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Labor’s Pain 

Barbara Ehrenreich talks about clerking at Wal-Mart, living on the minimum wage, and her new book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

Wednesday, Jul 11 2001

In 1996, the U.S. Congress and the Clinton administration took an ax to America’s existing welfare structure. Some two years later, social critic Barbara Ehrenreich was nibbling an upscale Manhattan lunch with Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s magazine, when the conversation drifted to the roughly 4 million women who were about to be catapulted into the labor market as a result of welfare reform. Ehrenreich remarked on the difficulty of living on $6.16 an hour, the median salary that this new welfare-to-work force was reported to be making. “Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism,” she mused. “You know, go out and try it for themselves.”

Lapham pounced on the notion. “You,” he supposedly commanded. Thus, the idea became an article, and then a book: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, in which Ehrenreich takes the reader with her on a Plimptonesque adventure as she temporarily joins the ranks of the working poor. The result is both important and surprisingly entertaining.

It doesn’t take Ehrenreich long to prove her thesis, namely that it’s all but impossible to get by on the salaries paid by the likes of Wal-Mart, Denny’s and Merry Maids, unless you also have a second job or a second wage earner in the family (or both). It seems that in earlier times, as America rode each new wave of prosperity, the rising tide tended to raise all boats; wages for workers at all levels grew at about the same rate. But beginning in the 1970s, and accelerating through the ’80s and ’90s, the fortunes of Americans at the top of the nation’s economic ladder took a wildly different trajectory from the fortunes of those at the bottom. By the mid-’90s, full-time male workers at the bottom 10 percent of the national income scale were earning no more than their counterparts of 35 years before. It should surprise exactly nobody to hear that female workers were earning even less than the guys.

Despite this frightful data, getting average American book buyers to plunk down $23 for a tome detailing the plight of their poorer neighbors is an exceptionally challenging endeavor. Yet even in this season of lightweight summer reading, Nickel and Dimed has hit moderate best-seller status. The book’s success is due, in part, to the fact that Ehrenreich has chosen a clever structure. While she never stints on straight research, she shoves most of her hardcore facts and figures into lengthy footnotes that sprawl along the bottom of the page. This tactic allows the rest of the narrative — recounting her tribulations as a waitress, a motel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide and a Wal-Mart sales clerk — to move along at an engagingly witty clip.

Although Nickel and Dimed is Ehren-.reich’s maiden venture into first-person journalism, she’s an excellent raconteur, amusing with grumpy riffs on the tipping habits of certain religious types (“The worst, for some reason, are the Visible Christians — like the 10-person table, all jolly and sanctified after Sunday-night service, who run me mercilessly and then leave me $1 on a $92 bill”) or cringe-producing descriptions of the bodily detritus confronted by the typical maid cleaning the typical upper-class bathroom (“I don’t know what it is about the American upper class, but they seem to be shedding their pubic hair at an alarming rate. You find it in quantity in shower stalls, bathtubs, Jacuzzis, drains, and even, unaccountably, in the sinks”).

Digressions aside, by book’s end, Ehrenreich has lured readers along to her intended destinations, one of which is the unhappy truth that low unemployment hasn’t cured poverty at all, but instead has masked a condition of distress so widespread and extreme that, in June of last year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that 67 percent of the adults requesting emergency food aid were people with jobs. Yet perhaps the real accomplishment of Nickel and Dimed is not merely the skill with which Ehrenreich takes us on her sobering and essential odyssey; it’s the fact that she manages to persuade so many of us to take the trip at all. She recently spoke to the Weekly by phone from her home in Florida.


L.A. WEEKLY: It’s rare for books about social issues to end up on the New York Times best-seller list.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Yeah, I’m shocked. People have speculated to me that it has to do with recent anxieties about the economy. A lot of relatively affluent people are now looking down for the first time in a long time and noticing that “Oh. There are people down there.” Also, liberals who didn’t want to mention poverty during the Clinton years are now willing to talk about it. During the Clinton administration there was a sort of embargo on the subject. He never talked about poverty.

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