Nickel & Dimed (part 1 of 2) [Book Review]

Homelessness is the state of not possessing the right to use a single place for shelter persistently.

Joblessness is the state of not possessing the privilege to be paid for work persistently.

Homelessness and joblessness are both very prominent problems here in America, and have been for quite some time. However, they are not always causally linked, nor does remedying one necessarily remedy the other.

In the book Nickel & Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich explores the state of America’s lower-class (the various poverty strata) that struggle to live even modestly while working one or more jobs.  At the time this book was written (1998-2000), America’s job market was booming; in fact, that time period was at the tail end of a decline in unemployment that led to the lowest unemployment rates we’ve seen in the past 20 years. [As a side note, unemployment has been steadily eking upwards since World War II ended, along a boom-bust pattern]

It seems completely counter-intuitive: we are told time and time again this Protestant mantra that hard work is the path to prosperity; that the poverty-stricken and homeless are the way they are because of sloth or carelessness and bad choices; that having a job will logically lead to having a home and ultimately a life.

But the reality is far less simplistic.

Ehrenreich’s approach to research, calling on her background in the natural sciences, is to, as she says, sit at the bench and do the work. This particular approach has been tried by others, such as Morgan Spurlock on his show 30 Days, and while I wouldn’t say it’s absolutely accurate, it definitely provides more insight than simply crunching numbers. She confesses, in the beginning, that while she will work hard and fully intends to make her research as realistic as possible by abandoning the opportunities and resources granted to her by her privileged social stratum, she will not do so to the point that it threatens her health or safety. Personally, I felt this was a reasonable compromise.

Throughout the course of the book she works under a pseudonym as a food server in Florida, in a nursing home and as a cleaning maid in Maine, and in retail at Wal-Mart in Minnesota. She works roughly a month in each job before leaving; although I can never tell if her job-changes are arbitrary based on time or because she just can’t take the work anymore.

Her writing style is very candid, informal, and I would even venture to say that she certainly doesn’t pull her punches, referring to one of her bosses as a “pimp” at one point. She does anonymize the people in the book, to protect their identities, however.

I felt this book was worth reading: it’s relatively short (~230 pages) but provides some terrific insight which is backed by textual research (“Real Research™”). Despite the book being 10 years, things haven’t changed all that much, which is quite unfortunate.

More in-depth discussion after the jump. (Due to this particular review being so massive, I’ve broken it up into two parts, with part 2 posting tomorrow)

For this review, I’m going to try a slightly different approach, as the topics presented in this book are so complex I really don’t know where to begin – the end of the book contains a series of questions intended to be used as prompts for discussion in book clubs or other group discussion environments. I’ve picked a few that I feel are worthwhile in this situation.

In the wake of [late 1990s] welform measures, millions of women entering the workforce can expect to face struggles like the ones Ehrenreich confronted in Nickel & Dimed. Have you ever been homeless, unemployed, without health insurance, or held down two jobs? What is the lowest-paying job you ever held and what kind of help – if any – did you need to improve your situation?

"Homeless Man" photo by Andrew Brown

Strangely enough, I have worked all three of the jobs that Ehrenreich works in this book. I’ve been a food server (more than once), my first job was housecleaning timeshare villas in the community where I grew up, and I’ve worked in retail as well. At times, the book felt like a stroll down memory lane, and at others it brought up feelings of injustice and frustration I had long forgotten about.

There was a brief time (about a week or so) when I first came out to Ohio that I was without a home or a job – I slept on park benches, in a (borrowed) car, wherever I could. Of all the jobs I’ve held, only two have had health insurance, my current one and one food service job I held a while back.

When my wife and I first found out we were pregnant, I did not have healthcare (I was part-time) and so we took advantage of Medicaid for her early doctor visits. The difference in quality between those visits and the ones we had later with proper healthcare were very significant.

With both children, we have received assistance from WIC (Women, Infants and Children), a family subsidy program that helps by providing a small amount of government-sanctioned food; it’s like food stamps except is meant to be more of a supplement to ensure that some form of healthy food is entering the household. What’s noteworthy about that is that I work in an office – I am not a blue collar worker anymore; but yet we actually needed this help, particularly when Freyja required that special formula — it would have buried us in debt if we had to pay the $200+ per MONTH for the special formula.We are no longer collecting WIC checks now, as Freyja no longer needs the special formula. But the 2 year period where we did receive them would have turned out far differently without that assistance.

