Thursday, September 29, 2011

Book Review: Nickel and Dimed [Banned Book Week]

Nickel and Dimed:
On (Not) Getting By in America
by Barbara Ehrenreich
The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.  If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth:  if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.  ~John Stuart Mill, On Liberty,

It was towards the end of the 1990s after the Welfare debates of that decade had resulted in the 'end of Welfare as we know it' and even the Democrats talked about 'the dignity of a job' being better than being on the dole that Barbara Ehrenreich and her editor at Harper's purposed to discover first hand if it was possible to live on minimum wage.  She did time honored investigative journalism by taking minimum wage jobs in three different cities for one month each and attempting to make ends meet at the end of the month in terms of rent, food, laundry and transportation.

 “In the rhetorical buildup to welfare reform, it was uniformly assumed that a job was the ticket out of poverty and that the only thing holding back welfare recipients was their reluctance to get out and get one.”
“When you enter the low-wage workplace—and many of the medium-wage workplaces as well—you check your civil liberties at the door, leave America and all it supposedly stands for behind, and learn to zip your lips for the duration of the shift.”

In Key West she discovered part way through the month that one waitressing job was not going to cover it so took on a second but found that schedule impossible to maintain so dropped the first and added a motel maids job but lasted only one day on that. Walking away without even picking up her checks and tips she called it a failure on both the experimental and moral basis. Experimental because she had not lasted the month. Moral because she had escaped, leaving behind co-workers in dire straights. “I had gone into this venture in the spirit of science, to test a mathematical proportion, but somewhere along the line, in the tunnel vision imposed by long shifts and relentless concentration, it became a test of myself, and clearly I have failed.” Chapter 1

"My job is to move orders from tables to kitchen and then trays from kitchen to tables. Customers are, in fact, the major obstacle to the smooth transformation of information into food and food into money - they are, in short, the enemy. And the painful thing is that I'm beginning to see it this way myself. There are the traditional asshole types - frat boys who down multiple Buds and then make a fuss because the steaks are so emaciated and the fries so sparse - as well as the variously impaired - due to age, diabetes, or literacy issues - who require patient nutritional counseling. The worst, for some reason, are the Visible Christians - like the ten-person table, all jolly and sanctified after Sunday-night service, who run me mercilessly and then leave me $1 on a $92 bill. Or the guy with the crucifixion T-shirt (SOMEONE TO LOOK UP TO) who complains that his baked potato is too hard and his iced tea too icy (I cheerfully fix both) and leaves no tip. As a general rule, people wearing crosses or WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do?) buttons look at us disapprovingly no matter what we do, as if they were confusing waitressing with Mary Magdalene's original profession."

In Maine she worked for a housecleaning service and a nursing home, again simultaneously as one job would not have covered it.  Taking the weekend job as dietician's assistant at the nursing home meant she worked 7 days a week. Though it was a struggle she managed to make it to the end of the month with the money saved to cover the next month's rent but she notes that it was possible only because it was not tourist season when rents would have more than doubled.

In Minnesota she worked at Walmart as an associate.  She was unable to find affordable housing and ended up in a pay by the day motel room with no kitchen.  The most astonishing (for her) thing she learned there was that she could not afford to buy the Walmart merchandise--not even the clothing on the discounted or damaged racks.

What she discovered is that it is possible to survive as a single, childless white woman with decent health and stamina.  But not with dignity.  And with little left over in terms of energy and emotion to invest in relationships outside of the workplace.  And she could not begin to imagine how a single mother of one or more children could have managed at all without some kind of external support what with the extra food, housing, laundry and childcare expenses added on.

She also discovered that the job searching process was rigged to be humiliating, subjecting applicants to personality tests, surveys to ascertain their moral character and peeing in a cup for drug tests.  This assumption by implication of unspecified guilt was shaming and degrading. This assumption was carried into the workplace with the attitude of managers being suspicious, accusing and punishing.

