Sunday, January 29, 2012

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001)

It causes me anxiety to remember that Barbara Ehrenreich's participant/observer-style examination of the plight of the American underclass actually took place late in the Clinton adminstration, when the U.S. economy by all indications was roaring and good times were upon the land. I really hate to think what it must be like now. Like so many great things, Ehrenreich's strategy for this experiment, which takes its place alongside the legacy of such writers as Jack London and George Orwell, is the soul of simplicity. Parachuting into Florida, Maine, and Minnesota with only a car ("Rent-A-Wrecks"), money enough for a place to stay, and an ATM card for food if she absolutely must, Ehrenreich posed as a housewife returning to the workforce with minimal skills and experience and then attempted to survive. "The idea was to spend a month in each setting and see whether I could find a job and earn, in that time, the money to pay a second month's rent," she writes. All things considered, even these basic terms and the levels of support she allowed herself might reasonably be deemed cushy by anyone actually living the life. She lands jobs as a nursing home aide, a house cleaner, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. The results are predictable enough—there's a whole lot of soul crushing going on out there. Well-meaning friends of Ehrenreich encouraged her to skip the field work and just do the math, but if she'd taken their advice she'd never have found out some of the hidden realities she uncovers here, which are almost beyond imagining for many in privileged positions. For example, Ehrenreich details how the cost of living is not just proportionally higher for the underclass, but often is actually higher too. If a person can't afford to pay the deposits required to secure an apartment, and has no resources to borrow the money, the only choice left for many is taking rooms in cheap motels, paying by the week or night—and even cheap motels can cost well upwards of a thousand dollars a month. Obviously staying in a motel is intended as a stopgap measure but Ehrenreich makes all too clear how easy it is to slip into vicious cycles of economic entrapments. People in these positions are perilously close to disaster, day in and day out, and often they don't take good care of themselves either, eating poorly and eschewing exercise. Medical care, of course, tends to be out of reach. And I haven't even started on the realities of the kinds of jobs Ehrenreich took, which I happen to know some of from periods working as a nursing home aide myself and in a K-Mart. This is a bleak and tremendously valuable book and warrants continual updating. I wish I had a fraction of the courage Ehrenreich demonstrates here.

In case it's not at the library.

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