Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed and the Working Poor

J. Bradford DeLong

June 2001

Barbara Ehrenreich (2000), Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (New York: Metropolitan Books: 0805063889).


I have loved all of Barbara Ehrenreich's previous books. Even when I disagreed--and I often did--I admired the argument, enjoyed the process of reading, and learned a lot from every page.

But this book was different. When I finished this book, I looked at it with a sense of what I can only call... loathing.

I did not dislike this book because of its underlying project. Writing up for the rich the results of an upper-class essayist's anthropological mission to see how the other half live is worthwhile. It is part of the task of afflicting the comfortable which needs to be carried out much more strongly if we are ever to have a better society. The point of Ehrenreich's rapiers of intellect, art, and wit are as sharp as ever when she points out that even so-called "unskilled" work--perhaps especially so-called "unskilled" work--is demanding and challenging: the memory skills required of a waitress, the physical labor of a house cleaner with a vacuum on her back, and the patience of a Wal-Mart "zoner" hanging up the same blouse for the ninth time all push human capacities close to their limits--and for truly lousy pay.

How lousy is the pay? Consider "Alyssa... [who] had come by... to inquire about a polo shirt that had been clearanced at $7. Was there any chance it might fall still further?" When you make $7 an hour at Wal-Mart, it matters whether an extra 10% is going to be taken off the price of the $7 shirt.

I did not dislike this book because how it reminded her upper-class readers that every job is worth doing well, and that people who do it well deserve respect: "...when I wake up at 4 A.M. in my own cold sweat, I am... thinking of the table where I screwed up the order and one of the kids didn't get his kiddie meal until the rest of the family had moved on to their Key lime pies.... I want them to have the closest to a 'fine dining' experience that the grubby circumstances will allow. No 'you guys' for me; everyone over twelve is 'sir' or 'ma'am'. I ply them with iced tea and coffee refills; I return, midmeal, to inquire how everything is; I doll up their salads with chopped raw mushrooms, summer squash slices, or whatever bits of produce I can find that have survived their sojurn in the cold storage room mold-free." That is something that her upper-class readers need to hear more often.

I did not dislike this book because of its introspection and navel-gazing. That was useful: to know that this upper-class essayist was shaken by how cruel she became toward the end of a long shift: "This is not me, at least not any version of me I'd like to spend much time with, just as my tiny coworker is probably not usually a bitch. She's someone who works all night and naps during the day when her baby does.... 'Barb', the name on my ID tag... [t]ake away the career and the higher education... and[its] more than a little disturbing, to see... Barb... she's meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I'd hoped."

I did not dislike this book because Ehrenreich itemized the tricks of the bosses: how they get their low-paid employees to value and work for praise, the mendacious anti-union videos of Wal-Mart that leave one wondering "why such fiends as these union organizers, such outright extortionists, are allowed to roam free in the land", and the sleight-of-hand at the moment of employment itself, when "first you are an applicant, then suddenly you are an orientee.... There's no intermediate point in the process in which you confront the potential employer as a free agent, entitled to cut her own deal..." Ehrenreich's insights are sharp as she itemizes the tricks that the bosses use to keep workers from exercising their bargaining power.

I did not mind that too much of the book was not about the experience of the working poor, but the experience of someone trying to find a cheap apartment on short notice (something that is always hard to do) while she cleanses her system of various chemical substances: "If I could just surrender to my increasingly aqueous condition and wait out the weekend with a novel, things would be looking up. But... [the bird] wants to be out of his cage... squawking... pacing dementedly... sit on my head... worry my hair and my glasses frames.... [I am] a cringing figure, glasses peering out the porthole of her sweatshirt, topped by a large, crested--and, I can only imagine, quite pleased with its dominant position--exotic white bird. But I cannot incarcerate him... It's... my way of earning my shelter, to be this creature's friend and surrogate flock." The peculiarities of her particular situation make up some of the best, or at least the funniest, parts of the book.

I did not even--well, not much--mind the failure to do the economics of the situations she found herself in. An independent house cleaner in Portland, Maine makes "up to $15 an hour." The Maids charges its customers $25 an hour. The Maids pays its workers $6.65 an hour. And the owner of the franchise is comfortable, but not rich--he doesn't earn the $25,000 a year per employee that simple subtraction would suggest. So where in this business are the other costs? What sustains the enormous price gaps between what The Maids charges, what those who employ independent cleaners pay, and what The Maids pays?