Throughout the book she shares the stories of her co-workers situations and struggles as well.  None of them were thriving, few were living independently in houses or apartments either sharing  expenses with family or friends, living in their vehicles, in pay by the week kitchenettes or pay by the day motel rooms.  One of the issues most often keeping them from suitable housing is the inability to garner the necessary first and last month's rent plus deposits.  Housing which government statistics assume should account for no more than 30% of one's income, for minimum wage workers it consumes 50 to 70%.  Food costs are inflated for them when they have no kitchen to cook or refrigerator to store perishables.

As for health care?  Forget it.  Childcare? Ditto.

Barbara Ehenreich advocates in Nickel and Dimed for a living wage and a minimum standard of dignity in the workplace and for acknowledgement by the middle and upper classes that their own standard of living would not be what it is without these so called 'unskilled laborers'  a term she argues with maintaining there is no such thing as 'unskilled labor' as every job entails the need to master skills in eye and muscle coordination, cooperation with others, following instructions, anticipating needs and so on.

“If you hump away at menial jobs 360 plus days a year, does some kind of repetitive injury of the spirit set in? I don’t know and I don’t intend to find out. I can guess that one of the symptoms is a bad case of tunnel vision. Work fills the landscape, co-workers swell to the size of family members or serious foes. Slights loom large and a reprimand can reverberate into the night…Work is supposed to save you from being an “outcast”,…but what we do is an outcast’s work, invisible and even disgusting. Janitors, cleaning ladies, ditch diggers, changers of adult diapers—these are the untouchables of a supposedly caste free and democratic society. Or maybe it's low-wage work in general that makes you feel like a pariah.” Chapter 2

When someone works for less pay than she can live on ... she has made a great sacrifice for you ... The "working poor" ... are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation 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. (p. 221)

Ehenreich's narrative style is engaging and her marshaling of the facts and statistics to frame the personal story and what she witnessed of other's was compelling and in the end damming of our American economic system as it operates today.

The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion.  ~Henry Steele Commager

More quotes from the book:

“There’s no intermediate point in the process in which you confront the potential employer as a free agent, entitled to cut your own deal. The intercalation of the drug test between application and hiring tilts the playing field even further, establishing that you, and not the employer, are the one who has something to prove. Even in the tightest labor market…the person who has precious labor to sell can be made to feel one down, way down, like a supplicant with her hand stretched out.”  Chapter 3

  “Any dictatorship takes a psychological toll on its subjects. If you are treated as an untrustworthy person—a potential slacker [No talking directives], drug addict [employment drug testing], or thief [personality tests]—you may begin to feel less trustworthy yourself. If you are constantly reminded of your lowly position in the social hierarchy, whether by individual managers or by a plethora of impersonal rules, you begin to accept that unfortunate status…If you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you are actually worth.”

“The problem of rents is easy for a noneconomist, even a sparsely educated low-wage worker, to grasp: it’s the market, stupid. When the rich and the poor compete for housing on the open market, the poor don’t stand a chance.”

 “The reason for the disconnect between the actual housing nightmare of the poor and “poverty,” (the rate of which has remained static for years) as officially defined, is simple: the official poverty level is still calculated by the archaic method of taking the bare-bones cost of food for a family of a given size and multiplying this number by three. Yet food is relatively inflation-proof, at least compared with rent.”

. “It did not escape my attention, as a temporarily low-income person, that the housing subsidy I normally receive in my real life—over $20,000 a year in the form of a mortgage-interest deduction—would have allowed a truly low-income family to live in relative splendor.”

"The thinking behind welfare reform was that even the humblest jobs are morally uplifting and psychologically buoying. In reality they are likely to be fraught with insult and stress. But I did discover one redeeming feature of the most abject low-wage work - the camaraderie of people who are, in almost all cases, far too smart and funny and caring for the work they do and the wages they're paid. The hope, of course, is that someday these people will come to know what they're worth, and take appropriate action."

"So what is the solution to the poverty of so many of America’s working people? Ten years ago, when Nickel and Dimed first came out, I often responded with the standard liberal wish list -- a higher minimum wage, universal health care, affordable housing, good schools, reliable public transportation, and all the other things we, uniquely among the developed nations, have neglected to do.

