I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Nickel and Dimed : On (Not) Getting By In America by Barbara Ehrenreich

In 1998, writer Barbara Ehrenreich was looking for a new story to write for Harper's and was having lunch with the editor when the conversation turned to the topic of people going off welfare and going into the workforce and having trouble making it.  She said someone should go undercover and investigate this and he said why don't you.  So soon she is spending about a month in different locations trying to live off of $6 to $7 dollars.  From Florida to Maine to Minnesota, she worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a house cleaner, a nursing home aide, and a Wal-Mart salesperson.

In Florida, she went to Key West and tried to get a job working as a hotel worker but that backfired and she instead got a job waiting tables instead of at a hotel chain's restaurant.  Her first place was a small rented efficiency that went for $500 which was cheaper and nicer than the trailer she looked at, but it was also a forty-five-minute drive to the eventual job she would get.  She learned quickly that the want ads are a bad way to find a job in that employers place them and take applications constantly because there is a high turnover rate. So there may be no opening right then, but there may be one soon. She had waited tables in her youth, but it was hard getting back into the swing of things. She has to learn how to use a computerized screen for ordering food.

And she learns a lot about her co-workers, such as Gail who is living in a flop house and paying $250 a month with a male friend who is now hitting on her and driving her crazy but with the rent so cheap how can she go elsewhere? And Claude the Haitian cook who is desperate to get out of the two-room apartment he shares with his girlfriend and two other people. Or Tina who is living with her husband at the Days Inn and paying $60 a night and Joan who lives in her van.  Some of these people end up having to rent a hotel room to live in because they can't pay first and last month's rent at an apartment or trailer.  Barbara was able to because she budgeted for it in each city she goes to stay.

She ends up taking a second waitressing job at Jerry's and tries at first to hold both jobs but just can't do it, so she keeps the job at Jerry's which is paying more at an average of $7.50 an hour in tips. She also gives up her nice efficiency because the drive is eating up too much in gas money and takes a cheap cramped trailer.  The other women she works with either work a second job or has a boyfriend or husband to help make it work.  But she still needs a second job herself and takes a housekeeping job at a hotel, which is when things begin to fall apart.

In Portland, Maine, she puts out many applications and at Merry Maids (Like at Winn-Dixie in Florida and another job she applied for in Maine) she is asked to take a test. This one is the Accutrac personality test.  All these tests are designed to find out whether or not you will steal from the company or do drugs, or turn in someone else who has stolen something.  The Accutrac also tries to determine your mental health as well.  These tests are a joke and can be easily faked.  While waiting to get into her new place the Blue Haven Motel that has a kitchen, she also applies to be a dietary aide at a nursing home on the weekends.  This involves feeding the elderly and often those with Alzheimer's their meals.  If they do not like what is being served she can make them something else they might like such as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  It's a nice job, until one day when things go wrong.  At Merry Maids she learns the truth behind the lives of these women and how they will work with a twisted ankle or operate a vacuum cleaner on their back even if they have arthritis or back problems because they need the job and the money, even if it isn't all that much.

In Minnesota, she has an impossible time finding a place to stay.  The economy is supposed to be good there and jobs are supposed to be plentiful there and she does find a job at Wal-Mart, which she ends up finding out was a mistake and that she should have taken the other job selling plumbing at a hardware store.  At first, she stays in the apartment of a friend of a friend until she can find a place, but that place just won't open up and soon she finds herself living in a run down motel with no kitchen much less a fridge and no screen on the window or a fan for the room.  There is a massive shortage in Minnesota of housing for a reasonable price.  Everyone is living in motels and there is a shortage in places to stay in motels.  Working at Wal-Mart changes her into a person that she does not recognize. A very mean, bitch of a woman.  And she recognizes this and wonders if it does this to everyone.  She's only making $6 and change and she really needs to take a second job, which is made difficult with Wal-Mart changing her schedule.  It is here that you really see her dark side.  I like to think that it isn't who she really is, but just a facet of her personality put under a microscope and blown up a million times.

One thing that bothers me about her is that she is against drug testing, which the ACLU has always been against them. And back when this book was published they were just starting to require it at various jobs.  She tries to make it an invasion of privacy and a "the man" is trying to put you in your place and degrade you.  I have found that most people who have problems with drug test use drugs. And that is certainly the case here. To work at either Wal-Mart or the hardware store she has to do a drug test and she isn't sure she can pass it because she had smoked a joint in the recent past and marijuana stays in the system a long while. Of course, there are ways to cleanse it out of your system, which she does and passes the test.  She also says that she is worried that her Claritin-D would show up as Chrystal Meth. When you go to get a drug test you tell the technician what drugs you are taking and they will know what is in your system. Besides, I took a drug test in 1997 to get my job as a librarian and I was taking Claritin and the woman told me none of my allergy medicines would have any effect on the test.  So she really had nothing to worry about on that front.

What else bothered me was some of her racist remarks. She refers to those who live in the Southwest as Chicanos. And she bitches about not being able to go to certain California towns because the Hispanics have hogged all the low wage jobs and all the cheap places to live.  It's not a pretty side to her.

That being said, she made some very valid points about how we measure poverty. Poverty has always been measured according to how much food costs, but these days half of your pay can go toward your home, apartment, or another dwelling place.  They are constantly in danger of being homeless or ending up in a motel if they are lucky.   And some of these places know that they can get someone else to replace you easily and they let you know it, so you feel compelled to do whatever they ask and put up with bad working conditions in order to keep the job you so desperately need.  While this book was written over fifteen years ago, nothing has really changed.  Lots of Wal-Mart workers are on Medicaid and food stamps.  People are working more than one job just to barely get by and are not always succeeding.  Something needs to change.  Maybe that would involve starting with raising the minimum wage.  And trying to do something about affordable housing.  While Ehrenreich felt as though she did this experiment as a lark and was never in any danger of going hungry (She kept her ATM card for emergencies such as that and anything else.)  and she didn't have to worry about feeding anyone else like so many other women do, she does shine a light on an important problem in America today.              

Link to Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Nickel-Dimed-Not-Getting-America-ebook/dp/B001BAJ25W/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1485962520&sr=1-1&keywords=nickel+and+dimed


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