Life Struggle on Minimum Wage
Sometimes life isn’t always as easy as getting a job, making money and paying you bills. In her fascinating book on extended essays Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich poses as an unskilled worker to show the struggles encountered everyday by Americans attempting to live on minimum wage, “matching income to expenses as the truly poor attempting to do everyday.” (6)
Ehrenreich gave herself three rules she had to live by and they were: 1. She could not use her education or professional skills to land a job, 2. She had to take the highest paying job offered and do her best to hold it and 3. She had to take the cheapest accommodations available with an acceptable level of safety and privacy.
Ehrenreich decides to try living in three cities across the US: Key West, Florida, Portland, Maine and Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In Florida she works as a waitress, taking two jobs, one of them she describes the conditions as:
“The regulation poster in the single unisex restroom admonishes us to wash our hands thoroughly, and even offers instructions for doing so, but there is always some vital substance missing – soap, paper towels, toilet paper – and I never found all three at once. You learn to stuff your pockets with napkins before going in there, and too bad about the customers who must eat, although they don’t realiuze it, almost literally out of our hands.” (30)
Ehrenreich finally gives up, she had one of those I-can’t-take-it-anymore moments and walks out. “There is not vindication in this exit, no fuck-you surge of relief, just an over-whelming dank sense of failure pressing down on me.” (48)
In Maine she works in a care home on the weekends and a cleaning maid service throughout the week. She finds out that her work as a maid is so hard that her health begins to fail and she is revolted when a friend working with her struggles on, despite serious illness and pregnancy.
In Minnesota the author finds herself within the giant multinational Wal-Mart, working as a shop assistant. Where everything is very intimidating and overly done, all the way down to the orientation. “For sheer grandeur, scale, and intimidation value, I doubt if any corporate orientation exceeds that of Wal-Mart.” (143)
Ehrenriech in her evaluation of her experiences states:
“What surprised and offended me most about low-wage workplace (and yes, here all my middle-class privilege is on full display) was the extent to which one is required to surrender one’s basic civil rights and – what boils down to the same thing -self respect.” (208)
She makes connection between the humilaiation factor and low-wages as:
“My guess is that the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers -drug tests, the constant surveillance, being “remaed out” by managers – are part of what keeps wages low. If you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you are actually worth.” (211)
Nickel and Dimed was probably one of the best books I have read in a while. Ehrenreichs style was very factual and straight to the point with a few added sarcasms and funny encounters. She opened my eyes to what life is really like out in the “real world,” and even though she would never let herself “experience poverty,” (6) she made it extremely clean that that wasn’t her point.
For all the terrible reality of suffering in the book this is a book to buy not just to borrow. There are many first-rate quotes in this book and Ehrenreich admits herself, she can’t claim to speak with the voice of the workers but she says, ” What you don’t necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you’re actually selling is your life.” (187) That is my favorite quote in the book. It’s true once you get yourself caught up in trying to make it in life, you allow yourself to get bad pay by the hour and you realize that you’re selling your life and is that really how you want to live your life.