• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #3: Nickel and Dimed, On (Not) Getting By in America


Someone leaving a witty comment about the minimum wage in lieu of a tip is about to get that coffee in his lap

I'm not usually a fan of voyeuristic journalism. For every George Plimpton's Paper Lion, there are a hundred well-scrubbed, well-intentioned cub reporters looking to make a name by "experiencing" something for a few minutes and then writing the hell out of it. It all too often reeks of vacation volunteerism, a kind of brief inoculation from the guilt of affluence. I don't include Ehrenreich's seminal work among these.

Ehrenreich's tour of the seamy underbelly of our economy takes the usual license, all of which she readily admits. Coming from means, she could always terminate the experience if it became too challenging, fiscally or emotionally. Yet even as a tourist of poverty, she wields her reporter's eye and her own empathy to record an unflinching look at those who haven't shared in the economic growth of the post-1980 Reagan Revolution. (To be clear: most of us haven't shared in that growth, which accumulates at the top of the wealth ladder with alarming speed every year.) Ehrenreich explores the hand-to-mouth lives of those who clean our homes and serve our breakfast and a hundred other jobs that demand long, often physically demanding hours for modest recompense. At the time of the writing, 15% of Americans subsisted at or below the poverty line. And contrary to what some would have you believe, the vast majority of them work.

These are the folks who make minimum wage working full time, don't have health insurance, struggle to provide for their kids, and often rely on food stamps and other government programs to supplement the undercompensation of the private sector. And yet, frustratingly to many liberals, these are many of the same people who voted for President Trump. Much ink has been spilled on that subject, but it should be a wake up call to anyone to the left of Sean Hannity that business as usual has utterly failed the working class in America. Trump leveled his inelegant demagoguery at the cardboard cutout villains that most resonate with so many of those left behind by our economy: corrupt government bureaucrats, undocumented immigrants taking even shittier jobs, and fatcat bankers. "Drain the swamp" lands with those who fear the crocodiles, regardless of how embroidered a tale it all was and is.

It's been 17 years since Nickel and Dimed, and the basic problems remain. Too many of us lack access to health care. Too many of us lack education and training. And too many of us labor too long for too little. I believe now, as I did then, that America has a moral imperative to ensure that the benefits of our economy are shared among all Americans. People who work hard in this country should not be in poverty. Can we at least start off with that basic level of agreement and see where it takes us?

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