Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lit Crit: Nickel & Dimed by B. Ehrenreich

The burden of personal history.
It is impossible for any of us to entirely escape the burden of personal history that colors our view of the world. Nonetheless, it is imperative for a reporter to be as objective and unbiased as possible. For Barbara Ehrenreich this was not possible in Nickel and Dimed. Her autobiographical book explores low-paid, ‘unskilled’ work in America after the Republican Party seized control of Congress in 1994 and passed (as part of their ‘Contract With America') the racially motivated and nativist* 1996 welfare reform bill known as “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act,” or Welfare to Work. While Ms. Ehrenreich’s book deliberately and successfully confronts the “too lazy to work” mythology that drives the modern Republican Party version of capitalistic theory, the burden of her own personal history resulted in a book that was painfully and obviously discolored by her predominantly classist perspective on the problem of living with low wages.

Near the beginning of Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich boldly states the implicit thesis that mars her work: “I am, of course, very different from the people who normally fill America’s least attractive jobs… (Ehrenreich. 6). In fact she’s too similar to the people who fill ‘America’s least attractive jobs’ for her to see them clearly, honestly and with self-recognized empathy. The world Ms Ehrenreich attempted to infiltrate and report from, from a class-perspective, is too close to the low status she and her family recently escaped for her to view their condition without this implicit and pervasive negative bias. We know this as readers because despite her claim to be ‘different,’ she immediate tells us the opposite. In ‘Getting Ready’ the introduction to Nickel and Dimed Ehrenreich plainly states: “In my own family, the low-wage way of life had never been many degrees of separation away.” (2) Speaking of her natal family she acknowledges that not all of her siblings have faired as well as she has: “My sister had been through one low-paid job after another… constantly struggling against what she calls ‘the hopelessness of being a wage slave.’” (2) Even the man she loves knows wage-based poverty too well: “My husband and companion of seventeen years was a $4.50-an-hour warehouse worker …” (2). Each of these examples clearly identifies her immediate and personal experience of poverty and its debilitating impact of her own life and the lives of her closest relations, and calls into question her ability to be objective.

Reflecting her concerns about her own status, throughout the entire book Ehrenreich touts her laudable educational accomplishments, frequently for no relevant reason. Several pages into the first section of Nickel and Dimed her self-esteem is placed into crisis when she questions how she should answer a simple job query about her educational achievement s. Rather than tell the truth to her would-be employers, she creates a fabrication that conceals her success. She rationalizes this deceit by blaming the potential employer: “…I figured the Ph.D. would be no help at all, might even lead employers to suspect that I was an alcoholic washout or worse.” (5). Thus in Ehrenreich’s world no one can be both educated and poor. If an educated person is poor there has to be some other overriding personal failure such as addiction ‘or worse’ that strips the job applicant of the accolades and remuneration that should be theirs by right.

Ehrenreich’s classist perspective is almost ironic in that her chosen profession, writing, experiences poverty as the typical result. Ehrenreich is an exception in the profession. In example let me quote from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by another author, Sara Faye Leiber, published in the on-line arts magazine Guernica in which Leiber describes a typical interaction between a writer (herself) and a pest-control expert in New York City:
“…he asked me if I worked in the publishing industry, because apparently a lot of people in publishing get bedbugs, partly … because they make less money than people in other professions that they consider to be of their same status…”

Ehrenreich knows this is typical of the writer’s life, yet she fails to acknowledge the contradictory evidence even when she offers examples in her own narrative. At one point she despairs because mentioning her chosen profession failed to elicit excitement or acknowledgement of her elevated status: When filling out a job application: “… asked about hobbies, I said ‘writing’ and she seemed to find nothing strange about this…” (Ehrenrich. 5). Four pages later she notes in the voice of her husband’s uncle that writers are too well represented in the world of impoverished, low-wage earners, without a hint of apology for her previously elucidated classist perspective: “…my second husband … proudly told his uncle, who was a valet parker at that time that I was a writer. The uncle’s response: ‘Who isn’t’?” (9).

