I recently finished reading a book taken from a free public library: Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. Going undercover in three states, she chronicled unpleasant working conditions and exploitation in low-paying jobs in the service industries. And what she wrote in a book, published in 2001, remains relevant today—perhaps more so.
Ehrenreich, a prolific published author, wrote in the introduction that the idea for her book resulted from having lunch with Lewis Lapham, then editor of Harper’s. She wrote she and Lapham wondered how the roughly 4 million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform would be able to live on $6 or $7 an hour. She recalled saying, “Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism – you know – go out there and try it for themselves.” She had someone much younger in mind. Instead, he assigned her.
So, armed with a doctorate in biology, Ehrenreich began the research project in 1998 that expanded into a book. Unlike many low-wage workers, she acknowledged the advantages of being white and a native English speaker. Moreover, she returned to the comforts of her middle-class existence afterward. She split the book into chapters on Serving in Florida, Scrubbing in Maine and Selling in Minnesota. She struggled to find rentals within her means, worked at stressful jobs, dealt with bad management and occasional unpleasant customers, and did not follow a healthy diet.
She followed the above chapters with an evaluation, afterward and reader’s guide.
“The first thing I discovered is that no job, no matter how lowly, is truly ‘unskilled,’” she wrote in the evaluation. “Every one of the six jobs I entered into in the course of this project required concentration, and most demanded that I master new terms, new tools and new skills – from placing orders on restaurant computers to wielding the backpack vacuum cleaner.”
Those “unskilled” workers serve us food in restaurants, ring up orders and stock shelves in stores, clean our homes and hotel rooms, and take care of aging family members in nursing homes. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were more likely to lose their jobs, get sick and die than the rest of the workforce.
With the national economy recovering from the worst of COVID, many lower-paying jobs have gone begging. While driving around Prescott, I see “now hiring” signs at restaurants, retailers and even banks. DQ is offering starting pay at $13 an hour. A Fry’s supermarket scheduled a job fair April 1 to fill a variety of openings.
Ehrenreich discussed reports in the local press of a “labor shortage” in every city where she worked. “Yet wages for people near the bottom of the labor market remain flat, even ‘stagnant,’” she wrote.
She wrote in the afterward Nickel and Dimed ascended the bestseller list and won awards. It faced a backlash from conservatives but also “changed some minds within the more comfortable classes.”
However, one can argue that income inequality has worsened since publication, which Ehrenreich acknowledged. For instance, the minimum wage remains as low as $7.25 an hour in Texas, Utah and in other red states -- no change since 2009.
Business Insider reported March 22:
“Low-wage workers, including many who were praised as ‘essential’ or as ‘heroes’ during the pandemic, ‘have not been given adequate compensation,’ according to Kaitlyn Henderson, author of a new report from Oxfam America analyzing pay in the US.
“Those low wages come amid a period of soaring corporate profits, which ‘are not being equitably distributed to workers,’ Henderson, senior researcher at Oxfam America, told Insider.”
Republican presidents since Ronald Reagan backed by GOP majorities in Congress have worked to dismantle the anti-poverty programs of LBJ’s Great Society. George W. Bush and Donald Trump gained approval for tax cuts largely benefiting the wealthy and corporations. Republican-majority legislatures in Texas and other states have fought efforts to expand Medicaid. The working poor lack powerful lobbies to fight for their interests in statehouses and Washington, D.C.
As I got older, I became more sensitive to the plight of the low-wage workforce. I took Nickel and Dimed to read while at lunch at fast-casual restaurants. The sight of the book caught the eyes of two restaurant workers, and I offered to give one of them my copy when I finished reading it.
My blog, which has more than 50 subscribers and generally draws more than 200 readers, might revive interest in the book. However, the book was published too long ago for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to give it the Antiracist Baby treatment, which would help sales.
I keep saying that I believe the labor shortage is the perfect storm right now due to three things: nearly 1 million Americans have died of COVID in two years, a substantial number of survivors had to leave the workforce after recovering due to long-term ailments from the virus, and our "essential workers" are sick and tired of getting paid pennies to be abused by customers and management. Thanks for the review Ken, and for your analysis of this pervasive issue. Another book that really dives into these issues of poverty and pay inequity is "Maid" by Stephanie Land.
Ken, sorry I am just now catching up with this column. Thank you. That book had a big impact on me.