by Barbara Ehrenreich
New York: Holt Metropolitan Books, 2001
224 pp. hardback. Paperback edition, 2002.
Taking the Down Escalator
A review essay by Linda B. Brebner
A few years ago, if I had read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, I would have been impressed because it was a powerful statement on the need for doing justice. I would have thought what a great job she had done at revealing yet another layer of class privilege in our society.
But reading it at this point in my life, I was more than impressed. I was personally impacted by Nickel and Dimed, because Ehrenreich, in part, was telling my story! For the past four years, I have been a sales associate in a large department store; and in many respects, Ehrenreich’s experience parallels mine.
In the late 1990s, during the bullish period in which so many people were making so much money, Ehrenreich became curious about what was happening to the working poor, including the women who were just coming off welfare. Reluctantly, she decided that the best way to find out what was going on among those earning the minimum wage or slightly above would be to join their ranks. She took a number of low-paying jobs in different states over several months, working as a waitress in two restaurants, a member of a maid team, a nutritional aide in a nursing home, and an associate (sales clerk) at Wal-Mart. She determined at the outset that she would not “fall back on any skills [she] derived from her education or usual work,” and that she would accept the highest paying job offered, while living in the cheapest accommodations that offered some measure of safety and provided privacy.
What impressed me the most about Ehrenreich’s attempt to live and learn from her experience in low paying work was her understanding that she could not possibly replicate the “real life” of the working poor. She was aware that she brought so much with her that could not be totally set aside—her knowledge, health, self-esteem, emotional distance, and the security of her other life as an upper-middle class writer. “I was only visiting a world that others inhabit full-time,” she writes.
My “visit” to that world has been for a longer period than that of Ehrenreich, but I share her realization that this is only for the short term. Although I have worked in retail for almost four years, I too have a certain distance from the economic and emotional reality of those for whom retail has been and will be their permanent work. In my heart, I am still a Presbyterian minister who is on the lam until I accept my pension in a year and a half. Although I have suffered economically and many times wondered how I could survive until the next pay check; the fact is that I have a nest egg to which I can turn in emergencies. I own my car and my home, which increases my sense of security. I have self-esteem related to my profession, education, and life experiences. This awareness helps when I am buffeted by the assumptions of some customers that all associates are stupid, unskilled, lazy and/or unable to hold a better job, and that therefore they are undeserving of courtesy and respect. In some cases, associates are not only treated rudely but may even be victims of physical abuse. For example, a customer thought an associate in our store was working too slowly at the register so she stepped out of the line and socked the associate in the side of the head, knocking her off her feet. No charges were brought by the management, just a threat of future charges if the woman ever came into the store again.
Ehrenreich was surprised to discover that she didn’t stand out as different; in other words, her education, class, and profession were not evident to those with whom she worked. She changed nothing about herself, except she “censored the profanities that are a part of [her] normal speech” so as not to seem brash or disrespectful. What did stand out was her inexperience in the work she was trying to do! Oh, yes, that lack of experience does show. I can remember how humbled I was when I first started to work in retail. The biggest challenge was learning to use the cash register with some sense of confidence. As a floater, I also had to become familiar with every department in the store, not just one area.
Ehrenreich likewise became aware of how hard she had to work in each of the positions she held. She was not pretending to be a waitress, nutritional aide, maid, or retail associate; she was doing that work for real. She comments, “In every job, in every place I lived, the work absorbed all my energy and much of my intellect. I wasn’t kidding around. Even though I suspected from the start that the mathematics of wages and rents were working against me, I made a mighty effort to succeed.”
She later reflects on the myths she had been taught about work, “I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that ‘hard work’ was the secret of success. . . .No one ever said that you could work hard–harder even than you ever thought possible—and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt.”
My experience has been the same. My work in retail has been physically, emotionally, and intellectually challenging all the time, and exhausting many times. Yet I never get ahead. I believe that there is an assumption by many in the middle class, who consider themselves to be working very hard, that not much is demanded of people in low-paying service jobs and thus they don’t deserve more pay. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The first time I realized this was when I was living in Peru, where I found that the poorest women worked in the street about 16 hours a day. They began by hauling their portable carts through the streets at 5 a.m., buying fruits and vegetables from the market, setting up their stands, and then sitting for 10 to 12 interminable hours in the dank cold or the steaming heat, hoping to sell all they had purchased. They closed up shop after the evening traffic subsided and hauled their carts to their secure areas. By the time they returned home by foot or bus, it was 10 p.m. There was only time to sleep a few hours until 4 o’clock the next morning when the whole cycle began again. If hard work and long hours make a person “deserving,” what middle-class person can claim to deserve more than these women?
The intent of Ehrenreich’s project was to find out how one could survive on the minimum wage, especially when she discovered that in 1998 it took an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one bedroom apartment. She didn’t earn that amount in any of the jobs she took during her sojourn in the economic underworld. She tells of the days she went without enough food and lived in places in which she felt uncomfortable and even unsafe. She was always under the pressure to make ends meet.
I understand what she went through. There are few, if any, of the associates with whom I work who make $8.89 an hour unless they have worked in this particular company for more than 15 years, and maybe not even then. The first time I received an annual raise, I thought I was misreading the figures. I got a 30-cents-an-hour increase, which was equivalent to $36.00 a month before taxes. I can hardly measure any impact on my financial life. This year with the economic downturn, I received a 25-cents-an-hour raise. I was one of the lucky ones. Some received no raise!
I found Nickel and Dimed a breath of fresh air. Although Ehrenreich only visited the world of the working poor, I feel that she as an “outsider” really does understand the unreal world in which some of us work. And what’s more, she cares. Her style of writing and her wry sense of humor make her story and her analysis of what’s going on in our economy both understandable and digestible to the readers who are concerned about justice. They may even become allies to the working poor in the struggle to bring about changes in the economic order in this country and around the world.
Ehrenreich closes her book with a powerful analysis of what is going on in our economy. Her final salvo has theological implications which we, in the Christian feminist community, could accept as a challenge in our daily living. She asks how we are to respond emotionally to the plight of the working poor, and then she answers in these powerful words:
. . .[T]he appropriate emotion is shame—shame at our own dependence, in this case, on the underpaid labor of others. When someone works for less pay than she can live on–when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently—then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The ‘working poor,’ as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure deprivation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else. . . .
Indeed, Barbara Ehrenreich calls us to a new day, and it is our decision, each of us, whether and how we will respond.
© 2002 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 26 number 2 Summer (July-September) 2002