I do feel a certain degree of pity for Economic Policy Institute economist Larry Mishel, faced with a Barbara Ehrenreich convinced that the reason wages haven't risen in the 1990s is that "employers resist wage increases with every trick they can think of and every ounce of strength they can summon..." He tried to explain to her that employers in 1990 did the same: employer resistance can account for the level of wages, but it is hard to see how--unless you think employers have grown meaner over the past decade--it accounts for slow rates of change.

The working poor are poorly paid and their wages are stagnating not because bosses are mean (although many are: the Wal-Mart boss who told Alyssa that she could not apply her employee discount to the $7 clearance polo shirt in a simple exercise of malevolent herrschaft comes to mind). They are poorly paid because our technology has dropped demand for low-education labor at the same time that our educational system has failed to upgrade the formal educational skills of our workforce. An earlier generation of leftists would have talked about how bosses are bearers of socioeconomic forces, which they cannot contravene or they will go bankrupt. As inadequate as many of its analyses were, at least it was looking in the right place.

I did not even loathe the book because of the strong pains Barbara Ehrenreich took to demonstrate that *she* was not one of *them*. The talk of the $30 lunch at understated French country-style restaurants, where she ate salmon and field greens while wondering aloud how people can possibly make it on $6 or $7 an hour; the dismissal of beautiful Old Orchard Beach as a "rinky dink blue-collar resort" (not the kind of place *she* would go to in her real life)--these grated as I read them.

Why, then, did I look at this book after I finished it like I might look at a dangerous insect? Because of its politics--or, rather, its antipolitics. In this book the government does not appear (save in footnotes discussing the lack of enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act). Yet if you look at the things that make the lives of America's working poor better, the actions of government have to rank high on the list. The government sets and enforces (imperfectly) the minimum wage; contrary to what you would believe if you read only the footnotes, the Fair Labor Standards Act does change the way America's workplaces function; for those with kids, the Earned Income Tax Credit provides low-wage workers with a wage boost of forty cents on the dollar for each of their first fifteen hundred hours of work (if they file an income tax return with the IRS and claim it--a big if); what inadequate health care the working poor receive is paid for by the government; and if we are ever going to change the supply-demand balance of the American economy and significantly close the income gaps between working rich and working poor, publicly-funded education must play the major role.

Yet all these are invisible to Barbara Ehrenreich

Because all these are invisible to the Barbara Ehrenreich (see "When Government Gets Mean: Confessions of a Recovering Statist, _The Nation_ (November 17, 1997)), she can write that it is time for America's left to ditch the government. She believes that it is time to stop supporting it, to stop defending it, to stop arguing that what the government does is by and large good, to "...no longer let progressivism be understood as the defense of government." Why? Because "[b]y setting ourselves up as the defenders of... 'big government'... progressives have boxed themselves into a pragmatically and morally untenable position." To Ehrenreich, American government today is made up of "petty-minded bureaucracies like the I.R.S. and the D.M.V." when it is not made up of cops violating people's civil rights.

So from her point of view, the right thing to do is not to care about electing representatives who will vote for expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit and increases in the minimum wage, but to focus attention of "alternative services": "...squats, cooperatives of various kinds, community currency projects... [a cultural core] offering information, contacts, referrals and a place for people to gather."

And from her point of view a Democratic victory in the 2000 election would have been something to fear, because of its "almost certainly debilitating effect on progressives and their organizations" (see "Vote for Nader," _The Nation_ (August 21/28, 2000)). Never mind that a Democratic Labor Secretary would place a higher priority on enforcing labor laws in a worker-friendly manner, never mind that under a Democratic president the NLRB is more union-friendly, never mind that a Democratic congress would pass and a Democratic president sign minimum wage increases that did not come with enough riders to make their overall benefit questionable, and never mind that under Democratic congresses and presidents the tax code becomes more progressive. None of these are on Ehrenreich's radar screen.

Why not? I don't know. She's smart. She's an extremely skilled observer. She's witty and writes extremely well. The economists of the Economic Policy Institute had their chance to brief her.

Yet it seems as though none of it took...


A passage from an article taken from the book...


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