Today, the answer seems both more modest and more challenging: if we want to reduce poverty, we have to stop doing the things that make people poor and keep them that way. Stop underpaying people for the jobs they do. Stop treating working people as potential criminals and let them have the right to organize for better wages and working conditions.

Stop the institutional harassment of those who turn to the government for help or find themselves destitute in the streets. Maybe, as so many Americans seem to believe today, we can’t afford the kinds of public programs that would genuinely alleviate poverty -- though I would argue otherwise. But at least we should decide, as a bare minimum principle, to stop kicking people when they’re down."  from the new afterward to the 2011 edition

[I'm sorry regarding most of the quotes from the book I presented here that page numbers are not included.  I was a sloppy notetaker when I read this book several years back with a library due date looming.  I always meant to recheck out the book someday and get those page numbers and some of the facts and stats I didn't note so that I could do a quality review.  For me the need to present something on this book for BBW had an urgency that outweighed such niceties.]
Links of note:

Barbara's Blog
Nickel and Dimed on Wikipedia
Nickel and Dimed Book Summary at Bookjive
Nickel and Dimed on Google Books

We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values.  For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.  ~John F. Kennedy

Information is the currency of democracy.”—Thomas Jefferson
The challenges:

In 2010 the book was retained in the 11th-grade Advanced Placement English curriculum after a challenge by a man with no children enrolled in the district but claiming standing as a tax-payer and graduate of the school district accused the district of "political activism"  in using a book promoting socialist ideas, economic fallacies, use of illegal drugs and belittlement of Christians.

In 2010 Parents of a Bedford NH teenager attempted to have school officials ban the use of a book in their Personal Finance class that refers to Jesus Christ as a “wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist.”

My commentary re reading the book and the challenges:

Reading this book and writing this review was difficult for me on a personal level. I found it too hard to detach from the subject matter.  When I first read this in the 2002 I was fresh from the recent experience of homelessness in Santa Clara County California after the boom had crashed taking my husbands job.  We had recently moved into a single wide trailer with his parents near Phoenix Oregon where we remain to this day.

The decades previous to my husband acquiring his tech job had been one nail biting month after another of sometimes barely but often not making ends meet. Several times we were back with one or the other of our parents.  I confess we made bad choices at times but that does not negate the experience we had of being treated in and out of the workplace as pariahs of the community as we worked as janitor, motel maid, window washer, book store clerk, carpet cleaner, fruit packer, cold storage hyster driver, babysitter, shipping dock, library aide, mechanic, tutor, gas station attendant, freelance word processing and data base maintenance, high tech code writer.  I mixed both of our long string of jobs together and that last one came very close to becoming my husband's American Dream realized but even there, tho it was considered 'skilled' in comparison to most of the others it was drudge work and the bulk of the company's appreciation was given in stock options which were never realized when the company went kaput without going public.

We missed it by that much.

Reading Barbara's book validated that sense that I had picked up in encounters with bosses, landlords, creditors and aid agency bureaucrats of a barely restrained contempt.  Even from other dwellers in the various housing accommodations we found ourselves in.  Shortly after I was diagnosed with RP and began carrying the white cane which qualified us for food stamps, medicaid and social security during the months my husband was out of work or working for minimum wage the rumor spread among the single mothers on welfare and their children in our apartment complex that I was faking it.

All of that is just by way of a confession that I was unable to be objective while reading or thinking about this book.  On the other hand I don't think that completely disqualifies me from commenting on when my personal experience corroborates Ehrenreich's accounts and her facts and statistics explain to me some of what happened to us.

But I don't want to do a play by play of all that right now.  It is not the place for it even if I found myself emotionally able to keep digging at those memories.  I only brought it up as my way of refuting the claim of the challengers that the book promoted economic fallacies.  Not just my own experience but that of my husband's and many dozens of friends and acquaintances over the years match and exceed in nightmarish quality the stories Barbara shared in Nickel and Dimed.

I have lived the underbelly of American capitalism and it is not pretty and anyone who wishes to deny the truth of that or lay the blame entirely on those caught in the poverty trap is heartless and anyone who wishes to suppress the uncomfortable facts in order keep pretending it isn't so is willfully ignorant.

