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Scattered Immobility: Barbara Ehrenreich's investigation exposes the minimal mobility of low-wage work

Updated on February 8, 2013

December 2009

Scattered Immobility

Barbara Ehrenreich’s investigation exposes the minimal mobility of low-wage work

By: Nicole Raz


Nickel and Dimed

by Barbara Ehrenreich

235 pp. New York $14.00


The timeless struggle between the cost of living and the income for low-wage work has made millions of working families unable to meet their basic needs. The 1996 Welfare Reform Bill shifted the poor’s dependence on cash to a dependence on employment and temporary aid. From 1998 until 2000, Barbara Ehrenreich’s part memoir part journalistic article, Nickel and Dimed, investigates the impact of the reform bill on the working poor. Working low-wage jobs in Florida, Maine and Minnesota as an undercover journalist, Ehrenreich gives a sassy and shocking account of a low-wage worker’s life. Though I enjoyed the book, Ehrenreich demonstrated insufficient research in every section; she omitted relevant information about help available to the working poor due to her own biases, and did not offer any solutions to the working conditions she encountered first hand.

This project began during a lunch meeting between Ehrenreich and Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s Magazine, where much of the material in the book first appeared.Ehrenreich made a comment about her waitress, questioning how anyone lives “on the wages available to the unskilled” (1). Lapham then insisted Ehrenreich be the one to answer this question first hand. Perhaps her ties to the working class prompted her curiosity. Ehrenreich comes from a family rooted in the working class. Born in Butte, Montana, Ehrenreich’s father was a copper miner and her mother was a homemaker. Fortunately, her family had achieved middle class income by her teenage years allowing her to attend and graduate from Reed College with a degree in physics, and later obtained a PhD in biology from The Rockefeller University. She has written for numerous publications including The New York Times, and has published nearly twenty books. Currently, she is an honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Though her account is humorous and entertaining, Ehrenreich fails to demonstrate the average experience of a low-wage worker. She had numerous advantages over her co-workers including a completed education, a car, good health, health insurance, and money to get her started. Of course, her education and good health weren’t controllable factors, but it did serve as a division between her and her co-workers. While this made her advantageous over her co-workers, it also served to make Ehrenreich an intermediary, helping both the average middle class and the average low-wage reader relate to the narrator.

While the book makes for a compelling read, Ehrenreich failed to make any unknown discoveries transparent to the public. As an author, Ehrenreich included all the ingredients for an entertaining book- character build up, narrative, and an interesting plot. These ingredients make it easy for the reader to forget that this book is a work of journalism, something that is supposed to be objective. Writing this book as an undercover journalist, Ehrenreich failed to supply sufficient evidence for her claims and to maintain a journalistic tone, especially with regards to her research. The reader gains more knowledge of the experience on Ehrenreich than how this affects most other individuals in the same situation. Furthermore, at the end of the book Ehrenreich did not offer any solutions to the problems she encountered.

Journalistically, one thing Ehrenreich did well was provide credible sources. In most instances where she discovered something interesting or worthy of background information she provided footnotes at the bottom of the page, which included interesting information and a credible source. This helped make Ehrenreich’s claims more credible, which is important if she was trying to come off as a journalist. When I read an article, I like to know that the journalist whom I am reading did their job researching. Even though she complains about the payment policy at a housekeeping job in Maine, she provides the reader with shocking statistics at the bottom of the page showing how her job would amount to just $43 above the poverty level (61). And in Minnesota, even though she does not do a sufficient amount of research before entering the housing market, she supplies interesting and relevant information about the amount of people who qualify as poor renters, supporting the point of her book.

While the book is about money, it is poorly organized with Ehrenreich’s expenditures included toward the end of the book in a separate chapter entitled, “Evaluation.” Whether it was the editor, the publisher, or Ehrenreich herself who decided to only include spending details in this section, it was a poor choice. Even reading this as a simple non-fiction book for entertainment, the reader would have had an easier time understanding spending limitations if her expenditures were included as they came up. If reading this book as a piece of journalism, this placement is even more of a poor choice since the point of the work is to inform readers about monetary constraints in the low-wage workforce. Before Ehrenreich started on her new life she laid out a few rules. First, she could not use any of her skills she developed through her education or higher level of work. Second, she was to take the highest paying job offered to her, and, third, she was to take the cheapest accommodations she could find within reasonable standards. Three cities and six jobs later, she failed to survive on the low income wages and the high costs of rent.

