Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America is wealthy and successful journalist and author Barbara Ehrenreich‘s experiment on living and working at the poverty level, seeking minimum wage jobs around the country and the housing she could afford based on her pay.
Ehrenreich’s ability to persuade was proven most memorable in the last chapter, where she takes off her minimum-wage job mask and allows herself the freedom to write a fiery, elegant critique of the American economy as that well-studied woman she is. I think the problem with fish-out-of-water journalism is that it focuses on the journalist’s experience, which by definition must be naively awkward: Ehrenreich is surprised managers are able to search her purse, and she goes into a staff meeting at a diner expecting discussion of marketing plans rather the usual rote rules and regulations. Take a fish out of water, it will flop and it will flail at every turn. Although Ehrenreich is an activist of all kinds, with a rich history of working towards social change, it is clear from some of her astonishment she has worked with quite a bit of autonomy for a long time now. This seems to me to almost diminish the experience of those who work around her, who have grown up working in retail and service industries, and know exactly what to expect, but still can’t make it. I would have much rather read a book where the eloquent Ehrenreich told one or two of their stories in detail, with her unadorned, jarring yet insightful commentary and research added along the way.
Her insights about low-paying, repetitive work and the things it does to your mind were so right on, these sorts of bizarre changes to your behavior and thought patterns. At one point, she says menial labor results in a type of “tunnel vision”:
“Work fills the landscape; coworkers swell to the size of family members or serious foes. Slights loom large, and a reprimand can reverberate into the night. If I make some vacuuming error, which I do often enough, I can expect to spend part of my evening reviewing it and rebutting the reprimand. . . “
Although not a minimum wage worker, this has certainly this has always been my work experience in the customer service and retail industries, and the experience of coworkers around me who obsess about mistakes and fear repercussions for slight infractions . Many years after working at a call center, I still have bizarre dreams of the queue of calls waiting to be answered, or of trying to stay away at my desk early in the morning, jerked awake by yet another ringing phone.
The chapter on working at Walmart was especially relatable for anyone who has worked retail, as Ehrenreich describes the bizarre animosity which develops between staff (who spend all day folding, straightening, organizing) and customers (who spend all day tossing beautifully arranged items about, picking them up with grubby fingers, allowing teething children to gnaw on merchandise as casually as they would a snack). Working in retail, there always seems to come a point of modern showdown: staff standing behind register, glaring at a customer who enters their store or area late in the day, daring them to touch any of the perfectly arranged, elegantly hung, exactly stacked merchandise. Your sense of reality goes, day in and day out, straightening the same area over and over again. Ehrenreich begins to feel this late in the day, as she tires of putting away go-backs in the Walmart women’s section:
“I cannot ignore the fact that it’s the customers’ sloppiness and idle whims that make me bend and crouch and run. They are the shoppers, I am the antishopper, whose goal is to make it look as if they’d never been in the store.”
At one point she comments that she relates to the clothes more than the customers, and feels protective of the space. All this, yes, is exactly my experience when working in retail. She has such a knack for perception, working in that environment such a short time but being able to describe the experience so exactly.
The glimpse into Walmart itself was terrifying to me, much more than Ehrenreich’s struggle to make it at a restaurant chain or housekeeping service. Although the cruelty of the home-dwellers towards the cleaners is cringe-inducing, to the point that I wished Ehrenreich would have revealed herself as a journalist and asked these people what they were thinking in acting in such a way, the true villain in Ehrenreich’s book is the corporation, and the supervisors loyal to it, all getting rich off the back-breaking work of people not able to afford more than a bag of chips for lunch or allowed to sit down when their feet ache. I knew Walmart was bad, I live in the Bay Area and its impossible not to absorb that sort of information just by breathing the air here, but I didn’t know how bad. After reading Ehrenreich’s experience at Walmart (no discussion of pay before orientation, and anti-union talk in orientation, especially), I knew I had to learn more.
I watched the 2005 documentary Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price, which acted as a nice addition to Nickel and Dimed. It featured ex-Walmart managers explaining the corporation’s extreme union-busting activities: flying in a specialist team by private jet to take over the store and install monitoring equipment at the first mention of the word ‘union’ by the staff. Clearly I’m a bit behind on learning about this stuff, but I can’t help but feel its good to know just the same.
Then the Walmart documentary reminded me of the “Who Is Dependent on Welfare” video which floating around the internet, which explains not only the concepts Ehrenreich wrote about in this book but also mentions the issue as it relates to Walmart specifically.
Reading this also made me think of There are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America by Alex Kotlowitz, one of the most effective works of investigative journalism I’ve ever read. Kotlowitz, rather than focusing on his experience, documented the life of two boys living in Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes in the early nineties. More than reading about a privileged white man playing a game of trying to make ends meet and seeing if it can be done, Kotlowitz documented the sheer horror of day-to-day life for these two little people, each with their own shining little personalities being painfully shut down by constant violence and poverty, at Henry Horner Homes. And Ehrenreich touched on this here, but I would have loved for her to go so much further–I wish she would have offered to give these people a bit more of a voice. When Ehrenreich insists the poor are living in a state of emergency moment to moment, it seems like a much more fair solution to be witness to their struggle and offer them a voice and a platform for their actual crisis, rather than imitating or experience with that same crisis as an experiment.