Book Beat August 08 2001 (2)

In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich temporarily took leave of her life as a prominent author and assumed the identity of a single woman solely reliant upon low-paying, so-called “unskilled” jobs. Gone, for this experiment, were husband, house, bank account and the other privileges of relative wealth and familial stability. Allowing herself an old car, a few clothes and a small amount of cash, Ehrenreich quietly inserted herself among the ranks of the working poor in order to answer a simple question crammed with political implication: Can people survive on $6 or $7 an hour?

Survive they can, she discovered, barely. In Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich has redefined poverty as an affliction not only of those who neatly fit society’s conception of the poor and transient — welfare families, the homeless — but also of hard-working people who have, for various reasons, become locked into a cycle of throwaway jobs, without the time or resources to improve their fortunes. As the author worked her way through this substratum of the economy — waiting tables, cleaning houses and motel rooms, laboring at Wal-Mart — she found co-workers not unfamiliar with sleeping in cars, skimping on meals and living with little or no health insurance, among the other deprivations of near-minimum wage jobs. Jobs whose applications shear away dignity with questions such as, “How many dollars’ worth of stolen goods have I purchased in the last year?,” as if tendering cups of urine with one’s paperwork isn’t sufficiently humiliating.

Like the people she writes about, Ehrenreich subsisted mostly on fast food, was forced to burn most of her pay on exorbitant weekly motels, and steadily wore herself down with long hours and second jobs as she chronically teetered on the edge of financial meltdown. As a result, Nickel and Dimed is as empathetic (though Ehrenreich acknowledges that she merely glimpsed the mental and physical anguish of poverty) as it is darkly humorous — a cynical wit ultimately aimed at the pundits and politicians who trumpet the slimming of welfare rolls and unemployment lines, neglecting to mention that the heralded new members of the American workforce often can’t make ends meet.??