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Friday, January 27, 2012

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich


 First Edition published May of 2001 by Metropolitan Books

I've had this book read for nearly a month now and I just haven't had the faintest idea about what I should say about it. It is remarkably good and remarkably bad all at the same time.


The idea behind the book is simple - in 1998 a reporter goes "undercover" to explore the world of the $5 - $7 job market. She becomes a waitress, a house cleaner and an employee at Wal-Mart.

So, let's start with the positives:

-This is a well-written and entertaining book.

-The workload at her different jobs is accurately described, especially the work at Wal-Mart (I know since I worked at one of their national competitors stocking shelves, unloading trucks and working the 'back room' for 5 years as a second job when my wife lost her white-collar job and the bills started to pile up).

-I give Ms. Ehrenreich credit for going out there and trying the jobs rather than studying them like a sociology experiment.

Negatives:

-Ms. Ehrenreich keeps on mentioning that she is "middle class" but her unfamiliarity with the rigors of the $5-7/hour job market shows me that she's had a pretty pampered work life. She claims on page 201 that she writes off more than $20,000 a year in mortgage deductions alone on her taxes - this is not the middle class that I know and understand. She did little research about where to buy her clothes, find her cheapest rents or buy the cheapest food. $40 for a pair of work pants? No visits to Goodwill or yard sales? She rents by the week and picks two super-touristy spots (with their very high rents) to start her experiment? All of these things add up to invalidate big chunks of her experiment in my mind.

-She spends an inordinate amount of time discussing Wal-Mart's policy of having employees take a drug test (at least 25 pages). She even claims it might violate her 4th Amendment rights on p. 209 even though those Constitutional restrictions only apply to government, not private employers. She does not grasp the concept that those drug screens don't catch many drug users because they don't even bother to apply. She also fails to grasp that some employees need to be drug free when at work - I worked with a forklift every day at my $7.25/hour 2nd job at a competitor of Wal-Mart that also had a drug screen - it was dangerous enough without throwing drugs into the mix. Many employees are cross-trained and may cashier, use a forklift, collect carts and stock shelves in a single shift.

-I'm truly surprised that she was able to get 40 hours/week at Wal-Mart - their reputation is to work people 25-30 hours/week to avoid overtime at any cost. That rang very false to me.

So, to sum up: well-written but flawed because the author had not done a lot of her simple research ahead of time (and in my mind showed disrespect to the very people she was supposed to be learning about). So, these strong positives and strong negatives add up to a 3 star average.

Reviewed on December 29, 2007.

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