Archive for June, 2009

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

Saturday, June 6th, 2009

Barbara Ehrenreich describes her brush with low-paying labor employment and making ends meet in this interesting view of challenges unearthed while working in the unskilled labor pool of the US during 2000-2001.


Employers in general are more than willing to promote “comparing prices” but they are not so eager to suggest workers do the same with wages.  The author makes good points regarding the lack of civil liberties evident in some workplaces.  I found her stint as a maid enlightening and her weeks at Walmart fascinating. 

“For the laws of economics to work, the “players” need to be well-informed about their options.  Information about who earns what and where has to travel by word of mouth, and for inexplicable cultural reason, this is a very slow and unreliable route.  Twin Cities job market analyst Kristine Jacobs pinpoints what she calls the “money taboo” as a major factor preventing workers from optimizing their earnings.  There’s a code of silence surrounding issues related to individuals’ earnings.  We confess everything else in our society-sex, crime, illness.  But no one wants to reveal what they earn or how they got it.  The money taboo is one thing that employers can always count on. “

The author draws from her familiarity with the biological sciences in this excerpt “there is ample evidence that animals-rats and monkeys for example-that are forced into a subordinate status within their social systems adapt their brain chemistry accordingly, becoming “depressed” in humanlike ways.  Their behavior is anxious and withdrawn; the level of serotonin declines in their brains.  And – what is especially relevant here-they avoid fighting even in self-defense.   Of course humans are much more complicated; even is extreme situations of subordination, we can draw on reserves of self-esteem with thoughts of family, friends, religion, or hopes for the future.  The author surmises, “The indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers- the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being “reamed out” by managers-are part of what keeps wages low.  If you are made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you are actually worth.” 

Many in this country can be considered the “new rich” who rarely share common services and spaces with the poor and or middle class.  They withdraw from mixed neighborhoods into gated communities.  This is a main reason while public institutions such as libraries are falling short on funding.  They have always been underfunded and now that the rich are less likely to be regular library card carrying members, they do not support libraries as they have done in the past.  The poor and middle class are supported by library services and they are rarely voting or exuding political power in their own defense.

This country is unfortunately dependent on foreign oil and also on the underpaid labor of others. 

The author writes, “When someone works for less pay that she can live on-when for example she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently-then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health and her life.  The “working poor” as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society.  They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be card for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privatization so that inflation will be low and stock prices high.   To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor to everyone else.  As Gail, one of the author’s restaurant coworkers put it, “you give and you give.”

Let’s fast forward to the current economics of 2009 to assess an increase in the non-working poor.  When the author searched for work in the unskilled labor market of this country in 2000, there were an abundance of positions to choose from.  If the task was undertaken today, I believe her search would play a much larger role in the book.  This book review concludes with the question – what happens now to the self-esteem of the large number of non-working poor in today’s society?

I encourage readers to stick with the author’s words, even if they are not the stuff fairly tales are made of.