I got a bit more than I had bargained for when I picked up Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America".  I not only got a lesson in what life is like for the poorest amongst us, I got a new perspective on parts of my own life.

With any other book, I would probably want to talk more about the book, but "Nickel and Dimed" brought up so many economic (and personal) issues that I ended up focusing on them instead.  At the end of my book (I don't know if this is in all of them), there are some discussion questions.  I picked out a few that I thought anyone here, even someone who hadn't read the book, could talk about so we can hopefully get a lively little discussion going:

In the wake of recent welfare reform measures, millions of women entering the workforce can expect to face struggles like the ones Ehrenreich confronted in "Nickel and Dimed."  Have you ever been homeless, unemployed, without health insurance, or held down two jobs?  What is the lowest-paying job you ever held and what kind of help --if any-- did you need to improve your situation?

Homeless: sort of.  My family went through a period where my parents, two brothers and I were living in travel trailers on my grandparent's one acre property.  My "room" was a trailer that could be hitched to a pickup truck which I shared with my older brother; there were two beds and an aisle, and two little closets.  My parents and little brother slept in a Silverstream.  My grandparents, aunt, and cousin slept in the house, which was a single-wide mobile home with one bathroom.  

Unemployed: I didn't worry about Y2K because I had exactly $7 to my name.  A week or two before, the manager at the retail place where I'd been working showed me the schedule and said, "I gave you most of the week off so you could find a new job."  I had been working for very little for the three months prior to that so I had very little saved, and had to borrow a bunch of money to make it through.  The lowest I've been paid was minimum wage, which was $5.15 at the time.

Health insurance: I only recently got health insurance, and even now I wonder sometimes if it isn't one of those expenses that could be cut out of the budget so we can pay for other things like my student loans.  I'm incredibly lucky that I've always had cavity-resistant teeth and that my husband paid for me to get my incredibly painful wisdom teeth out.  I had surgery when I was younger but it was all paid for thanks to the Shriners, and when the few other serious illnesses (like a bad case of walking pneumonia) that I've had happened, I lived close to a clinic that used a very generous sliding scale.

Multiple jobs: Right now, and for the foreseeable future.  Our little business isn't enough to give up the work we do outside our home yet, so we have a steady outside job, or two (depending on how you want to count them) as well.  My husband does extra work while I attend school, but after I graduate, I will undoubtedly have to get another job too in order to deal with our school loans.

Housing costs pose the greatest obstacle for low-wage workers.  Why does our society seem to resist rectifying this situation?  Do you believe that there are realistic solutions to the lack of affordable housing?

The first step is to stop assuming that the poor want or deserve to be poor.  It's the same kind of discrimination as racism or sexism: I didn't ask to be born into a working class family, with a father who thinks playing the lottery is a realistic way to earn money.  Keeping the minimum wage absurdly low doesn't help either; imagine trying to live off of only $10,000 a year...and that's only if you're lucky enough to work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks out of the year.  Yet the average rent is $940 a month, or about $11,000 a year, so that even those making considerably more than minimum wage may end up "poor" just from trying to pay rent.  I don't know what the solution is, but I can tell you for sure that it isn't more tax cuts for the wealthy.

How do you think a living wage should be calculated?

It should take all basic, reasonable expenditures into account: food, clothing, shelter, utilities, transportation, health care plus a little extra for entertainment, emergencies, or to be able to take one week off a year.  I found a living wage calculator but it's estimates seem pretty low to me.

How can American companies make the workplace environment safe and efficient without treating employees like suspected criminals?

This isn't a question that I feel like I can answer, but I'm curious to know how others might answer it.

After reading "Nickel and Dimed," do you think that having a job--any job--is better than no job at all?  Did this book make you feel angry?  Better informed?  Relieved that someone has finally described your experience?  Galvanized to do something?

I don't think I was all that ill-informed before I read the book.  At the same time that Ehrenreich was doing her experiment, I was actually entering the workforce.  I've done all three of the types of work she did: food service, cleaning, and retail, but most of my experience is with food service.  And I entered into it with only a high school diploma and almost no experience or connections but a need to support myself outside of my parents' households, much like she did.

