In 2010, both the Easton, Pennsylvania and the Bedford, New Hampshire School Districts challenged Nickel and Dimed (by Barbara Ehrenreich) after several parents complained about the book’s “promotion of economic fallacies and its biased portrayal of capitalism.” However, I would argue that the book actually shows the true nature of capitalism; that it creates winners and losers.
As an experiment, Ehrenreich set out to discover if she could survive working low-wage jobs. She waited tables in Florida, cleaned houses in Maine, and worked at a Wal-Mart in Minnesota. She almost always needed a second job, so she often found herself working seven days a week, adding work as a nursing home aide and as a hotel maid at different points of her research.
In all three locations, she struggled to find housing that would be affordable for people who earned six or seven dollars an hour. A couple of her coworkers were actually homeless and living in their cars, because they always lacked enough money for first month’s rent and deposit on an apartment. Also, maintaining a healthy diet was an issue sometimes. When she was lucky enough to find affordable housing with a kitchen, she was able to cook for herself sometimes, but often she had to rely on fast food. And Ehrenreich often notes that the lunches of her coworker’s were unhealthy and insufficient for the back-breaking work they were doing.
What Ehrenreich took away from this experience is that there is no such thing as unskilled labor. None of the jobs were easy; they were all physically demanding and she never had a coworker that she would describe as “lazy.” She also comments that “You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents are too high” and that when the rich and the poor compete for housing, the poor always lose. She concludes that something is very wrong when people can work as hard as they do and are still barely able to support themselves.
Overall, Nickel and Dimed is a thought-provoking read. For many, the problems of the poor are misunderstood or simply invisible, but Ehrenreich describes the problem of poverty in the United States in a knowledgeable and compassionate way. She also states that poverty is an emergency and I think anybody who would like to understand that statement better should read Nickel and Dimed.
- Kayla Whitehead, Technical Services Assistant/Serials Specialist