Ehrenreich started this adventure close to her home in Key West, Florida, claiming to do so out of laziness- a poor basis for a decision. I would be more forgiving if she had stayed to understand the working conditions of low-wage work where she lives, because it is something that is “close to home” on an emotional level. Instead, she stayed close to her home out of laziness and jeopardized the project in its earliest stage by the risk of being recognized. She did admit to feeling scared of being recognized in the article she wrote for Harper’s but, fortunately nobody recognized her or called her on it if they did. The decision to start working as an undercover journalist where she lives was a poor decision and expressed how little she applied herself to this project at the very beginning. If she were really determined to perform this project to its fullest potential, she wouldn’t have taken that risk.

In Key West, Ehrenreich waitressed in two places and concluded her month as a hotel maid. The first waitressing job was at a restaurant she calls the Hearthside. The real name of this restaurant, like every other place that she works, is not disclosed, along with the names of the people she meets. Ehrenreich made $2.43 an hour plus tips at this restaurant, but after two weeks she found working one job was not enough to pay the $500 rent for the cabin she was living in. She found another job at a restaurant she called Jerry’s, for $2.15 an hour plus tips. But, after two days she quit working at the Hearthside due to frustration with her boss, Stu, for not allowing her to eat while on the job. This decision leads her to move to a trailer park where she pays $1,100 for rent and the deposit. In order to maintain living this way, she had to get another job as a housekeeper. After just one day of completing a shift as a waitress and a shift at the housekeeping job, she quit. Upon reflection, Ehrenreich decided she would not have been able to pay the next month’s rent for the trailer, had she stayed working at either job.

In the midst of all this action, it is nearly impossible to keep track of Ehrenreich's income and expenditures. While it takes only a sentence to find out how much money Ehrenreich is earning at the Hearthside, it takes six pages since she starts working at Jerry’s to find out how much she is making there. This book is about money, yet Ehrenreich made it very difficult for the reader to understand the economic side to a low-wage worker. At the Hearthside, when Ehrenreich decided to quit because of her management problems, she just walks out. In her own footnote, Ehrenreich stated that the average number of individuals working two or more jobs was 6.2% of the workforce in 1996. The people’s lives she is supposed to be imitating do not have the option of just “walking out”, as they will be putting their family at risk of homelessness.

Ehrenreich also attempted to describe the lives of her co-workers to help the reader understand real life struggles and inconveniences of the low-wage worker. At the Hearthside, Ehrenreich makes an easy to follow compilation of research about her co-workers. Here, the reader gets the first taste of insufficient research. She describes Andy as a cook which lives on his boat. She wrote, “I can tell from his loving descriptions, can’t be more than twenty feet long” (26).Here is a prime example of information that would have been easy to obtain and would have helped Ehrenreich avoid making assumptions. That boat could have been any size, for all she knows. Somebody’s “loving descriptions” are all relevant based on what the person would rather have. Asking what size the boat was would not have been a question crossing any boundaries, and seems to be a logical question to ask when somebody tells you they live on a boat. This wouldn’t have been such a big deal to me if it didn’t happen repeatedly. Considering she is an undercover journalist, she still needs to be asking questions. She did a fair amount of getting information about the people surrounding her, but for the amount of time she used words such as “maybe” or “probably,” it proved her research wasn’t sufficient. People may argue that asking questions would have blown her cover. However, she ended up blowing her own cover at most of the places she worked, and secondly, a large part of going under cover is knowing how to get the information without blowing your cover. Furthermore, she could have gathered all the easily obtainable information after her project had ended by making a simple telephone call and asking some follow up questions.

Next stop was Portland, Maine. Choosing to get a taste of the low-wage work force in this location was one of the best decisions throughout the book. She claims she chose to go to Maine for its “demographic albinism.” According to the United States Department of Labor, Hispanics made 43.2% of the low-wage workforce in 1998. African Americans made up 33.7% and whites accounted for 27.1%. Ehrenreich, being white, already makes her not the average low-wage worker. Just by her race, Ehrenreich is automatically not subject to as much discrimination as the rest of the low-wage work force. However, she fit into the albino demographic just fine in Maine and wasn’t subject to any more or less discrimination than anybody else based on race, thus giving her a fair chance to experience the average life of a low-wage worker. Here she worked at a housekeeping service, making $6.65 an hour and on the weekends as a dietary aide at a nursing home making $7 an hour .She lived in weekly motels while she struggled to find an apartment.

