Sunday, August 17, 2008

Book Review: Nickel and Dimed

Oh look! I'm finally getting down to doing another book review. The book is called Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich and was both a New York Times bestseller and Notable Book of the year. It's not strictly speaking a book on personal finance, although it's a book that makes you think intensely about personal finance.

I read Trent's review (written back in 2006) of this book some time ago but only just had the chance to read the book for myself this weekend at my friend's house. So, what did I think of it?

First of all, the book is a journalist's investigation of what it's like to be a woman in America who is stuck working for minimum wage. I liked the premise of the book, that the author actually moved to three different locations in the United States and worked in them at different low-paying jobs. In a way, it reminded me of Black Like Me, where the author darkened his skin and actually lived as a person of colour in the Southern US to experience racism firsthand.

Actually becoming the person you are writing about, finding accomodations, getting work and socializing as a member of the group you are investigating is very powerful. You learn things that you would never learn by interviewing a group of women who work below the poverty line. For one thing, you start to feel the emotions that a person in that situation would feel. You feel their exhaustion and their pain. If you're a good enough writer you can then turn your experience into a compelling read.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of a dozen books and writes very well for the most part. There are, however, certain issues and biases she brings into her experiences that disrupt the flow of the narrative, especially towards the end of the book.

The book opens with an introduction that explains how she came to write the book and the rules that she created for herself regarding the types of jobs she would look for, which job out of multiple opportunities she would accept and the accomodations she would seek out. She allowed herself to have a vehicle (either her own or a Rent-a-Wreck) and didn't take the cost of the rental out of her wages. She said she did this because it wouldn't have been very interesting to read a book about constantly taking the bus, as though that would have somehow hidden the story she was trying to write about. I think it would have made it far more genuine, since a person in her situation would very likely be stuck with either the bus or a beater purchased for a few hundred dollars. Lastly, Ehrenreich ruled out being homeless during the experiment (which was to last for at least a month in each of three locations).

Serving in Florida. Ehrenreich started off in Florida, very close to her own home. She looked at trailer homes but they were out of her price range, so she ended up in a $500/month efficiency that was essentially a cabin in someone's yard.

She applied for about 20 jobs out of the want ads, mostly for housekeeping or supermarket positions but got no call backs except for the one at Winn-Dixie, where she decided that $6.20/hr isn't "enough" money for her to put up with the indignity of submitting to a urine test. Interestingly, her stance on this and other things will change over time.

Eventually, she applies for a housekeeping job but is offered a waitressing spot at the hotel's restaurant that pays $2.43/hr plus tips for a 10 hour day. Amazingly, under the Fair Labor Standards Act employers don't have to pay "tipped employees" more than $2.13/hr (although they are supposed to "top up" their pay to minimum wage if tips are insufficient to bring them to or above that point).

Most of the people she works with here are living in small apartments with multiple roommates, small trailers, motels (where they pay an exhorbitant rate) or in cars, vans or on boats. When another worker says she might move into the nearby Days Inn ($40 to $60 day) Ehrenreich discovers that this is considered far more reasonable (on $2.43/hour remember!) than the idea of taking an apartment. How is one to come up with the month's rent and deposit on an apartment all at once? And, once you're in a motel room or living out of your vehicle, how do you cook or store food? That means fast food for the most part, far more expensive than buying food and cooking it.

After 2 weeks of work she realizes that she's not going to have enough for the following month's rent unless she gets a 2nd job, yet another waitressing spot. She lasts 2 days working 2 consecutive shifts, then quits the first job. Since she can't afford her rent she moves to a small trailer in trailer park, using up her $200 emergency fund to do so. She gets another 2nd job, this time in housekeeping and plans to try to combine these 2 jobs for a while but a truly horrible day at the restaurant ends with her just walking out of the place before the end of her shift. The nicest thing she does after moving out of the trailer is to arrange to transfer her deposit to a co-worker from the first restaurant (who has been living in her truck).

Scrubbing in Maine. This time she moves to Maine and gets a job working with a maid company along the lines of Molly Maids as well as a job at a nursing home on the weekends and takes a room at a Motel 6 for $59/night until she can get into a motel that charges only $120/week. The nursing home job pays $7/hr and gives her most of her weekend meals. The maid service pays $6.65/hour although they charge their clients $25/hour!

She discusses in great detail how hard the cleaning job is, with a high risk of injury (for example, knee problems from scrubbing floors on hands and knees) but the thing that really gets to me in this section of the book is the realization that most of the cleaning they do has very little to do with actually getting things clean and everything to do with how they look and smell afterwards. I'm less interested in ever hiring cleaners, assuming I could afford to do so. The other unpleasant notes in this section have to do with the distrust of employers who bait video camera traps with money or other valuables and the apparent caste system that allows convenience store workers to look down on or even ignore a uniformed maid.

Selling in Minnesota. This is the segment of the book I disliked the most. First Ehrenreich took a job at Wal-Mart, working in the ladies department and initially takes a room for $245/week in what she describes as the worst motel in America. This segment is ultimately derailed by Ehrenreich's distaste for Wal-Mart and her efforts to promote unionization although it provides an interesting look at the nitty gritty of how clothing is constantly being sorted, hung, folded or otherwise arranged for the consumer. She never finds affordable accomodation and a potential 2nd job at a supermarket falls through, so she throws in the towel.

Is this a book worth reading? I finished reading the book in a state of shock over the kind of substandard housing most minimum wage earners seem to live in, at least in the United States but the long Wal-Mart rant really ruined the book for me. It did make me very aware of how close to disaster many people are. A lost job, a crashed car, an illness with expensive medication and lots of time off work could propel a lot of people into the kind of housing disasters detailed in the book. I came away with a profound respect for a healthy emergency fund. But I wouldn't recommend buying the book. If you want to read it, take it out of the library.

1 comment:

Mama Bear said...

I really have to check out this book - thanks for the fantastic review.