Displaying her classist perspective nakedly Ehrenreich descends into unnecessary class-based mockery:’ “he tells me about his glory days as a young man at ‘coronary school’ in Brooklyn… or do you say ‘culinary’?” (21). Combining this elitist perspective with a blatant play for the reader’s pity, the author describes Gail’s horrific, deteriorating, living circumstances which result in the low-paid worker electing to live inside her pickup truck parked behind work. In response Ehrenreich snarks: “With the Hearthside offering benefits like that, how could anyone think of leaving?” (32). These asides of authorial pettiness aren’t necessary for the story she’s telling, but they are telling about her values.

The author’s self-image is most at risk where she’s most likely to be witnessed as a ‘low-wage-earner’ by someone she knows. In the chapter titled ‘Serving in Florida,’ Ehrenreich seeks low-paid work close to her home in Key West, but is mortified at the prospect of being seen and judged by her peers and neighbors: “I am terrorized, especially at the beginning, of being recognized…” she tells us (11). Her fear is not of being confused with but as being identified as an actual ‘low-paid earner,’ so she carefully qualifies her diminished status as only a charade: “…but this is just an experiment, you know, not my real life,” (16). To compensate she indulges in play-acting: “Sometimes I play with the fantasy that I am a princess,” (19). Fifteen pages later, Ehrenreich uses half of a page to remind us in great detail she’s not actually a ‘low-wage earner,’ she’s a bona fide member in good-standing of the striving middle-class, complete with a house payments, fitness club membership dues and credit card bills.(34)

Another issue of class deliberately manifest in Nickel and Dimed is Ehrenreich’s word choices. Throughout the book she carefully chooses words that are far ‘above her pay scale,’ words that even the well-read reader would need to look up. I believe this is the result of a mostly unconscious, manipulative decision the author made to reinforce her sense of status while covering material that left her feeling vulnerable. In the chapter ‘Serving in Florida’ she describes the wait-staff as ‘agape’ (20). On first examination the reader would discover the word means ‘open-mouthed’. A closer look at that word leads the reader to the Christian Eucharist, and agape’s use as a reference to the awe-full, holy and consecrated love feast celebrating The Christ’s body as experienced at the Last Supper — this is hardly the sort of imagery one normally associates with serving as a low-wage waitress in an inexpensive corporate chain diner. In ‘Scrubbing in Maine’ Ehrenreich uses the word ‘soteriological’ while referring to her vacant Alzheimer’s patients. That word references the theological doctrine of salvation as effected by Jesus. In ‘Selling in Minnesota’ the author describes a Wal-Mart manager as the “apotheosis of servant leadership.” “Apotheosis,” a theological term, describes the elevation of a person to the rank of a god, the act of deification.

I believe Ehrenreich uses such words deliberately and both slyly and contemptuously. She doesn’t expect the reader to look to her word choices as a second text to the book. The author has constructed a thicket of esoteric and obscure words she’s slipped into the text to show the sophisticated reader that she is no hack writer, no low-paid toiler in ink’s wretchedness, that she is not like the people she’s working beside.

Condescension and judgment aren’t enough, time and time again throughout the book Ehrenreich focuses on her subject’s trials and tribulations, the horrific circumstances of their condition. She does not allow them to shine with pride at any of the real accomplishments that every human being achieves each and everyday, despite their struggles. In doing so, Ehrenreich strips them of their dignity and individuality. As she tells their stories the reader is left with feelings of pity and dehumanizing distance rather than affection and familiarity. Instead of recognizing their similarities and empathizing with the working poor, Ehrenreich portrays the working poor as a ‘different’ people, not unlike the way people of newly elevated stature view people of different faiths, places of origin, or skin color.

