Wednesday, July 10, 2013

"Nickel and Dimed" (Ehrenreich) - Eye Opening Read

I finished reading Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. It's one of the optional books for my AP Language and Composition class. I had read portions of it before, but not the entire book.

It was well worth the read.

The premise is that Ehrenreich, between 1998 and 2000, take on menial jobs - waitress, house cleaner, store clerk, etc. - and try to live on the salaries. That includes finding a low-cost place to live and eating only what she can afford. She also keeps her background and education hidden: She poses as just another woman who suddenly has to find some way to survive.

What she uncovers is the harsh reality of the lives of people on these low-income jobs. Surviving on minimum (or waitress) wage is extremely difficult. People are forced to work second jobs, to live with other people, to live in substandard housing, to work through injuries or other physical ailments, etc. They are often trapped by their situations due to lack of money, poor job markets, lack of transportation to get to better housing or jobs, and so on.

The reality is pretty stark. People are indeed not getting by. It challenges our notions that people can survive on minimum wage - and challenges assumptions that if people are not happy with their jobs/income they can just move on. They can't, and the difficult lives they are living is gradually destroying them.

Ehrenreich is a good writer and she brings this all to life. She is honest in her reactions and in describing her own struggles. She also fleshes out her narrative with all sorts of information to provide context and supporting information. Make sure you read the footnotes.

From a Catholic/moral point of view, I do have a few quibbles with the book, or, more accurately, with Ehrenreich. She admits that she is living with her boyfriend (I think that colors her view of some of her co-workers' living arrangements) and uses recreational drugs. In addition, she acknowledges that she is an atheist. Her only lengthy mention of religion is of a revival meeting she attends. She has some valid criticisms of what happens at the revival, but her attitude is dismissive, almost contemptuous of faith.

Those objections aside, this is an eye-opening book. For me, it backs my beliefs that we need to do more to promote a just wage. It also reminds us that we need to treat all people with the respect that they deserve as our brothers and sisters.

I recommend this book.

Pax et bonum

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