High school students just one to four years from being expected to fend for themselves in our 'free market' should be given a clear view of exactly what to expect and what the consequences of certain choices are sure to be.  They have the right to be prepared to walk into their future with dignity and denying them the right to encounter the stories of American nightmares does not guarantee they will avoid them nor does allowing them to believe the American Dream is their birthright to be handed to them on their 18th birthday going to ensure they realize it.

Parents who wish to keep their own children ignorant have the right to do so but they have no right to impose the ignorance on everyone's children.  I wish I'd been prepared for these realities before I left high school.  I had no clue having been raised in a stable lower middle class family with a Dad who worked the same job from before I was born until the day he retired and a Mom who stayed home to care for the house and three children.  Because I was so sure this scenario was a given for me as well, I did not plan for any other possibility.

Even my high school guidance counselor suggested that stay at home mother was what I was best qualified for the one time I ventured to confess to him that I thought maybe being a child psychiatrist was something I might love to do as a means of supporting my first love which was writing stories.  He bluntly told me that academics did not seem to be my forte thus I should get married have kids and write stories for them.

Mr G I so wish I had a wet dishrag and your address.

I only bring up Mr G and his theory because it was based on my low math and science scores.  My difficulties in math were due to anxiety as I proved with As and Bs in college ten years later.  But my difficulty in science was the direct result of my self censoring on quizzes and exams whenever questions on evolution or origins of the universe were in play, marking the answer I knew the teacher would mark as wrong because it was what I believed.  I felt guilty even reading the sections in the text books, handouts, encyclopedia and library books.  I believed that giving the expected answer was the equivalent of denying God and Jesus.

That was the result of my fundamentalist Christian upbringing so I know the mindset of these parents who challenge books from that perspective. And I also know what a huge wake up call awaits many of these kids when they are thrown into the real world at age 18.

As for the charges of socialism made against the book I can only wonder if advocating for a living wage, the right to unionize and dignity for the workers is the definition of socialism?  And if so, and that is what the challengers wish to eliminate in America then what is the definition of America?

Those are questions high school students should be free to discuss no matter which color their parent's politics is.

As for the charges of being derogatory of Christianity I don't see it.  Sure she presents a few Christians who displayed very unchristian behavior.  She called them the Visible Christians meaning those who displayed their allegiance via jewelry or clothing but not via their behavior which makes them hypocrites and in no way implies the religion in its entirety must be held to account.

As for her depiction of Jesus as a  “wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist.”  Who can deny it?  The Gospels themselves depict him as an itinerant preacher who when he wasn't sleeping at a friend's house was sleeping outdoors or on a boat.  He was frequently drinking wine and even turned water into wine to keep it flowing at a wedding and he provided free food and medical care via his miracles and gave his disciples to know that he expected them to care for the needy and befriend the outcasts and to treat every human being, even those in prison and thus presumed guilty, as if they were himself.  If that's socialism then it must not be the demonized thing the American right has tagged it.  And if that is Christianity then where in America is it being practiced today?

Those are the questions high school students should be discussing whether they are Christians or not.  To deny them that is to make them less qualified to be a contributing citizen and a responsible voter at age 18. It is just common sense that if you want 18 year olds to have access to the American Dream you have to start giving them the cold hard facts more than one year before that and if 16 is too young, as some parents claim, to be exposed to Barbara Erenreich's experiences in the low wage culture then heaven help them as America won't.
Here are a few bookish events going on for BBW:

Hosted by Bookjourney

Get on the BANNED WAGON!

Giveaways, a scavenger hunt and links to participating blog's BBW reviews are some of what's happening at Sheila's BookJourney this week.  Along with her own reviews of banned or challenged books and of course her daily Morning Meanerings post.

Banned Books Week Giveaway Hop

Banned Books Week Hop

Giveaways galore and lots of participating blog's to visit and comment on.

Banned Book Week Virtual Read Out

Banned Books Week Virtual Read-Out

The annual BBW readout traditionally conducted in public at bookstores and libraries where individuals read aloud form a banned book has now gone digital. Now you can video record yourself reading a banned book and upload to a YouTube channel

We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.  ~John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859

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