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.
How did your friends react to this project? Were they eager to hear tales from the front, or covertly resistant to discussing the “P” word?
I was surprised that some people I know were so clueless. For example, one friend was astonished that people weren’t making $15 an hour. Amazing.
You wrote: “What’s harder for the non-poor to see is poverty as acute distress.” In other words, most people assume that living on $7 an hour may not be loads of fun, but, aside from requiring a bit of belt tightening, it’s really not all that bad.
They don’t realize having to skip a meal because you can’t afford it, when you’re working very hard physically, has serious consequences over the long term.
Which brings us to your observation that you had more stamina than some of your co-workers.
I found that the physical consequences of class are appallingly concrete. Here I was, really taking pride in the fact that, at 57, I was keeping up with the 23-year-olds, until I realized that the 23-year-olds had already injured their backs and their rotator cuffs and whatever. My physical strength and stamina were not due to great genes. They were the results of a good diet, a lifetime of good health care, and the distinctively middle-class privilege of working out.
Most of the employers you wrote about were surprisingly rigid on such issues as bathroom breaks, talking to co-workers, taking drinks of water while on the job, etc. It’s hard to believe all those restrictions are in the best interest of productivity.
Yeah. It baffled me. Management always seemed to operate on the assumption that the worker is a drug addict, a thief or, at the very least, a slacker who needs constant surveillance. And yet, I saw people being very self-motivated and self-organized. They pulled together when things were rushed. They supported each other when someone had a personal problem. I often wondered why management didn’t make use of this vast potential resource, which is the desire of people to achieve satisfaction in their jobs. Instead, managers fear the people at the bottom, whom they perceive as an underclass that will mug them in the parking lot if they get the chance.
What’s your secret hope for this book?
I don’t have any delusions. Next week I’ll be having lunch with some Democratic senators. And later in the summer, I’ll be having dinner with some Democratic congress people. But I have to say, I don’t know what you can accomplish during the Bush administration. It’s obvious what legislative measures one would hope for: national health insurance, a real governmental commitment to affordable housing, subsidized child care, genuine enforcement of the right to organize . . .
A rise in the minimum wage?
Sure. It seems to me these things are almost tedious, they’re so obvious. I’d like to see hearings nationwide about poverty as it exists today in the United States. But I have no illusions that books can accomplish those things. Somebody else once gave me an image in terms of the way I understand my work: You roll a marble, and you hope it knocks into a couple of other marbles, and they roll and knock into more marbles, and so on. You don’t imagine that any particular intervention into the public debate is going to be decisive.
Was there anything that really startled you in the course of your research?
I learned some grim lessons in terms of my ability to economize. You know, I thought, “I really know how to really save money by cooking cheaply and nutritiously.” Then I found out I didn’t have the capital equipment to even make my lentil stew. I needed a big pot, and some Tupperware to store the leftovers. But if I bought those items at Kmart, it would cost me $25. So I had to think, “Do I have the $25 to spare?” I’d forgotten that if you don’t have all the things I have in my real kitchen, it’s not so easy to be economical. It’s all going to be from convenience stores, and fast food. And that’s expensive.
I kept imagining you trying to make ends meet with the addition of a couple of kids in tow. If, after a full day’s work, you have to come home to an underequipped, tiny kitchen and deal with the needs of two or three kids, it’s hard to find the wherewithal to cook wonderfully cheap and nutritious meals.
And if you have very small children, you have still another problem because licensed day care is financially out of reach. So, more often than not, mothers have no choice but to stick their kids in these god-awful informal situations with some woman in the neighborhood who just plops the kids down in front of the TV.
You admit early on in the book that you could not, by definition, experience the soul-smashing anxiety of the people whose situations you were visiting, since you would eventually return to your multiroom house and your IRA accounts. So what were your own hardest moments in terms of the research?
Starting out in each place was hard. I became very, very anxious, especially in places far from where I normally live, just to be plunged into a completely new environment without the normal props of friends and work, and identity. It got to me.
Were there aspects you enjoyed?
I felt good when I felt I was really doing my job. Competence is a wonderful feeling. In a lot of these jobs, people talk about “getting into a rhythm,” meaning a sort of flow state. When you’re waitressing, for example, you have 500 things going in your head at once. You don’t have time to think through each task. You have to go into some mind-body fusion.
Once again supporting your thesis that there’s no such thing as unskilled labor. How did the book change you?
Mostly in that I see more pain. I don’t know if I’m happy about that. But now I look at the clerk in a discount retail store near where I live, and I think, “How long have you been on your feet today? And, my God, look at those thin flat shoes you’re wearing with no support. And what are you going home to? Is it a motel? A trailer park?” Whereas I might not have even seen that person — or, at the most, I might have dimly noticed her in the past. Now I see a lot more.
NICKEL AND DIMED: On (Not) Getting By in America | By BARBARA EHRENREICH | Henry Holt and Company | 221 pages | $23