Ehrenreich discovered, as Jamie Oliver did in Food Revolution, and numerous other studies of American food choices (“King of Corn”, “30 Days”, etc), that the lower economic strata tend to purchase food that is less healthy simply because you can get more volume that way, and its more accessible. The long-term harm of poor food choices (diabetes, obesity, heart problems) are never considered because hunger is a more immediate issue.

I have held down two jobs only once – when I attended school at OIP&T in Dayton, I worked at both TGI Friday’s (food service) and Hot Topic (retail), both part-time, the latter as a seasonal job. Juggling two schedules with a school schedule is challenging, to be sure.

In Nickel & Dimed, several of the people Ehrenreich meets work multiple FULL-TIME jobs concurrently; as does Ehrenreich herself on more than one occasion. For them, a typical day is filled with only work and sleep. The worst part is that, for most of them, their work is not building towards anything at all – they will likely never make it to management, they are not attending classes as I was (no time to do it!), and they live paycheck to paycheck. They are in stasis, effectively just biding their time until they are old enough to collect a modest social security check. (And they will likely continue to work after that).

Were your perceptions of blue-collar Americans transformed or reinforced by Nickel & Dimed? Have your notions of poverty and prosperity changed since reading the book? What about your own treatment of waiters, maids and salespeople?

My perceptions have changed, but they were already undergoing revision anyways – this book contributed to the critical mass.

The wifey and I have had many heated discussions about the issue of class and labor in society. For a long time I held onto those Protestant Mantras about working hard to achieve success. In some ways, I still believe it to a degree: for a typical person that has achieved “success” (whatever that may mean) some manner of hard work is generally performed. However, I no longer believe that hard work alone will result in success any more than chocolate chips alone will make cookies.

The previously-reviewed book Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, examines the success of prominent people and cultures to try and understand how they become successful. It’s a combination of hard work, opportunity, intelligence, networking, and luck. While we may be uncomfortable admitting that luck and opportunity play a bigger role in success than hard work, I believe that luck (perhaps influenced by some strategic positioning to increase probability) is necessary to reach those opportunities; and the opportunity itself (and the wisdom to both identify them for what they are and capitalize on them) affords a person the ability to gain a much higher yield for their hard work.

Emily Walking Behind the Counter at Elmo's Diner - Photo by Ildar Sagdejev

On an average day, for every kilocalorie of energy that I burn, I earn more money than someone burning an equal number of kilocalories at a minimum wage job. I would even wager that by the strict definition of “work” (the literal expenditure of energy), they are probably working “harder”, since my work is more cerebral than physical. So my “hard work” is multiplied because of what I do professionally, at a much higher coefficient, than someone working in a minimum wage job; this is just another way of looking at the ultimate quantifier of work efficiency: wage rates.

In other words, it is a fallacy to say that people in lower economic classes “aren’t working hard enough” – or that a job is somehow a panacea to the poor. For many people, low-wage jobs do not elevate them above the income threshold necessary to secure proper housing, but yet they still have the bulk of their daylight hours consumed by their jobs. As Ehrenreich says in the epilogue of the book, they are essentially donating their time, their lives, to make other people’s lives better, and they do so in a way that is rewarded in a disproportionately unfavorable way.

As for my own treatment of service-workers — I have never forgotten what it was like to work in a low-wage job. I try to be polite and friendly with everyone, regardless of what they do — we’re all people, after all, we’re not jobs. Ehrenreich said that of all the jobs she worked, the housecleaners were looked down upon with the most disdain — for whatever reason, janitorial work seems to be regarded with a mixture of disgust that I imagine may be a relic of slavery-era attitude. There is an inherent paradox in dismissing work as invalid because “anyone can do it” and simultaneously hiring someone else to do it because you don’t want to — perhaps the negative perception is because of that dichotomy: they are accepting money to do work that no one wants to do, which means they are clearly desperate, like someone that would sell their body for money; and in some ways, given the way that kind of work taxes the body, they are.

At one point in the book, Ehrenreich comments on how the Maid employer mandated that they scrub the floors on their hands and knees rather than using a mop, noting that the position requires “anal presentation”. Mounting a peer organism’s posterior is a way of asserting dominance in other species (go watch a cage full of male mice) — it’s not an act of sex so much of an act of sex potential; there COULD be penetration, but the dominant one is exercising mercy and restraint. Ehrenreich also noted that the home-owners occasionally watched them as they scrubbed the floors in this submissive stance, always with that silent implication that at any moment, they could climb on board.

How do booming national and international chains – restaurants, retail outlets, cleaning services, and elder-care facilities – affect the treatment and aspirations of low-wage workers? Consider how market competition and the push for profits drive the nickel-and-diming of America’s lowest-paid.

