Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Book #2, The New Classics Challenge

Nickel and Dimed, On (not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Enrenreich....

Boy, this was a fast read! That's the quickest I've finished a book in a very long time.

This one is about a journalist that has an experiment: she works minimum-wage jobs and tries to secure housing and live only on the money that she earns. She does this "experiment" for about a month at a time in three different states: she is a waitress in Florida, a housemaid in Maine and a Wal-Mart employee in Minnesota. There were some rules that she set, for example, she always had a car, and she wouldn't be willing to live in a shelter or the car. She attacks each job with vigor, believing "If you're going to do something, do it well!" In the end, she concludes that she doesn't know how people do it, living on the salary of a minimum-wage job. She learns that, in fact, most people have at least two of these types of jobs, if not more, to make ends meet.

This "experiment" was done in 1998-1999. The assignment is meant to be a real eye-opener for the reader. I, however, wasn't surprised or shocked by a lot of it, because at the time of this experiment I was living this experiment. I had three roommates (one was my fiancee) and we split the rent four ways. We also had to pay for all of the utilites in our central New Hampshire home, including oil heat. While the other three roommates were in the Navy (which is not high paying) I was a civilian and worked two low-wage jobs: I worked at a credit union in Electronic Banking during the day for $9.00/hour, and I worked at the Customer Service Desk at the local mall on evenings and weekends for $7.00/hour. These were truly the best jobs I could find in the area pay-wise, and they were easily 40 minutes from my home! Similar to the author, I applied to every job I could find and easily sent out twenty copies of my resume. For the first six weeks of living there, I was unemployed. That's when I took the job at the mall, dispatching security, selling gift cards, renting strollers and basically trying to avoid the wrath of Management! I also had no health insurance and an old Toyota with its share of sorrows. I was sick so often, that my fiancee and I joked about getting married early, in secret, so I could have Navy benefits such as health insurance.

Luckily though, I knew that my time in New Hampshire was limited to about a year, when my fiancee's Naval contract was up and we were getting married and moving out of the area. But I met plenty of people who were in this kind of life for the long haul, with similar stories that the author discovered. I've seen a lot of the "beating down" from Management to the Employee as Ms. Ehrenreich discusses, though not to the degree of Walmart! I can honestly say that it is not a part of my life that I would like to repeat, that it's very tough to live that way. But when you don't have a choice, you do what you have to do.

One final note: it would be interesting to see what this kind of experiment would be like today, with the economy what it is. I imagine that the results would be more severe, especially with the cost of housing.

Next Book: "The House on Mango Street" by Sandra Cisneros. The only copy I was able to locate in the local library system was in Spanish. I'm adventurous and always looking to improve my Spanish, but it would be a lot easier with an English copy to fall back on! So I ordered it from Half.com for $.75!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That sounds like a serious book. While it was a fast read, it doesn't sound like it was too easy.