Laboring Days

Nickel and Dimed Chronicles the Hard Life of the Working Poor

Could you survive in a strange city on $7 an hour? This is the simple question that social critic and Ph.D. biologist Barbara Ehrenreich set out to answer. The 2001 bestseller Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America chronicles her lived research with biting insight, engaging detail, and a welcome dose of humor.

I will survive (but not on Wal-Mart wages)
Leaving her home in Key West, Ehrenreich tries on life at the bottom of the wage scale. Working as a waitress, a nursing home aide, a maid, and a Wal-Mart “associate,” she very quickly discovers that full-time work does not keep her out of poverty. In fact, it doesn’t even keep her in an apartment.

Some of the information Ehrenreich shares in her book might be familiar to avid newspaper readers or political junkies. You may already know, for instance, that many in this country’s homeless and nearly homeless population are families, or that 67% of the folks in the U.S. seeking food assistance have jobs. What Ehrenreich, however, is able to do is bring these statistics to life.

The invisible poor
Those of us who inhabit the comfortably middle class easily lose, or more likely never gain sight of what poverty actually means for the people who are poor. Your back aches from bending, lifting, hauling; but shelling out a few bucks from some ibuprofen will mean sacrificing a meal. There is food assistance available, but in order to get it you have to be “free all day to drive around visiting ‘community action centers’ and charitable agencies.”

Ehrenreich is passionately determined to put the plight of the working poor back in view. Her stories of work at Wal-Mart and sleep in weekly-rate hotels are loaded with both anger and humor, with shame and pride.

Cleaning the homes of the wealthy in Maine, Ehrenreich discovered that one of the cardinal rules of cleaning house is: maids are under no circumstances allowed to eat or drink while they are working. They are strictly warned against even taking a water break in the houses of their clients. Consider the witty observation this generates: “I wonder if Mrs. W. will ever have occasion to realize that every single doodad and object through which she expresses her unique, individual self is, from another vantage point, only an obstacle between some thirsty person and a glass of water.”

Round of applause, please
At the end of the book, in the chapter entitled “Evaluation,” the author gives herself a round of applause for doing her jobs well (though she is skeptical about her ability to have kept up her 11 hour days for any length of time beyond her experiment). This Labor Day , Ehrenreich’s account inspires a round of applause to the men and women who work these jobs for real.

The people who clean our “shit-stained toilets,” bus our tables, re-hang our unbought clothing, and feed our grandparents deserve our appreciation. And from those of us who inhabit the middle and upper classes, they also, frankly, deserve our money.

So, how about a little voluntary re-distribution of wealth on Labor Day? Leave a big, fat tip for the waitress at your lunch table or the maid at your kitchen table.

Or, better yet, how about a little political activism on their behalf. The Department of Labor is threatening to eliminate overtime pay, and the Minority Leader in the Senate is trying to raise the national minimum wage. Get more facts and take some action.

Contact: The National Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice.