Nickel and Dimed – The Book Vs. My Experience

I recently read Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America." Ehrenreich spent time working as a waitress, a maid, and a WalMart clerk to see if she could make ends meet on the salaries of these low level jobs. The purpose of the book, in my view, was to make the reader feel sorry for people who work under these conditions. What it did for me though, was expose the flawed view of this country that people like Ehrenreich share.

For one, she seems at times to hate what she calls the "owner class." When she works as a maid, she writes about the houses she cleaned, and at one point comments:

Far more useful to me, for understanding the tics, pretensions, and insecurities of the owner class, are books and other print-related artifacts.

She has this attitude throughout the book, that there is some kind of class warfare going on – that the "owner class" is insecure, and thus is trying to oppress the lower class. I have never seen anything to suggest this. I think most people, in any class, want to see other people succeed.

The implication in her analysis of what people read is that people who disagree with her have books just for show, and tend to read things at the "low end," which she defines as Grisham and Limbaugh. This drives me crazy. Why do some people think that you can only be intelligent if you hold some leftist, egalitarian view of life? I wonder what she would make of my bookshelf, where she would find lefties such as Palast, Carville, and herself next to Hayek, Limbaugh, and Bennett. I have Bibles and apologetics works next to books on atheism, the occult, and other eastern religions. I have a ton of business books next to stuff by Dave Barry, next to books on robotics and artificial intelligence, next to Traci Lords' biography. I read a lot, even some highbrow philosophical stuff on occasion, yet I lean to the right. How is that possible? The blogosphere itself should refute the ridiculous assumption that only leftists are intelligent, because bloggers are on average more to the right (libertarianism is particularly over-represented) yet seem to be significantly more educated and intelligent than average citizens.

Secondly, she repeatedly takes stabs at companies which, being a Businesspundit, I didn't really care for. Granted, some companies don't care at all about their employees, but I just don't buy this view that companies are out there manipulating all the employees. The ones that do have bad managers, and will probably pay a price for it down the road.

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Ehrenreich comments on Home Depot's use of the word "guest" to refer to customers, while she is there on an interview.

The guests? These must be the customers, and I'm glad to have learned the term in advance so I won't wince or gag in front of management.

Okay, so terms like this are a little cheesy sometimes, but she acts like there is something wrong with thinking in such a positive way about the customers. It is almost as if she believes that companies should exist only for the employees, and that customers and shareholders take a back seat. She slams companies again and again for not caring, then gets pissed when they attempt to treat their customers well.

Finally, she comments towards the end of the book that in all her experience at low wage jobs she "never met a slacker." She and I must have drastically different definitions of "slacking," because I have seen it at every place I have ever worked. I don't understand how she came away with such a different experience than I did, when I worked such jobs through high school and college. I met plenty of slackers. In my opinion, that is why some of those people will never succeed in life — they just don't care. They don't work hard, they always look for the easy way out, and they bounce from low wage job to low wage job forever. Sure, there were some sharp people I worked with in restaurant and retail jobs, but the were in school, or worked their way up the management chain quickly, or found something better. No one who is bright or hard working will stay at minimum wage for long.

Ehrenreich does soften up a bit towards the end, and writes a few good things about the owner of the cleaning company. She points out that he does seem to care at least a little about his employees. She also decries the number of single mothers who lack education and thus are stuck raising children on this low pay, and I can agree with her that government programs to train unskilled people like that (people who want to improve their lives) are a good investment. While the book was disturbing in some parts, and represented a leftist view of work that I think is dangerous for this country, I do think it is a good book for those who wish to see the other side of things, and it is a quick and interesting read.