Nickel and Dimed


By Odette Pollar,

The more I read about homelessness and the working poor, the more I wonder how we find ourselves in this position. The ranks of both are growing fast and it is clear as you walk down any city street that more and more people are not doing well. In the discussion about whether the minimum wage needs to be increased, the fast food industry, particularly, leads the charge claiming that a family can survive on the existing minimum wage. Even with the recent increase, families fall short of what is needed.
The book called Nickel and Dimed - On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich, Metropolitan Books, is eloquently written. She is a writer, author and frequent contributor to Time, Harper’s Magazine and The New York Times. She wanted to learn if a person could survive and prosper on six to seven dollars an hour. Ehrenreich left her home and regular work and, for a number of months, took entry-level, minimum wage jobs. (On her applications she excluded her Ph.D. and freelance writing background, but otherwise remained truthful.)

Describing herself as a homemaker returning to the workforce, she worked as millions of Americans do, as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing home attendant and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. To gain a broad perspective, she worked in Florida, Minnesota, and Maine.

This book is excellent for many reasons. Not only is Ehrenreich a skilled writer, but also she simply described what she experienced without moralizing in either direction. Some of her lessons: She quickly learned that no job is truly “unskilled,” even those that are considered the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and physical effort. She also learned, significantly, that one low-wage job is not enough. You need to work at least two if you intend to live indoors and not in your car, if you are fortunate enough to have a vehicle.

Even working two low-wage jobs she found no way to get ahead. None of her jobs were unionized so there were no vacation, sick leave or health benefits. The earnings did not cover the basics of housing, food, medical care, utilities and transportation. She had to do without something. Since most low-wage jobs are also physically demanding her co-workers were forced to work through injuries and wounds. (If you are off for illness, you don’t get paid.) Needing to purchase antibiotics for example, can set you back two to three months. The low-wage is not sufficient for simple entertainment, not to mention emergencies or unexpected expenses.

Many workers are forced to pay higher housing costs to be close enough to take public transportation to work. Finding reliable transportation is a constant concern and limits the ability to switch even to a slightly higher paying job.

Finding housing was nightmarish. Sometimes she was able to find residential hotels, other times trailer parks, and once a dormitory at $19 a night. Many low-wage workers live in residential motels at $200 to $300 a week because it is impossible to earn enough to save up a security deposit on an apartment. Many are forced to live against their preference with family members, co-workers or other colleagues in similar positions.

Even trying to hold down two jobs was problematic. Many low-wage jobs do not guarantee a set schedule, so when Ehrenreich was working at Wal-Mart she couldn’t take a weekend supermarket job because Wal-Mart changes schedules so frequently. She had a lot to say about how Wal-Mart treats employees, and it wasn’t pretty.
Many of the living places she found that she could afford did not include kitchen facilities, so she was forced to eat out at the cheapest fast food restaurants. Eating out is not only more costly, but is not known for high nutritional standards.

Working in Maine, 7 days a week, she came closest to achieving a decent balance between income and expenses. Between her two jobs she took home $300 a week after taxes. She managed to find a live-in motel for $480 a month. Fortunately and highly unusually, her rent included gas and electricity. Because one of her jobs was at a nursing home, she also got two or three free meals when she worked there on the weekends.

Imagine what Ehrenreich’s experience would have been in the incredibly expensive San Francisco Bay Area.

Ehrenreich says "Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high."

Nickel and Dimed - On (Not) Getting By in America, is a very thought-provoking book and an excellent exposé of what it really takes to survive in this, considered the richest country in the world.

Odette Pollar is a nationally known speaker, author, and consultant. President of the management consulting firm, Smart Ways to Work based in Oakland, CA, her most recent book is Surviving Information Overload. Email to share your comments, questions and suggestions: Visit us at: call: 1-800-599-8463.

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