17 November 2010

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

Here's the premise: Can the author make enough money to survive doing unskilled jobs? It's an excellent premise, and for the most part I felt like Ehrenreich carried it out well and fairly. Even though she set rules for herself, like taking the highest paying job she was offered, and performing each job's tasks to the best of her ability, I felt like she was looking to fail. (Just to note, she worked as a waitress in Florida, as a maid and in a nursing home in Maine, and at a Wal-Mart in Minnesota.)

Don't get me wrong, Ehrenreich makes some very good points - like how difficult it is to get started from scratch. Many of the people she encounters live in crowded housing where they pay week-to-week rent rather than living in a small apartment. This is because they can't save enough money to make up the deposit and first month's rent required to live in an apartment. Because many of these people do not live in traditional apartments or houses, they don't have the cooking facilities necessary to eat good foods, so they survive on more costly convenience and fast foods. I think these are real, legitimate problems that people encounter, and working for minimum wage or slightly above minimum wage makes it nearly impossible for these people to rise above their lousy situations.

Ehrenreich makes excellent points about the ridiculous hiring processes for many of these sorts of jobs, and I think even makes some valid points about the uselessness of drug testing. (Don't tell my father-in-law I said that.) It's just that most drug tests are urine-based, which means they do not catch hard-core drugs, and they are easily cheated. While I disagree with her that subjecting an employee or prospective employee to a drug test is somehow degrading, I do agree that it doesn't matter a whole lot if your waitress, floor-mopper or clothes-folder is on drugs, as long as those drugs don't impair his/her ability to do his/her job. I mean, if we're talking about my doctor, I would like him/her to be drug and alcohol free while I'm being treated. But we're talking about people whose job failure is not really going to have a huge impact on anybody besides themselves.

Another good point is how expensive it is for these people to miss work when they are sick. First of all, they are hourly employees who do not have any sort of sick leave or compensation when they miss work. Second, if they have to go to a doctor, most of them have no health insurance and therefore completely lack the financial means to see a doctor - as if a missed day of work isn't enough of a financial burden. Not to mention the fact that many of these jobs are physically challenging and wear out the bodies of the people who perform them.

Where I feel that Ehrenreich really fails is in avoiding to point out the financial failures of her co-workers. For examples, she talks often of how difficult it is to get a smoking break, but never once mentions all the money these people could save by quitting smoking. She likewise mentions drinking on the weekends but fails to mention that water is pretty much free whereas alcoholic beverages are significantly more costly. She talks about the poor nutritional habits and fails to point out what cheap foods these people could buy that would be significantly more nutritious.

Listening to this book (I downloaded it as an audiobook) made me feel like I was watching a Michael Moore film - there are lots of good points, but because the opposing side is never addressed, and the author blatantly ignores her own argument's weaknesses, the overall work is only a small step above propaganda.

If you are looking for an opposing viewpoint, by all means, please go read Janssen's review, written in 2007. I remembered that she had read this book, and I was pretty sure that she had given it a favorable review, but I hadn't re-read her review until tonight. (I felt like I needed to make that clarification lest you think that I'm just trying to be disagreeable with my friend, which, yes, I am wont to do.)

1 comment:

P1 Steven said...

What kind of waitress was she where? A good bartender/waiter/waitress can make OK money. Most in the industry dont take care of their money. I think in Florida, their is automatic gratuity (18%) BTW anyone reading this should remember to tip their servers 15% or more! In a high end place a server can make 60K+. I know bartenders at my server job who probably make between 40-50K. Now if she was a waitress at Waffle House it might be another story...