Thursday, May 24, 2007

Nickel and Dimed

I've been reading Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed for awhile lately. (The subtitle is On (Not) Getting By in America.) My big question when I started it was how did she continue to work at minimum wage (I'd understood she'd tried this experiment of working for minimum wage for a whole year)? Did she quit as soon as she was offered a raise? Did she do a half-assed job so she wouldn't be given a raise?

On the back of the book, Studs Terkel (whoever he is) crows ". . . Nickel and Dimed is a stiff punch in the nose to those righteous apostles of 'welfare reform.' . . ." Well, I guess I'm one of those righteous apostles of "welfare reform." Having grown up in the South Valley, where there are many wonderful people, but also a great number of generational welfare recipients, I could easily see how welfare, as it was, quenched any self-reliance spirit in people.

I'm almost done with her third and final location. Haven't gotten into the evaluation, but I can see how things are going. If you go into something with an attitude, you're going to find all kinds of things to reinforce that attitude. For example, my husband is a "the glass is half empty" kind of guy, while I'm more "the glass is half full." Each of us constantly find things to reinforce our stances and miss the things that go against our attitudes (even when we are both looking at the exact same thing!) So yeah, Ehrenreich is finding all kinds of obstacles against her success, seeing the filth and negative about her without seeing the positive.

In her first location, she worked one partial day at the motel housekeeping job she'd been trying to get and when her other job (waitressing) had "the perfect storm" (which does happen) she'd had enough and walked out. I can't blame her for that, but the chapter says nothing more about her housekeeping job. We just know that her first day was also her last day. In a footnote, she mentions the motel later advertising the housekeeping work as paying $9.00 an hour, she checked it out and found out they were paying per room instead of $6.00 per hour as before. The per hour arrangement encouraged people to work more slowly to take more time and make more money. People making $9.00/hour were busting butt to get more done in less time (which is really the enterprising way).

So she made some bad decisions. If she HAD truly been "poor," she could have maybe learned from them and used what she learned to improve her lot. She couldn't live off of a waitress's $2.15/hour plus tips, during the off season in Florida, so she had to get another job. She got a second job that paid $6.00/hour. But fatigue (in trying to handle both jobs) got in the way of her ability to deal with the more stressful job. So she walks out on BOTH OF THEM? What if she had stayed with that housekeeping job, started making the same amount, but in less time? Then she would have had more time to look for a better job. Instead, this was the abrupt end of that particular experiment.

In her second location in Maine, she was working for a maid service and seemed to be doing okay financially. What was getting to her was the downtrodden state of her coworkers. It didn't so much bother them as it bothered her. She hated that they wanted to please their boss and do a good job. And the juxtapositioning of "servant poor" with "master rich" bugged her royally.

I have never had a maid clean my house although at some point, my husband wanted us to hire out that work. The thing is I would clean my house for my maid to come clean. I relate too much with the working poor. They are my roots; I am a part of them. And nothing is wrong with getting your hands dirty cleaning up your own messes.

But this is what gets me. Ehrenreich saw everything in terms of economic class. I did help a friend clean some houses. The people whose houses I cleaned had much nicer houses than mine. Sure, they were richer than I (I guess.) But I didn't see them as being in a different class. They just had more money than I. But Ehrenreich was always aware of herself as "actually a highly educated person, a PhD, in fact" who was pretending to be lower class. She always wondered if anyone would blow her cover -- like you can recognize a PhD by her carriage. And when at the end of this episode, she "came out," it was anticlimactic. It seems she expected everyone to react as if she had managed to cross the demilitarization zone in the night and spied on the "other side." The ladies just saw her as another person. (They should have realized she wasn't one; she was just pretending to be one.)

Interestingly enough, she got a raise while working in the service. So yeah, she quit right after getting the raise.

Just a note: I really enjoy Ehrenreich's writing. She has a nice style with just enough hard words to challenge me -- about one every 20-30 pages. (Hmm, guess I'm not PhD material.) But as you can tell, I don't agree with her politics, nor with her cynical outlook on life and the world. I feel sorry for her.

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