Posted by: Lizzie Ross | September 25, 2010

Dangerous non-fiction

Courtesy of Fotosearch

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001), Barbara Ehrenreich

Banning history: in 2004, North Carolina Republican state representatives protested the book’s assignment as summer reading for incoming freshmen at UNC-Chapel Hill, stating it was “anti-Christian”, and in 2010, minors’ access to the book was restricted in the Topeka and Shawnee county libraries because its material was “harmful to minors under state law.” (source: Marshall University Library website).

It’s difficult to guess just exactly which aspect(s) of this novel could harm minors, or which parts could be considered anti-Christian. There is a lot of profanity (Ehrenreich credits her Teamster upbringing for her abilities in this arena), but no more than what one hears on any cable show or in many rap/hip hop songs. There’s some anti-management ranting, but nothing that surpasses some of the current ultra-conservative public airwave shouters. Really, the only possible reason I could find for anyone objecting to this book is its basic premise: that those living on minimum wages are caught in an inescapable financial cycle that makes saving for self-improvement (higher education, better housing, health care, etc.) nearly impossible.

Basic story outline: Ehrenreich went undercover to see if it’s possible to live on minimum wage, waitressing and hotel-cleaning in Florida, serving food and cleaning at a nursing home for the elderly in Maine, and doing a variety of jobs at Wal-Mart. She discovers some basic facts: low-wage earners aren’t treated well (how many bankers, lawyers or teachers have to present urine samples before being hired?), finding decent housing near the workplace is a challenge, exhaustion saps the intellect, management-worker relations are full of all kinds of bad faith.

She doesn’t attack the jobs — she, in fact, is quite proud of her ability to do each of them well — but she does attack the low pay and disrespect these jobs earn their workers, as well as the fact that many of them are done by immigrants whose low English skills make them perfect targets for unscrupulous employers.

What Kate’s Reading blogged briefly about this book in 2008, saying that while she didn’t disagree with Ehrenreich’s points, they weren’t particularly powerful for anyone who, like Kate, were actually living that same life, but without Ehrenreich’s safety net (a more affluent life with doctor, savings, insurance, etc.). Others have pointed out that it is, in fact, possible to start at minimum wage and move up (see Christian Science Monitor) and that not all Wal-Marts are evil (see boing boing).

But the point here is not whether Ehrenreich’s book misrepresents and overgeneralizes the real-life situations of the working poor. Rather, it’s that any in-depth examination of what it’s like to live on a low-wage is seen as threatening the status quo (we need those low-wage workers, so that the prices of the things we need/want to buy stay low). This book can be an eyeopener for anyone whose response on seeing a homeless person is usually to shout “Get a job!” Just to understand all that’s involved in that process can help us see why finding a job (especially now, with over 10% unemployment in most urban areas) is such a challenge.

Read this book, and then keep it in mind the next time you’re at a restaurant or stay in a low-cost motel: you might find yourself tipping more generously.

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