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Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: Blue Collar Poverty, Recession and Money In America

Updated on October 3, 2014

Where do I start in a review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘Nickel and Dimed’? This is a hella famous book: my edition, published by Owl Books, comes with a cover stamped, ‘New York Times Bestseller’, ‘Reading Group Guide’ and a glowing excerpt from the NYT review right there. Whatever your politics, if you’ve heard of the book then you are liable to come to it (or to a review) with your own preconceptions and biases. Don’t we all?

Politics, Economics & Poverty: Controversial Writing By Barbara Ehrenreich

Let me just say, before we even get into the politics and assumptions that are the bedrock of this work – this is a terrific book. I’m not talking about the opinions espoused within, or its capacity to shake opinions and shine a light on hard, pressured lives. I’m talking about the quality of the writing. (Although it's a little ironic that I come to review it right after Joel Osteen's 'It's Your Time', considering Ehrenreich's views on the whole shebang of positive thinkers and New Age types).

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But what is the book all about? If you're not familiar with the basic premise of the book, then this is it. Ehrehreich responded to a challenge from an editor – after she had unwisely propounded the idea herself – to live for many months as a member of the working poor, and report back her experiences. It sounds pretty simple as a basic concept, and indeed it is. But living it was not so simple, nor easy, judging by the resulting book.

Ehrenreich set herself some rules and limitations in order to make the project viable, and to approximate the proletarian working experience as closely as possible while not dooming the project from the start. She allowed herself to have a functioning vehicle at all times, never relied on past qualifications or skills from her professional life to qualify her for a job, and always tried to land the best job and the cheapest living conditions possible. (However she did not always manage to abide by her own rules, as she freely admits.)

Is Ehrenreich qualified to comment on working-class life and conditions? Some critics jeered at the comfortably off, professionally compensated journalist aping the habits, working life and living conditions of the poor. Yet Ehrenreich, as she points out herself, does not come from a background of privilege. Her family originally scraped a living in such blue-collar pursuits as mining, although her father pulled them up into the middle-class by his own heroic efforts. Guaranteed to make Ehrenreich a believer in everyone's capacity to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, perhaps? Not so much.

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'Nickel and Dimed' has been criticised on grounds of it being a left-wing tract. I wouldn't say it isn't possible to perceive the author's political preferences and leanings from the book: but they are not what impress the most upon a first reading, nor what is retained in the memory long after putting the book down. Rather it's the thumbnail sketches of hard, stressed, hurtful lives, battling against inadequate housing, unreasonable job demands and insufficient social support, that live in the memory. The people Ehrenreich worked with are not a homogenous mass of the faceless poor: vivid personalities spring out, not always sympathetic but with more dignity than their employers might credit.

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Ehrenreich worked at a wide gamut of blue-collar jobs (which were all that her edited c.v., shorn of professional qualification and achievement qualified her for.) Cleaning, waitressing, care home assistant – she tried them all and gave them her best shot. And she tried to keep body and soul together on the wages that they paid. Eventually, even while at times working two jobs simultaneously, she failed. What happens to those who can't go back to a pleasant middle class life once an experiment has ended? That's pretty much the point of the book.

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More Month Than Money, Unaffordable Rents and Non-negotiable Living Expenses: The Blue-collar Trap

Is 'Nickel and Dimed' a cheery, pleasant read? I think you can guess the answer yourself. But it is curiously invigorating: the invigoration, perhaps, that comes from anger. The conclusions reached by Ehrenreich at the end of her experiment are less clear-cut, politically, though, than one might expect. She does not advocate mass unionisation, for example, as any kind of cure-all for a broken system: although she clearly does consider that a system that whittles away at real working-class wages, at a time which was seeing economic boom, is fundamentally flawed.

Can You Save, Get Promoted, Own Your Own Home? Or Are You Doomed To Debt and the Pink Collar Trap?

Despite Ehrenreich's experiment, is it still possible to bootstrap one's way up out of the working poor? Was her project doomed to fail, or did she just not try hard enough? She does admit that there were things she could have done that she failed to do, for example applying for a better paying job at a point where her spirit gave out. I will admit – even as a member of the working poor – to the odd self-righteous thought while reading. 'You could just buy porridge oats and a pint of milk,' I'll admit to thinking, in response to her justification of junk-food purchases on minimum wage. 'It wouldn't kill you in the short-term and you'd have saved a lot.'

And if I didn't know full well that, given the right personal or social pressures, we are all subject to the same weaknesses, the comment might be justified. On the other hand, as someone who regularly buys expensive corner shop alcohol and snacky treats whenever a friend or relative pops round unexpectedly – because seriously, am I going to offer them the reused teabag and cold bean stew I was proposing to dine on myself? – perhaps I should shut my mouth. The poor aren't perfect in their economies and stratagems, any more than any other class of folk. But the system that grinds them down is so much less so, it's positively ungraceful to point it out.

Ever felt nickel and dimed in a job?

What do you do when you're stuck in a blue-collar or pink-collar job?

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