The working poor are different, Ehrenreich tells us and then she shows us. After only working just a few weeks in a low-paying job she finds herself becoming a ‘different’ person. “Something loathsome and servile,” she describes her newfound self. “…in a month or two I might have turned into a different person altogether—say, the kind of person who would have turned George in.”(41). While Ehrenreich blames the work, and suggests she might rise to the occasion (as her father and her husband did), she still leaves the reader with the impression that the average ‘low-wage earner’ wouldn’t have the inner strength to do so. Towards the end of Nickel and Dimed, in the chapter ‘Selling in Minnesota’ ‘Barb’ acknowledges that she has become that lesser person: “…I sense at some level I’m regressing. … So it’s interesting to see how Barb turned out—that she’s meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I hoped.” (169). Recall that at the beginning of the book Ehrenreich insisted: “I made no effort to play a role or fit into some imaginative stereotype…” (7)

The problem isn’t that she’s different from any other working-poor person. The problem is that she fails to understand poverty as an artificial social-construct. Living in a state of relentless, desperate poverty strips most human beings of their self-respect, their empathy, their noble ideals and concern for the welfare of others. Perhaps poverty is carefully designed to this. Whether or not by design, poverty is the ideal condition an aristocratic, class-structured society would use to create a class of the serfs willing to live to serve the regal nobility of the rich.

There is no reason for poverty in this the richest country in the world, especially for people willing to work and work hard. Any of us, all of us, could and are likely to easily slip through the cracks and end up in America’s No Exit of relentless penury and powerlessness. This is the real lesson of Nickel and Dimed, although I’m not sure the author knows it.

This lack of objectivity undermines Ehrenreich’s real, relevant and actionable issues of inadequate wage compensation for a rapidly growing number of Americans. I am currently living next door to a man in his 60s who received his masters in Architecture from Harvard University. He has been out of work for two years now and has gone through all his savings. Recently he took a minimum wage job driving automobiles from one car dealership to the next. He is about to lose his house and frankly, if he doesn’t find work suitable to his abilities and financial needs, he could easily end up with an alcohol problem that wasn’t in evidence for the more than 30 years he had a job that reasonably covered the cost of living here in the Bay Area.

Ms. Ehrenreich’s vanity concerns about the social perception of her current status in this world, and her fears of slipping permanently back into that lower status negate her ability to give her readers a chance to empathize with the everyday humanity of her subjects. She owes it to her subjects and her readers to represent the working poor with the same sort of interest and affection Louis ‘Studs’ Terkel was able to effortlessly express in this masterpiece, Working; People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. Ehrenreich did not craft a dry economic analysis of wages vs. living expenses in the United States during the late 20th Century. She told a personal story where she used real people’s voices, manners and circumstances to fill the voids in her narrative and to invest the reader in the outcome of those people’s struggles. ‘Barb’ might succumb to the nasty, judgmental tone that fills this tome; Barbara Ehrenreich should not.

The issues of Nickel and Dimed are no longer the issues of just the lower classes. Wage stagnation and job losses are now severely impacting the middle and upper middle classes. Class warfare between the bottom and the middle classes only serves to further diminish the power of all but the most elite in our formerly equal and democratic country. Unfortunately Ehrenreich’s inability to surmount her biases interfered with the reader’s opportunity to see her subjects in their best, rather than their worst light. She has prevented her subjects from getting a chance to celebrate their own successes and for us to build on them. There has never been a more relevant time for Ehrenreich’s observations and analysis, minus the pejorative class discolorations.

*Lacayo, Richard, et al. “Down on the Downtrodden.” Time Magazine December 19, 1994. April 19, 2010 . Web.

Works Cited
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001. Print.

Lieber, Sara Faye. “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Guernica/A Magazine of Art & Politics March 2010. April 19, 2010. . Web.

©April 19, 2010 Fred Dodsworth


Blogger antfaber said...

No reason for people to be poor...? What about the fact that people are greedy and people with money have enough power to suppress most attempts to better the lot of poorer people, because such attempts would make them slightly less rich.

10:52 AM  

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