Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2001); 256 pp,; $23.00 cloth.
At the risk of being stoned, I have to say that it seems to have taken an atheist to do a Christian's job. Barbara Ehrenreich's "princess pretends to be a pauper" tale journeys to where 30 percent of the U.S. population earns eight dollars per hour while Citigroup CEO Sanford Weill munches on corporate profits to the tune of a $224,870,103 per year salary. Nickel and Dimed is an American anti-fairy tale, infused with emotionally charged imagery, raw authenticity, and mordant wit.
The author's sojourn begins with a twinkle in her publisher's eye over haute cuisine. The publisher is struck by the revelation that a sacrificial journalist must bravely go out into the fields to live among the lowly for the gut wrenching facts! (At this point my eyes roll involuntarily and I imagine Don Ameche in the film Trading Places.)
So despite middle-age reluctance, Ehrenreich roils up her sleeves and embarks on a social science experiment (writing that, after all, she does have a biology degree). As one who has long lived the life she explores only on a short-term basis, I bristle when, with cool and clinical objectivity she writes, "You can think all you want but sooner or later you have to get to the bench and plunge into the everyday chaos of nature where surprises lurk in the most mundane measurements." Apes and chimpanzees pop into my head and then I read, "The only way to find out was to get out there and get my hands dirty." I cringe but keep an open mind.
Bravely sliding down a mock socioeconomic slide, Ehrenreich descends from a six-figure salary as a lecturer and writer to hourly squalor--the American Dream in reverse. I'm glad she acknowledges that her scientific variables misrepresent the norm and that she is protected by an economic trampoline. Many don't have the luxury of start-up money, car, white skin, good health, the ability to speak English, or three years of college to help her secure employment.
Thankfully, my indignant grunts cease as she pens her respect for those enduring the daily maelstrom of low-wage life. She empathically exhorts, "I was only visiting a world that others inhabit full time," stating that the educated classes need to know the poor are bright and anyone who "thinks otherwise ought to broaden their circle of friends." State by state Ehrenreich scrubs, serves, and even feeds...