Friday, August 10, 2007

Nickel and Dimed | Summer Reading 3

I am interested in matters relating to poverty and economics, so I was drawn to this book because I thought it might provide some insight into America’s working poor. However I was disappointed to find that the book mainly presented Ms. Ehrenreich’s prejudices, insecurities, and harsh judgments about people. After looking more deeply into the available literature, I would have chosen to read The Working Poor: Invisible in America or One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All ...something more substantial.

In this book, Barbara Ehrenreich decides to pose undercover as a low-wage worker across the country in an attempt to prove the groundbreaking idea that at minimum wage, the working poor cannot "get by" in the United States and that the welfare system is in need of reform. She takes on jobs as a waitress, maid, and Wal-mart associate in order to present what life is like on the other side of the poverty gap in America.

The author seems to have previously lived her life somehow protected from reality and shielded by a form of upper-class cluelessness. The book almost brings to mind a literary version of The Simple Life, where Ehrenreich comes off as a more highly educated, but just as desperate, Paris and Nicole. She doesn't want a roommate? She'll just use her back-up funds. She gets a skin-rash from cleaning supplies? She'll just contact her personal dermatologist. She has to clean a toilet while she is a maid? She'll complain about it to no end and suggest those who do their jobs without pitying themselves are less human than she is.

In her attempt to report on the struggles of the working poor who barely scrape by on minimum wage jobs, the author showed little compassion for the people with whom she worked and into whose lives she never integrated herself. I’d suggest that she even comes across as looking down on them and not valuing their lives as equal to her own. A certain smugness is ever-present regarding her education and “better” way of life. For me, the constant hope that people would notice that she was different got old fast.

I believe that her failure to integrate herself into the lives of her coworkers was also debilitating to her research. By not engaging in the same social interactions as her coworkers, I think that she didn't get a holistic picture on what it would mean to get by in America. The lack of friends and family merely serves to point out what an impossibility it is for anyone to get by without a social network, something that all of her coworkers seemed to have had. One of her main problems – the cost of rent – would have been easily alleviated had she accepted housing offers others presented to her. The occasional comments from co-workers that Ehrenreich shares in the book suggest that they are not alone, as she is. Many live with family, or have spouses or boyfriends who work. None of them seem to be particularly dissatisfied with their lives, nor do they resent their employers. Actually, most of them seem proud to be working, proud of their work, and proud of the companies for which they work...the same work for which the author has such contempt.

The book is also oddly offensive to those she is often trying to “help.” Throughout the book she makes offensive statements about most ethnic minorities as well as rude generalizations and assumptions about those who are overweight and don't look like her. Her insensitive assessment of Wal-Mart employees needing only the abilities of a ‘deaf-mute’ or someone with autism was at best demeaning. In her attempt to promote social justice, she often comes across as patronizing and condescending toward those for whom she claims to fight.

Constantly complaining about manual labor being physically hard, her clothes smelling like the restaurants in which she works, and her lack of fancy food and a nice drink every evening, the reader becomes less and less sympathetic to this self-centered writer who most likely had never previously spent much time outside of her privileged lifestyle. Instead of her endless whining about her own discomfort, it would have been nice if Ehrenreich spent more time talking about social impacts of poverty and relaying the experiences of her coworkers who are truly poor.

In this book the reader finds out much about Barbara Ehrenreich but fairly little about the difficult lives of people she worked with, and nearly nothing about what she would suggest the community do to make the lives of the working poor easier.


Amy and Andrew Daigle said...

Thank you for your honest review. I think for those of us interested in issues such as these, we may feel pressured to agree with anyone who does research in the name of poverty (or whatever). But just because someone claims to be "for the working poor" doesn't mean that we have to agree and abandon our own knowledge and experience. Kudos to thinking with your head.

Anonymous said...

Sarah, good for you. A New York Times best seller is not an easy book to find fault with, but you did!!! I am proud that you are courageous enough to use your own head and go up stream when necssary.

The Lindahl News said...

I, too, have read this book as part of my Book Club experience.

We had quite a lively discussion regarding quite a few of the points you made. I thought that, while the world at large needs to know how the poor live, this was truly NOT the poor experience. She always knew she had a way out; that this was just an "experiment".

She allowed herself a car, she allowed herself proper medical care, she allowed herself a place of her own. Things we take for granted, to be sure, in our cushy life here in the 'burbs.

I gave the book a thumbs up for its
subject matter, but the author a thumbs down for how she did it.

Sarah said...

I totally agree, Deb. The subject matter was right on, but the way she handled and presented it was just unbecoming and completely ridiculous. It was hard to not write her off after so much self-centered complaining that was more about her comfort-level and recognition, rather than the real struggles and lives of America's poor.