The fact that the workforce is referred to as “human resources” or at times “human capital” provides a whiff of how the working class is perceived by the management.

This disregard for humanity was most prominent in Ehrenreich’s brief stint at Wal-Mart, where the employees were constantly warned to not engage in “time theft” — standing around, talking — but ironically Wal-Mart has had no problem fudging time sheets, mandating unpaid overtime, and effectively stealing time from the employees themselves. Her job as a housecleaner had similar issues – they were expected to be there early, but were not paid for that time — but that employer at least provided complementary breakfast!

Wal-Mart denies that they engage in theft of their employee’s time (also known as “exploitation”), despite the numerous out-of-court settlemenets and other lawsuits brought against them. Wal-Mart’s penny-pinching business practices, the ones where they reverse auction purchase prices with vendors, forcing the vendors to sell levels so low some have gone out of business, they extend to their treatment of employees as well.

When a human being becomes simply a statistic, part of an aggregate total or percentage, they cease to be human. They are mindless, fleshy automatons. This treatment leaches into the managerial treatment, and given a long enough time, the employees start to believe it, themselves. The people that Ehrenreich worked with never imagined demanding more money, looking for more work, unionizing, or taking any ownership over their destiny — they submissively accepted their wage and working conditions because, for whatever reason, they apparently didn’t think they cuold do better, or were too afraid to try.

How does manager’s scrutiny – “time theft” crackdowns and drug testing – affect workers’ morale? How can American comanies make the workplace environment safe and efficient without treating employees like suspected criminals?

In the book, Ehrenreich spends some time discussing the mandatory “personality tests” and “pre-hire drug screening” that the employers require of prospective applicants. The former serves to weed out the people that are both unethical *AND* stupid (Take a guess as to the correct answer to “It’s ok to steal from an employer sometimes.”), and the latter is an invasion of privacy. I personally do not consume illicit substances but that sort of thing is really not any of an employer’s business, any more than bedroom activity, political views, or any other personal issue is. Yes, someone getting stoned or drunk on the job is wrong, and pot is illegal, but in some states, so are certain sex acts — are they going to ask about those too?

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Drug Test [public domain

One thing that Ehrenreich brings up about the drug tests is that the only one that can realistically be tested for is pot, since THC is fat-soluble (it can stay in your fat cells for weeks) — the other drugs (cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, LSD, codeine, etc) are not tested for, probably because they pass through the system too quickly; they would only catch people that were dumb enough to use less than 24 hours before the screening. A chronic alcoholic or drunk-driver, which would probably be more problematic than someone that smokes pot once per month or less — and yet the former would pass the drug test and the latter would probably not.

Ultimately, both the personality test and the drug test can be beaten, as Ehrenreich demonstrates (she actually smoked pot a couple weeks before applying for one of the jobs), despite the management’s opinion that they are unbeatable.

In addition to the privacy issue is the issue of cost — the drug testing industry is a multi-million dollar a year business. The implied message here is that an employer would rather spend tens of thousands of dollars per year on this rather than using that money instead to provide things like healthcare subsidies, better wages, vacation / medical leave, or other benefits.

Employee theft / shrinkage, drug use, and other fears of management that affect the bottom line are all issues of trust. But is it really reasonable to assume that an employee would engage in any of these activities? Kleptomaniacs aside, why would someone steal from their employer? If they were hungry, or if they were desperate, sure — but wouldn’t it be better to create a more positive work environment, perhaps pay the employees better? Happy employees are more productive. At one big-volume restaurant where Ehrenreich worked, an immigrant dishwasher had gotten in trouble because the managers suspected he had stolen something from the dry stock room; the room where they keep the ketchup packets, coffee and tea, crackers, etc. She jokes about how he would make arrangements with his Russian contacts for an illicit deal on a case of ketchup packets.

Cash Registers at a Target Store - photo by Marlith

So the result is a catch-22 — an average employee would not likely steal unless they were desperate, but employers would rather pay lots of money on pre-employment screening shams than provide them with better working conditions to prevent that desperation.

I don’t entirely disagree with the practice of manual labor jobs that require drug-tests / blood tests after an incident. In these cases, particularly with regard to alcohol testing, an employee making a bad choice should be held accountable. But it is not the employer’s place to be a moral watchdog, and the activities of an employee outside of the timeframe in which they are responsible, should not be of consequence to an employer – particularly if they are not willing to even provide healthcare benefits for an employee.

continued tomorrow in part 2