In this section of the book, Ehrenreich kept the reader entertained as an author by providing commentary on the working conditions of the low-wage worker. She found that the lunch break on the house cleaning job consists of stopping by convenience stores, buying a cheap bag of unhealthy chips, and then eating it in the car on the way to the next house to clean. However, this section again reveals Ehrenreich's lack of research. Before she left Florida, she didn’t do any research on the housing market. Most people, before they pack up and leave, have a final destination. Most of them know where they will be moving to, whether that is an apartment or a motel. Not, Ehrenreich though, she goes to Portland and then finds out there are no affordable apartments to rent, since it is tourist season. She wrote, “A few calls confirm my impression that winter housing for the poor consist of motel rooms that the more affluent fill up in the summer” (55). She could have found this information on the internet. She decides to stay in motels while she looks for an apartment and ends up spending five nights paying $59 for a room at a Motel 6. That is quite a lot of money to be spending when she is supposed to be frugal. If she had properly done her research she most likely wouldn’t have struggled as much with rent.

This section was the longest of the book, the most entertaining, and by far the most disappointing. Ehrenreich struggled to find work and, as she did in every job, spends much of her time discussing her problems with management. This section was probably the most offensive to people who are in the position she is mimicking. People in the low-wage work force often look to religion because it gives them hope, and often tangible help in the form of food, clothes, etcetera. Ehrenreich, after a long week of work decided not to spend her Saturday evening alone in her motel room. Instead, she went to a church event that she had seen advertised as she drove to and from work. She spent her time at this event making fun of the religious participants and claimed that she went for entertainment purposes. This does not bother me; people have the right to their own views. However, a few pages later she raised the question if there is help for the poor. She answered this question with, “Yes, but it takes a determined and not too terribly poor person to find it” (101). Churches everywhere have programs to help the needy, and it doesn’t take anybody extraordinarily determined or poor to go to a church and ask what help they have to offer.

Ehrenreich found help through a Recourse Center and struggled to answer reasonable questions regarding why she needed the help. The person working for the center asked Ehrenreich why she needed money if she was employed, and she told him because she used it up on housing, since it was more expensive than she had expected it to be. Then, the man on the line asked her why she didn’t check out the rents before she moved. A very logical question, which it doesn’t take a person writing a book review to ask. Ehrenreich commented aggressively to the question. This phone call referred her to a food pantry in Biddeford between noon and five. Ehrenreich took the suggested offer as if she were insulted. Most people in her position would be thankful for any help they can get. But, because Ehrenreich has a comfy couch to go back to when her little experiment is done, she came off as if she is “too good” for this kind of help. She wrote, “I can’t have cash, but she’ll make a call and I can pick up a food voucher at a South Portland Shop-n-Save. What would I like for dinner? This question seems frivolous or mocking…How about polenta-crusted salmon filet with pesto sauce and a nice glass of J. Lohr Chardonnay?” (102). If I were in her position, I would feel very grateful that I am being offered options for dinner to begin with.

Again in this section she attempted to describe her coworkers. She described a coworker, Pete, at the nursing home but again left out information that would have made her more credible and would have been easily obtained. She described Pete as, “probably ten years my junior” (65). Would it have been so hard to find out how old he was? Even if it was not an appropriate question to ask at the time, Ehrenreich could have called afterwards for some follow up research and maybe she would have gained more material for her book as well. Leaving out simple information made me question her credibility. If she is not capable enough to get the answers to simple questions, how accurate is her other research? What little details did she not include in the more important research questions? She also does this at her other job as a maid. During one day at work, one of Ehrenreich’s co-workers, Holly, discovered she was pregnant. However, Holly chose to continue working with equipment and cleaning materials potentially harmful to her pregnancy to avoid missing any work and, therefore, paychecks. Here, it would have benefited the reader to understand Holly’s story. How many children did she already have? How was she planning to provide for her growing family? This was much more of a touchy subject, so I understand the omission of such information. However, even after this encounter Ehrenreich does not mention any available help offered by the government, such as Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). This credit was designed to encourage and support low income workers who choose to work. According to a report by Hilary Hoynes from University of California, Davis, low income mothers have faced a large increase in the financial gains to employment through welfare reform and the EITC. Ehrenreich does not even address available aid to low income families such as the EITC or other programs such as AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children). It doesn’t make any sense why she omits this information. If she wasn’t aware of its existence, then this makes Ehrenreich look as if she is unqualified to be writing this book in the first place. If she chose not to mention this information, then Ehrenreich seems like a bad journalist for not including relevant and helpful information.

