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Does the Working Life Work?

Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed

According to essayist and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, you never saw her. She could have served your salad in Florida, or possibly pushed a mop at your home in Maine, or even folded your Faded Glory jeans at a Minnesota Wal-Mart. Ehrenreich assumed all these low-wage jobs and more in a year she devoted to discovering whether the life of the working poor worked at all. Armed with her automobile, first month's rent and a commitment to divorce herself from any perks afforded by her former life as a journalist, Ehrenreich set out to see how the other half lived.

What Ehrenreich discovered first and foremost was that she fit in readily. "Almost anyone could do what I did ... work those jobs, try to make ends meet ... In fact, millions of Americans do it every day, and with a lot less fanfare and dithering." Soon after, she learned the pieces of her low-wage life did not fit together -- that is, making a living on low-income work necessitates working multiple jobs and living in low-rent spaces often far from her workplace.

Ehrenreich relays her experiences unevenly in this account, her commentary ranging from incisive and well-researched to frustratingly sparse. Ehrenreich's prose is cutting and direct when she exposes buried messages she wasn't privy to in her formerly luxurious life, such as, "another capacity of the neuromuscular system, which is pain. I start tossing back drugstore-brand ibuprofens as if they were vitamin C... I comfort myself with the Aleve commercial where the cute blue-collar guy asks: If you quit working after four hours, what would your boss say? ... Fortunately, the commercial tells us, we workers can exert the same authority over our painkillers that our bosses assert over us. If Tylenol doesn't want to work for more than four hours, you can just fire its ass and switch to Aleve."

Where Ehrenreich leaves this reader wanting is when she discusses her colleagues at her various jobs. None emerge more fully than as caricatures: they smoke rather than eat, they have myriad health and family complications to put them under even greater economic duress than the unattached Ehrenreich. I wish Ehrenreich, once her cover had been blown in each place, had interviewed her fellow workers to get their accounts of life below the poverty line.

Ehrenreich's main point is a good one -- too often we fail to make eye contact with the person scooping french fries, or we don't talk with the maids trucking cleaning products out of the service's van. Regardless of our economic station, we would all do well to interact with, rather than avoid, the people whose lives hinge upon the labor and welfare policies that leave them so adrift economically. Additionally, we should vote in legislators willing to raise the bar of what constitutes minimum wage in this country.

Her book would have been a far better mechanism by which to impel such social progress, had Ehrenreich painted a clearer picture of what her fellow workers looked like to her, given her close range. By harping upon the flight patterns of Budgie, the bird she babysits when friends go out of town and loan her their apartment (a perk likely not enjoyed by her fellow workers), Ehrenreich wastes precious energy and space better used as analysis of her compatriots. As a then-member of the working class, she must have known better than most how little of that she had to spare.

Nickel and Dimed:
On (Not) Getting By in America

by Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books, May 2001
ISBN: 0805063889
$23 (Hardcover, 221 pages)
>> Buy It Now: Nickel and Dimed

Rebecca Fox, a freelancer writer living in San Francisco, won't run out of analytical energy any time soon.

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