Book Review: Nickel and Dimed

I didn’t preach this past week–our church was honored to host Rev. Ellie Johns-Kelley, the regional rep. from The Presbyterian Foundation.  This was a blessing for the church and for me, not least because I woke up Sunday morning with that nasty 24-hour stomach bug that has been going around.  I couldn’t have made it through worship if I had tried, and I felt incredibly lucky to be able to entrust everything into such deft hands.  I managed to stay for Rev. Johns-Kelley’s sermon, and it was such a pleasure to hear someone else preach.  If you are a Presbyterian Church, I highly recommend you invite your regional representative out to your community–you can learn so much together about stewardship, legacy, and resources that are available through the wider church.

032403nickelanddimed_dlSince I wasn’t preaching on Sunday, I had the opportunity to spend some time this week catching up on my (expanding) reading list.  And coming off our Lenten practice, I decided that I needed to spend some time with Barbara Ehrenreich’s classic account of the poverty epidemic in the United States, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.”

Originally written in 1999, Ehrenreich explored the reality of the working poor by attempting to live on a minimum-wage salary in three cities for a month at a time.  Beginning in Key West, and then moving to Maine, and later Minnesota, Ehrenreich set the following rules for herself:

Rule one, obviously enough, was that I could not, in my search for jobs, fall back on any skills derived from my education or usual work…Two, I had to take the highest-paying job that was offered me and do my best to hold it…Three, I had to take the cheapest accommodations I could find, at least the cheapest that offered an acceptable level of safety and privacy. (Pg 4)

Over the course of her exploration of the working poor, Ms. Ehrenreich develops a compelling case that our country’s health and democracy may very well depend on how we address the plight of the poor.  In every city lives and every job she takes, the author describes systemic injustices that serve to keep people poor and work against upward mobility.  She finds, for example, that many of the (costly) hiring practices of low-skill positions (mandatory drug testing, full-day trainings without official job offers, and withholding of initial pay checks), serve to disempower workers and reduce their negotiating position.  In most of her jobs, she was never given a clear sense of what her working wage would be; in others, she found that management practices seemed to have less relationship to quality of service than to maintaining the power structure of the organization.

Overall, the picture that her research paints of the plight of the working poor is compelling– she thoroughly debunks the notion that those working in unskilled labor are unskilled, unintelligent, or unmotivated.  Her coworkers at a restaurant in Florida, the Maids in Maine, and Walmart in Minnesota were, for the most part, incredibly proud of their work, committed to their jobs, and unwavering in their care for the people who depended on their service.  But they also were unable to afford health care, unable to afford decent housing, and one car problem away from unemployment.

In the words of Ehrenreich herself:

welfare reform assumed that a job was the ticket out of poverty, and that the only thing holding back welfare recipients was their reluctance to go out and get one…something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high. (196/199)

I chose to read the tenth anniversary edition of Ehrenreich’s experiment, in which she revisits and updates her findings in light of the recession.  The picture that she paints isn’t a pretty one.  According to Ms. Ehrenreich, it has become a “state of emergency” that we can no longer afford to ignore:

It is common among the non poor to think of poverty as a sustainable condition–austere, perhaps, but they get by somehow, don’t they?  They are “always with us.” What is harder for the non poor to see is poverty as acute distress: the lunch that consists of Doritos or hot dog rolls, leading to faintness before the end of a shift. The “home” that is also a car or a van. The illness or injury that must be “worked through,” with gritted teeth, because there’s no sick pay or health insurance and the loss of one day’s pay will mean no groceries for the next. (214)

In the wake of a growing national push for a “working wage,” Ms. Ehrenreich’s work seems more important than ever.  There are many out there who believe that unskilled laborers  “don’t deserve” to earn a living wage… but these arguments tend to assume that the status quo is just.  I have to wonder: does justice really look like a cheaper t-shirt/hamburger/house-cleaning for me?

“For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing. In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them. -Isaiah 61:8

It is not clear to me that exchanging my financial comfort for another’s fair wage is any different than robbery and wrong-doing.  And to appeal to “the market” as the rational is to pass the buck.  Because we are the market.  If “the market” keeps choosing our self-interest over the well-being of others, that is because we made the choice.  So perhaps we need to own our own complicity in the problem, what Ehrenreich calls “our own dependency on the underpaid labor of others”, and consider that we have helped create the poverty problem that threatens the health and vitality (and, according to Ehrenreich, at least) the democracy that we pride ourselves in as Americans (220).

All in all, I highly recommend this book.  It is another reminder that poverty is a question of justice, and that all of us (the non poor, that is) are complicit, because we benefit from low wages in the form of cheaper goods and services.  The burden is on us, it seems, to put our money where our mouths are, if we want to live in the kind of society where every person has access to a living wage.

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