Thursday, April 3, 2008

Nickel and Dimed

I just finished Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. It was an interesting book. The author took a variety of low-wage jobs in different areas of the country and tried to live on that wage. I didn't love it, and some of it was a little dated (it was published in 2001, researched in 1998-2000), but overall, it was a very thought-provoking read.

I came across this quote at the end that got me thinking:

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.

I'm mostly quiet about politics, but I may as well come out of the political closet just a little and admit my leanings are definitely in the socialist direction. I find inequities like this disturbing, and I don't have a solution besides giving to charities. But that seems so distant and inadequate. I don't know. It just seems like there's something wrong in America where the people who we rely on in so many ways are paid so little while others are raking in millions of dollars as a result of their work.

Shortly before the time when Barbara Ehrenreich was researching this book, I was right out of college and working my first job. TK was in grad school, and we were living together in Atlanta. The job I took paid $20,000 a year, which comes out to about $10/hour*, far more than the approximately $6 - $7 the author made at any of the jobs she worked while researching this book. I'll be honest: we couldn't make ends meet at $10/hour and had to rely on credit card debt to get us through that first year. We lived in a sketchy area. Nothing like the places the author described, but we did have to call the police a few times, and shortly before we'd had enough and moved out, a delivery truck driver had his truck stolen at gunpoint out of our parking lot. We had almost no furniture, just a bed, a cheap table, a futon, and the tiny TV I had used in my dorm room. We didn't buy much of anything, or do much for entertainment besides hiking in local parks. But we were never really in trouble. First of all, we were able to qualify for credit cards, which let us float for a year under the assumption that better times were ahead (thankfully, they were). We both had health insurance through my job. TK always could have dropped out of school and gotten a job had he needed to. And I could have gotten a better paying job quite easily. So we were never really living anything like the lives described in this book.

But still, I think back on that time, seeing how difficult it was for us making nearly double what the people working jobs like waitressing, housecleaning, or retail were making. How can anyone be expected to live on that, let alone support a family? And most of those jobs were hard on a person's body...the biggest risk in accounting (besides all those paper cuts**) is carpal tunnel syndrome.

As I said, I don't have a solution. I just think that the first step is to even recognize there's a problem.

So, book review time: would I recommend this book? Surely, although I didn't love it in many ways, I think it was a very worthwhile book to have read. It's one of those books where the idea of the book is far better than the execution, but the execution is good enough (and the book is short enough), that it is still a wonderful read. Anyone know of any similar books I may enjoy?


*That assumes a 40 hour work week, which anyone who has ever worked accounting knows does not exist during month-end close, when I'd work somewhere between 60-80 hours a week. I remember during one particularly hellishly long week calculating out my actual salary and realizing it was below minimum wage.

**I'm not kidding about the paper cuts. Filing was especially rough on the cuticles. I'd always keep bandaids in my desk as I'd end up bleeding from a paper cut usually at least once a day. I don't know how normal this is, though. I'm admittedly klutzy.


Giovanna said...

ok...I'm in accounting and do not have any paper cuts or band-aids in my desk. The trick: Keep lotion on your desk and always moisturize. I find when I have dry hands I tend to get more paper cuts... Don't know if that's just me....but it works. Totally agree about the hours though. Husband is only home 1x a week before 11:30...and that's b/c I have ASL class on that night...but once the boys are asleep...he's working.

Amnesia said...

My daughter is reading this and she seems to like it. It is required reading at her high school. So - my comments are not really based on the book, but my view of if you care.

I am possibly as anti-socialist as possible. I do think that properly paying teachers is a HUGE gap in our economy, yet at the same time people keep taking on education jobs at that pay - knowing full well what they are in store for. Same goes for food service, cleaning, etc. As long as people keep engaging at those rates, things won't change. Wouldn't having equal pay for all jobs cause an up-rise in the slacker mentality? If I got paid the same no matter how much risk was in my job, or how I performed, I would certainly be in a lower-risk profession which requires less of my time, right?

I hate the idea of losing control over my own destiny - of becoming a society the likes of Anthem. It just seems so pointless to work hard, to build a future when you are working for everyone – so that those working hard and those hardly working benefit the same. When I go to work now, I am doing it for my children, for my husband, for me. If I don’t want to work hard, then I can cut back, but I personally feel the impact of that. So – I am careful about what I put into work – make my choices based on MY needs…

One of the first things you learn in life (OK - this is a bit broad and assuming...I know) is that life isn't fair. That you have to take the good with the bad. You get out of something what you put into it. All of these ideas seem pointless in the light of socialism. And - because we all have free will and are not going to agree to give that up, there will always be competition and dissension. We will always need an all powerful elite leadership to govern the crazies out there. With that leadership comes the very likely prospect of corruption…it is an ugly picture in my view.

Not even I knew I had an opinion about this. Tell me to shut the hell up already!