Thursday, October 11, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #284: Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

It can be discouraging to realize how long the hot, current problems have actually been problems.

For example: the plight of the working class, which supposedly just bubbled over in the last US Presidential cycle and is causing all sorts of upheavals. How "recent" is that problem?

Well, Barbara Ehrenreich noticed it in the mid-1990s, during the longest, most sustained economic expansion this country has ever had, and her investigation of what it's like to try to live on minimum wage became the 2001 book Nickel and Dimed. I read it in a 2008 edition, with a then-new afterword that's a decade older now.

I can be a little slow sometimes, so I just this year got to a 2001 book that I'm pretty sure was all over the book-club company where I worked at the time.

Ehrenreich's introduction describes how the idea was born, in a fancy publishing lunch with Lewis Lapham of Harper's. (Which makes me assume the first section, and maybe all three, first appeared as articles in Harper's: her description is exactly how an editor commissions a piece.)

The idea was simple: try to live for a month on a single low-wage job, the way certain folks are always insisting poor people can do if they want to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps." [1] She did it three times, in Key West, Portland (Maine), and Minneapolis -- all places, she explains, where the white middle-aged woman she was at the time would not be out of place in the low-wage workforce.

It was, of course, harder than it looks. Ehrenreich isn't the first person to point out that it's expensive to be poor -- it's difficult or impossible to save up for things, you need to buy lousy-quality cheap stuff and replace it often, and even cooking healthy food or taking care of personal hygiene can be problematic or impossible at times. She didn't go the extreme version: she had a nest egg each time, and always had some place to live, even if they were lousy pay-by-the-night motels some of the time. She was never reduced to living out of a car, as many actual poor people are.

There are certain people who, if I were Emperor of the World, I would make live like this for a month. Well, at least a month. Maybe much longer. Luckily for them, I'm not Emperor of the World, and unlikely to ever be. But this is a book that should be even more widely read, particularly for those of us who haven't worked at low-wage jobs since we were young and living on someone else's dime. Even more so for those who are fond of talking about how other people can do better by themselves. It's a very hard life, and it's only gotten worse since Ehrenreich lived it almost twenty years ago.

Our economy is systematically biased in favor of the rich and powerful; it privileges capital over labor and corporations over human beings. None of those things need to be the case; they're all choices that were made by people in our government who made quite a bit of money by nudging the scales in that direction. They could be changed by different people in government, and they're different in countries with different governments.

If you're an American, and you're eighteen and over (with some caveats), you have a chance to push against that bias in just over a month. (I do assume that as a human being and an incarnation of labor rather than capital, you will tend to be on those sides, but I may be wrong.) Do it.

[1] I am not the first person to point out the irony that this metaphor is literally impossible by the laws of physics.

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