Nickel and Dimed

The grim statistics stare out from The New York Times: in 2001 the average top chief executive made $10,457,800, a figure that is 410 times as much as the average worker’s salary of $25,466. And this figure has risen drastically from Reagan’s heyday of 1985, when CEOs made 70 times as much as the rest of us. I do not fail to notice how much closer my salary is to the average worker’s than to any executive’s, “top chief” or otherwise. In the same paper, I read how embattled that average executive is feeling in these heady days of indicted corporate theft.

Our national newpapers are quick to fill us in on the emotional turmoil of white-collar criminals, but what about that average worker who lives without squeezing the wages of other workers, without insider stock deals and without pilfering multimillion-dollar sums of money? Luckily, Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America makes its way into The New York Times by popular demand – because it lives on the paperback bestseller list. And it’s no wonder everybody is reading this funny, enraging and deeply humane book.

Ehrenreich takes on the challenge many Americans face: surviving on minimum wage service jobs, the feminized “pink collar” jobs of cleaning houses, serving food and selling products at big retail outlets. She fails her test, even with the cushion of $1,000 and a car.

In sobering detail about rental deposits, food costs, health and transportation, Ehrenreich attacks the myths used to dismantle welfare, primarily that any job provides dignity, self worth and material comfort. In her words, “There are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs. If you can’t put up the two months’ rent you need to secure an apartment, you end up paying through the nose for a room by the week. If you have only a room, with a hot plate at best, you can’t save by cooking up huge lentil stews that can be frozen for the week ahead.”

Ehrenreich mines not only the facts of surviving on minimum wages, but the human costs as well, constant pain due to kneeling over kitchen floors, suspicious managers and even stress-related twitches like plucking at her shirt. Those emotional and physical costs do not come at the expense of the workers’ humanity, as she recounts the generosity of waitresses to their customers, and assistance to each other.

Wading through personality tests, Ehrenreich makes us laugh at the hoops designed to humiliate job applicants. “Do I work well with others? You bet, but never to the point where I would hesitate to inform on them for the slightest infraction. Am I capable of independent decision making? Oh yes, but I know better than to let this capacity interfere with a slavish obedience to orders.”

But her humor serves to sharpen her anger about working conditions in America, “The real function of these tests, I decide, is to convey information not to the employer but to the potential employee ... You will have no secrets from us.”

This combination of sharp, insightful anger laced with humor makes Nickle and Dimed a gripping read. Here’s another test for anyone who picks up this book: when you’re not reading, try to forget about it. When you’re eating a Big Mac, don’t wonder about what ideas, jokes and stories the person who served you might tell instead of canned lines and mandated smiles. When you pass a wealthy suburb, don’t crane your head to find affordable housing for the armies of yard workers, house cleaners or nannies. I’m joking, of course, only because I think this test is impossible.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org