Next, Ehrenreich was off to Minneapolis, Minnesota where she worked at Wal-Mart for $7 an hour. This decision to work at Wal-Mart made Ehrenreich, as the author (and narrator) very relatable, since the industry is so well known and no matter where you go, it is “close to home.” Ehrenreich has a very difficult time looking for a place to live and ends up staying in a motel for $295 a week plus a $60 deposit.

As the rest of the book, this section was full of rueful humor, but almost as disappointing as the last. In this section, Ehrenreich spends most of her time looking for a place to live and when she isn’t, she discusses the hard time she is having finding one. Ehrenreich first arrives in Minnesota with arrangements to stay at a friends’ apartment while they are out of town for a few days. During her time at the apartment, Ehrenreich lands a job at Wal-Mart but is unable to find an apartment of her own. She wrote, “I’ve picked a bad time to come to Minneapolis; the vacancy rate is less than 1 percent, and if we’re talking about affordable—why, it might be as low as a tenth of that” (138). She defends her lack of research by explaining that her friends had told her she wouldn’t have any trouble finding a place. If modern journalism is about disregarding research and passively accepting word-of-mouth, then either this is a field that needs lots of work, or Ehrenreich needs a different title. She ends up finding a ramshackle motel with no bolts on the door and no screen on the window, jeopardizing her safety.

Furthermore, Ehrenreich, who makes the point to say she was nervous about being too overqualified, was concerned about getting a job at Wal-Mart. Her concern is valid, because she was unsure if she could pass a drug test. This part of the book, in some ways, makes sense of previous events. From the very beginning, Ehrenreich complains about drug testing. In fact, she even turned down a job offer because the amount of money offered wasn’t enough “to compensate for this indignity” (14) of a drug test. She continues to claim drug tests are dehumanizing throughout the book, but it isn’t until the last segment that the reader discovers she has been messing around with marijuana. Also, this book is supposed to be a log of money, yet there is no discussion of how much she spent on the marijuana, and perhaps if it were a large enough amount, she wouldn’t have had to worry about rent money. While this gives her more entertaining material to write, it significantly decreases her credibility as a journalist.

Like every other section, Ehrenreich spent a lot of time complaining about her job instead of making a strong point against the conditions of the working poor. Here, more so than the rest of the book, Ehrenreich makes the simple point that working isn’t always fun. She finds her work at Wal-Mart repetitive, pointless and boring; and she finds her manager an enemy of the employees. Instead of bucking up, Ehrenreich begins discussing unions with employees, provoking them to take action and demand better pay. Where is Ehrenreich’s code of ethics? She is supposed to be in the role of an undercover journalist, yet she is participating in and perhaps changing events that she can report about.

I was disappointed with Ehrenreich’s brash decisions to give up and leave whenever something didn’t work out. For instance, in Florida even though she decides that she would not have been able to pay the next month’s rent had she continued working, just getting up and leaving is not an available solution in the real low-wage world. As a solution, she could have gotten a roommate, yet this concept is not once discussed in the book. As she learns that more and more of her co-workers do not live alone, it doesn’t make much sense why Ehrenreich is living alone. Of course, she is in a position lacking a support system such as friends or family who she could stay with, but there are often advertisements around town and in newspapers about people seeking roommates. Finding a roommate, or moving in with someone else, would have significantly lessened the stress and cost of rent.

Ehrenreich addresses some of my criticisms toward the end of the book, but there is not a section where she offers any solutions. Throughout the book, she observes mistreatment of her co-workers yet does not give an explicit call to action. Though I recommend this book to anybody looking for an informative and entertaining read, it does not accurately demonstrate the impact of welfare reform on the working poor.



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      8 years ago

      I agree with your criticisms of this book. I felt that Ms. Ehrenreich made no efforts to get to know the people she worked with. Some of them could have been college educated and unable to get jobs in their field. Some of them could have been immigrants who previously led prosperous lives. Some of them could have told her how they actually survive on their salaries.

      Ms. E was should have been embarrased about documenting her abandoning jobs, and leaving her co-workers short staffed. I would love to hear from some of the people she wrote about and find out how they perceived Ms. Ehrenreich.


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