I was lucky.  I wasn't always poor (though I have been poor, or something close to it, for most of my life).  I have a very large family who (I discover more and more as I get older) would help me in any way that they could if I needed it.  My best friend helped me bail myself out of a serious rut after that period of unemployment that I mentioned above; when I needed a place to stay because of roommate problems, I moved in with him and later, we used his better credit rating to get another apartment together.  I never had a child to take care of or any serious situations like, say, excessive medical bills, that forced me into a lower income bracket.  I've never owned a car that I could drive, which I tend to think of as something of a blessing considering what I've seen my older brother go through thanks to completely freak car accidents.  I even met and married a loving, hard-working man from a more firmly middle class family than my own.  I could probably tell you some bad stories, but they all seem so miniscule and silly compared to the people Ehrenreich worked with.  And I sincerely believe that a lot of what I have accomplished as an adult would not have happened if I hadn't been paid so well at some of my jobs.

The best one (which I'll talk about all day long if you let me, it was so good) was food service, but it wasn't fast food or a chain.  My bosses worked side-by-side with me, so they not only knew that I worked my ass off for them but they also heard about many of the personal problems that might be effecting my work.  I worked my ass off, but I also knew that they respected and trusted me, and I gained a sort of second family over the four years I worked there.  They paid me incredibly well, starting above minimum wage and giving me a raise of 50 cents almost every 6 months; they explicitly told me that they wanted to make sure I could afford to support myself, and frequently lamented the fact that they couldn't afford health insurance too.  They even gave me a week of paid vacation for every year I worked there.  If it weren't for that, I would have never have been able to spend three weeks in Sweden, where I ended up discovering a passion that I am now going to school for; they also paid me well enough that I could afford to live close enough to walk to work, and I had saved enough money when I finally quit to pay the entire cost of my first college class when I returned.  They taught me the skills to work food service and retail, which none of the other places I had worked previously had bothered to try to do.  And they helped make me the liberal I am, through gentle encouragement and through example.  It really is a wonderful place, and if you're ever in Seattle, you must go to Pike Place (the street) and 1st Avenue; ask one of the girls at the flower shop on the corner to direct you to the Crumpet Shop, and then go have breakfast or lunch.  Gary could chat forever about how fine their tea is (and it is), while Nancy could just chat forever about anything.  But whatever you do, please don't ask for egg whites or to have your crumpet split like an English muffin. ;)

But enough of my reminiscing tangent.  If I could give everyone that kind of experience, I would.  In fact, I think I empathized with Holly the most, since I could see her as an alternate universe version of myself.  If something in my life had been lacking, particularly things like a wage that made me able to save money and bosses who were as concerned about me as they were about the work I did, I might be in her exact same position.  And if I were, I wouldn't be able to enjoy so many of the simple things that make my life worth it, like this website; I'd be too busy, too tired, too hungry to write and respond to long, leasurely diaries on a Saturday.  


Before we get to talking about "Nickel and Dimed," a word from plf515:

And the next book is
Statistics as principled argument by Robert Abelson.


It's not a text book.  It's a nice, small paperback.  It has very few formulas. If you need to understand statistics as used (and sometimes abused) by social scientists, this is your book.  Really.  You could read it at the beach!

This is NOT a book about how to do statistical analysis (I can suggest some, if you need them).  This is a book about what the title says: Statistics as principled argument.

We activists and progressives need to make principled arguments, and we need to defeat those of the other side.  This book shows some of how we should do it.  And it's written in clear English.  

I hope you'll join me.


The discussion will be on March 10th.  You might be able to find this book at your local public library, at Powell's, or from va dare or from abbeysbooks (abbeysbooks-half at half com or abbeysbooks4 at amazon) who are both book-selling Kossacks.

Updated (because I forgot this part): If you want to join the book club, ask a question, suggest a book, or write a diary, you can email us at dKos.BookClub at gmail.com.

Originally posted to tryptamine on Sat Feb 24, 2007 at 11:43 AM PST.

Your Email has been sent.