalism assignment—send her spiraling into self-doubt and misery.
When George, the 19-year-old Czech dishwasher at the Key West fast food joint where Ehrenreich serves hungry tourist hordes, is accused of stealing, Ehrenreich not only fails to stick up for her staunchly honest friend, but forgets her resolution to give him her tips. “Something loathsome and servile had infected me,” she acknowledges, explaining her metamorphosis from crusader to craven wage slave. In her next stint, working for a maid service in Maine, she quits going to the supermarket because she “couldn’t take the stares” at the “brilliant green-and-yellow uniform that gives [her] away, like prison clothes on a fugitive.” She imagines the whole store reproaching her: “No wonder she’s poor, she’s got a beer in her shopping cart!”
Ehrenreich has written numerous previous books, and her fans (I am one) cherish the cheerful wit and inventive synthesis of information and ideas that typically distinguish her work. By contrast, Nickel and Dimed often reads as if our beloved Barbara has been kidnaped by Kafka. Stripped of her professional identity, confronted by a world where work has no inherent meaning, she is almost as much at sea as the FedEx executive stranded on a desert isle in the movie Castaway. Her existential crisis is haunting.
Not that Ehrenreich doesn’t display her trademark insight. The first third of the book is scattered with “Aha!” moments: Of course, low-wage workers “overspend” on expensive sleazy motels—they don’t have the savings to cover the deposit on an apartment, in the extremely unlikely event they can find one cheap enough to afford. Of course, they are beset by illness and exhaustion; when you don’t have health insurance or disposable income, good health is a distant luxury and every injury takes its toll. Of course, Ehrenreich’s coworkers smoke: “[W]ork is what you do for others, smoking is what you do for yourself.” Of course, Joan, the “svelte fortyish hostess” at the restaurant where Ehrenreich works, lives in her van—she has no alternative.
Ehrenreich packs her short book with dismal facts and figures—for example, she unearths a study suggesting that perhaps a fifth of the working poor are hidden homeless, like Joan. But one set of statistics she misses is on welfare, work and depression. According to the current research on “welfare reform,” mental health issues—including low-grade depression—allegedly prevent the poor from getting and keeping the rotten jobs available to the unskilled. The State of Oregon estimates that 75 percent of women on welfare have mental health problems; in a recent demonstration project by the Manpower Development Research Corporation (a welfare-to-work think tank), half the women in their “New Chance” program were at risk of depression, and of those, half were at “high risk.”
Poverty by itself is plenty depressing; Ehrenreich describes some of the special ways low-wage work plays havoc with your head. For example, there are the preemployment tests that presage invasive, hostile and unyielding work environments, tests that ask “whether a coworker caught stealing should be forgiven or denounced, whether management is to blame when things go wrong, and if it’s all right to be late when you have a ‘good excuse.”’ The oppressive management message, Ehrenreich says, is, “You will have no secrets from us. We don’t just want your muscles and that portion of your brain that is directly connected to them, we want your innermost self.”
Marx believed that the “emiseration of the masses” would spark socialist revolution. Ehrenreich concludes her book with her own dreams of coworkers who can’t take it any more and who rise to unionize. But instead she describes colleagues who blame themselves for their poverty and covet kind words from management, folks who can barely feel, let alone fan, the flames of righteous anger. Her rhetoric aside, it’s scary to watch just how quickly Ehrenreich joins their defeated ranks.
Phyllis Eckhaus, a member of the WRL Executive Committee, edited WRL’s 2001 calendar, Earthshaking Women.
Just the Facts
The No-Nonsense Guides
The No-Nonsense Guide to Globalization
The No-Nonsense Guide to Fair Trade
The No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change
Verso Books and the New Internationalist magazine have joined forces to push activism just a little further into the 21st century with the slick new No- Nonsense Guides, the concerned citizens’ answer to the For Dummies series. Packing the concepts and statistics behind today’s most pressing causes into about 144 pages, these books brief socially minded readers on today’s problems and possible solutions to them.
