In September I came across a byline in the newspaper that the writer Barbara Ehrenreich had passed away (here is fuller obituary from the New York Times). Though her name had crossed my desk many times, I’d never read any of her books, so I did what any person would do – I asked Google which was her best book, and ordered it from the library!
Nickel and Dimed: Undercover in Low Wage America is a powerful, first-person, undercover expose of living on minimum wage. Ehrenreich, a solidly middle class person from a working class background, at the prompting of her editor, decides to spend a month in three different cities across the U.S., at a different low (usually minimum) wage job (or rather, jobs – you cannot survive on one low-wage job, even as a single person), in each location. We hear about her struggle to find a job, the indignity of the interview process, and the challenge of finding a place one can afford when living on minimum wage.
Perhaps most interesting are the people she meets at each location – both her co-workers, and bosses. The bosses are often petty tyrants, likely themselves the victims of poor treatment of their higher-ups. The co-workers come in all varieties – some are kind and engaging, others angry and distant. What’s most surprising is the degree to which they do not resent their situations, or the way the system is stacked against them. They only seem hopeful that they’ll be able to better themselves despite the obstacles in front of them.
Though it’s quite clear that Ehrenreich sees her work in an activist mode, her actual writing does not feel preachy. She’s quite witty (I found myself laughing out loud), as well as deeply self-reflective and honest. There are intermittent glosses from social science and economics research in the footnotes that add to the depth of her observations, though these glosses never weigh down the text. Though it was written in 1998, I’m not sure much has changed, and suspect that things have only gotten worse.
As Ehrenreich notes in the afterword, you’ll never tip the same way again.
Just Because I Liked It:
- This video tells the story of what it means to live a Torah life. As one of the teachers said, It’s not about practicing for life, but living life now. It’s not about doing chesed, it’s about living a full life. Thank you to our parent Shaked Gete for sharing this with me.
- Martha Nussbaum is an accomplished and acclaimed philosopher. This interview with her on Sam Harris’ podcast was wide-ranging and really interesting. I found her calm, sensible nature both comforting for the rationality of her ideas, and a bit unnerving when it came to speaking about her daughter who passed away. It’s certainly worth listening to.