Thursday, January 18, 2007

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

The last book club book I've managed to advance read before classes started for the Spring semester! Ehrenreich is a writer who has written for many prestigious periodicals, and written several books. For this book, Ehrenreich crafted the persona of a divorced woman whose children have grown, and who is entering the workforce after a divorce. She shortened the number of years of college on her resume to 3, but did her best not to "impersonate" another person. She then tried to survive in three different areas of the country on a waitress/housecleaner/retail clerk's pay for a month. She allowed herself a car, and a little seed money in each case, but for the most part relied on her earnings to buy food and lodging. The "experiment" was conducted in the late nineties.

Wow, holy cow, this book depressed the hell out of me, not to mention scaring me half to death. Let's put some context around this. I am a parent of two boys aged 9 and 6. I recently made the decision to leave my relatively well-paid career in market research to pursue a master's in library science, with the goal of becoming a school librarian (or School Library Media Specialist to use the official language). I was starting to hate market research, and I really do believe this is the course for me, but it will take me 2 years to get the degree, and meanwhile I have become a "net funds user" in the household, rather than a "net funds earner." I work for almost nothing an hour in a public library, where the hours fit my family and school obligations, but let's just say I practically have to work a week just to get my hair done. Now, we're relatively comfortable - my spouse makes a good living (though not princely) and we have adequate life insurance and a good cushion in retirement plans if something happened - but this book made me realize that if things went badly, I could be in big trouble. OK, it would have to be several bad things at once, but not outside the realm of possibility. This book showed me just how possible it is to be trapped by circumstance into a really hopeless position, and just how ground down someone can get. It is depressing because who knows what could be done to fix the situation. It is an interesting study to see how a class that is only slightly less "ground down" (the assistant managers at Wal-Mart, the restaurant manager, etc.) are manipulated/used to be the force grinding on those below them. This is an eye-opening book, but not one you want to read if you're a social conservative! Might be a great book to give to a kid who won't go to college, or who thinks they can make good money if they drop out of high school!

Here's a link to Ehrenreich's website if you want to read more depressing stories about people not getting by on the wages paid to the working poor.

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