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US hardback
May 2001
Nickel and Dimed
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Metropolitan Books
ISBN 0805063889
224 pp
Nickel and Dimed
by Barbara Ehrenreich

As part of her research into the conditions of America's working poor, writer and cultural critic Barbara Ehrenreich, who also has a Ph.D. in Biology, changed her clothes and climbed down the social ladder to be a person living on minimum wage and find out what it took to survive. As a waitress in Florida, trailer trash became a demographic category to aspire to with rent at $675 per month. In Maine, she worked as both a cleaning woman and a nursing home assistant, and in Minnesota for Wal-Mart under the repressive surveillance of managers whose job was to monitor her behavior relentlessly for signs of sloth, theft, and drug abuse. Exploding the fiction perpetrated by affluent theorists who live in another reality that "the economy is booming," she found co-workers forced to sleep in their cars, and many continuing to work while vexed by arthritis, back pain or worse, with no chance of health cover, yet still managing small gestures of kindness. Despite the advantages of her race, education, good health and lack of children, Ehrenreich's income barely covered her month's expenses in only one instance, when she worked seven days a week at two jobs, one of which provided free meals.

A sobering indictment of the myth that employment is automatically the solution to poverty, and hard work is the ticket to a better life. The people that Ehrenreich describes couldn't have worked harder, but the mind-numbing exhaustion at the end of every day of every week left no escape. from the trap. The official definition of "poverty," which determines available statistics and informs public policy, turns out to be based on an outdated scale linked to food prices, which have remained fairly stable, and ignores factors such factors as rents that have doubled and tripled, immediately absorbing half or more of earnings. A concluding chapter examines such issues as why these wages are so inadequate and why workers are so accepting of them.

"A brilliant on-the-job report from the dark side of the boom. No one since H. L. Mencken has assailed the smug rhetoric of prosperity with such scalpel-like precision and ferocious wit."

-- Mike Davis, author Ecology of Fear

Unflinching, superb . . . an important book that should be read by anyone who has been lulled into middle-class complacency."

-- Vivien Labaton

"Living wages, [Ehrenreich] elegantly shows, might erase the shame that comes from our dependence on the underpaid labor of others."

-- Eileen Boris, The Boston Globe

"[E]xpertly peals away the layers of self-denial, self-interest, and self-protection that separate the rich from the poor, the served from the servers, the housed from the homeless. This brave and frank book is ultimately a challenge to create a less divided society."

-- Naomi Klein, author of No Logo

"Jarring, full of riveting grit . . . This book is already unforgettable."

-- Susannah Meadows, Newsweek

 
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