In striving to be clear and current, the guides may fall short of literary eloquence. But they are easy and useful reads when you want the lowdown on what’s going on in the world, from child labor to organic bananas, from IMF policy to solar power, with glossaries of activist buzzwords, profiles of capitalist evildoers and stories of radicals on the frontline fighting the good fight.
The No-Nonsense Guide to Globalization, by Wayne Ellwood, begins in history with the exploits of proto-globalizer Christopher Columbus. “Globalization, even then,” writes Ellwood, “had moved quickly from an innocent process of cross-cultural exchange to a nasty scramble for wealth and power.” He then moves into 19th-century economic thought, showing how it has influenced—or rather, been adulterated by—the cult of the marketplace. Big Business claims to be in line with 18th-century British economist David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, but neglects to mention that Ricardo advocated a balanced economy with the roots of enterprise firmly planted in the home country, not the monstrous network of borderless multinationals that reign over the developing world. Even Adam Smith, that granddaddy of modern capitalism, would oppose the World Trade Organization, according to Ellwood, for he supported fairness in trade and interpersonal business, in sharp contrast to the faceless economic bully system that keeps poor nations in economic desperation. A freewheeling currency market, ever-thickening layers of inefficiency in international trade networks, and the legacy of Reaganomics are all helping corporations sabotage democratic principles in the developing world, perpetuating violence, poverty and environmental destitution.
Ellwood also provides a broad if superficial overview of how the global economy works today. He concisely outlines the power structures of the Bretton Woods Treaty of 1944 that created the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Ellwood illuminates the political hypocrisies underlying the IMF, the World Trade Organization and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, which wield quasi-governmental status after more than half a century of unfettered capitalist growth. Most importantly, Ellwood offers case studies of globalization’s dire effects, like the Asian economic crisis and the suffering of Mexican workers under the North American Free Trade Agreement. The book concludes with realistic proposals by activist researchers aiming to defuse the economic time bomb of corporate exploitation, including rational amendments to economic policy that could help democratize the IMF.
The No-Nonsense Guide to Fair Trade similarly explores the dangers of corporate greed, but with a focus on the crushing of indigenous peoples, labor and small farmers in Southern nations. Though the format of the guide, a compilation of articles from the New Internationalist Magazine, is haphazard, the anecdotal evidence speaks for itself, documenting the struggles of “fair trade” farmers around the world. Ransom often resorts to melodramatic language, as when he portrays pesticide-laden corporate Dole farms as misty wastelands of ecological doom, but the point is well taken. Like Ellwood, he also slips in pithy cultural commentary by criticizing globalization’s homogenizing effect on our society. Blue jeans, writes Ransom, lack all the social significance they once had in our popular culture because they only reflect the dull mechanics of commercialism, stained with the sweat of dehumanized labor. Ellwood remarks that globalism’s “cultural and economic tsunami” is roaring across the globe and replacing the spectacular diversity of human society with a Westernized version of the good life.”
In the Guide to Climate Change, Dinyar Godrej attacks the issue of global warming with an eye to the readership’s demographic—middle-class folks in the industrialized world who are concerned about heat waves, not necessarily the melting glaciers in the Himalayas—and then explains the links between the dangers of all types of climate change.
The strength of the series is that it lives up to its name; the three authors, not specialists but educated observers, seek to simplify vast, complicated problems and broaden the scope of people who want to read between the headlines of the morning paper. The issues described in each book often overlap, stimulating readers to connect rising temperatures, U.S. workers’ concerns about immigration, the instability of the stock market , the overhaul of the U.S. military and the coffee we drink. But the series falters when more nuanced viewpoints enter the debate. For instance, Godrej dismisses “population control” policy as an attempt to cover the tracks of destructive, over-consuming Westerners, yet many activists believe programs that alleviate overpopulation are not neo- imperialist, but in fact an effective way to improve living standards and reduce environmental stress.
The guides are merely no-frills introductions to expanding dialogues in international politics. But these small yet mighty volumes prove that a basic grasp of current events helps empower us to mobilize as citizens of the world and consumers against the status quo.
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