When Barbara Ehrenreich set out to write the book that would become Nickel and Dimed, her stated goal was pretty straightforward: to see if she could pay for rent, food, and other bills as a low-wage worker. As Barbara came to learn, and explains throughout her book, such a goal is far from simple. Barbara reveals the complications that arise from trying to survive on a minimum-age job—complications often hidden to those who aren’t working as low-wage workers—to make the case that such labor is ultimately unsustainable. One major economic lesson from this experiment is how wildly inefficient living and working in poverty can become. Without savings, Barbara cannot afford the deposit for an apartment, and so ends up having to pay far more for a motel room—a situation that, she learns, is far from uncommon. Without a full kitchen, she cannot cook and freeze large quantities of food, and so ends up having to eat both more expensively and very unhealthily at fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. Even organizations meant to assist low-wage workers only complicate things even more: food banks are often only open 9-5, when most people are at work, and the food they offer is similarly made up of unhealthy, empty calories.
Without savings to rely on, and often without financial help from parents or other family members, low-wage workers are in a constant state of emergency. One illness or other unforeseen event can mean that they are immediately facing destitution. It doesn’t help that companies often withhold the first week’s payment, which means both that a low-wage worker will be desperate even while working, and that changing jobs is far less easy or attractive than one might assume. In addition to drawing on these examples, Barbara constantly refers to prices, costs, and calculations in her own experiment. Work is not a way out of poverty, she argues, but rather a physically and emotionally damaging state in which the economic laws of supply and demand often simply don’t apply. She thus seeks to prove that low-wage workers are forced to fight an uphill, or even impossible, battle: that their problems stem not from individual weaknesses or laziness but from entrenched structural issues that make working your way out of poverty excruciatingly difficult.
The Economics of Poverty ThemeTracker
The Economics of Poverty Quotes in Nickel and Dimed
So this is not a story of some death-defying “undercover” adventure. Almost anyone could do what I did—look for jobs, work those jobs, try to make ends meet. In fact, millions of Americans do it every day, and with a lot less fanfare and dithering.
There are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs.
How poor are they, my coworkers? The fact that anyone is working this job at all can be taken as prima facie evidence of some kind of desperation or at least a history of mistakes and disappointments […] Almost everyone is embedded in extended families or families artificially extended with housemates. People talk about visiting grandparents in the hospital or sending birthday cards to a niece’s husband; single mothers live with their own mothers or share apartments with a coworker or boyfriend.
“I don’t mind, really, because I guess I’m a simple person, and I don’t want what they have. I mean, it’s nothing to me. But what I would like is to be able tot ake a day off now and then…if I had to…and still be able to buy groceries the next day.”
Today [Melissa] seems embarrassed when she sees me: “I probably shouldn’t have done this and you’re going to think it’s really silly…” but she’s brought me a sandwich for lunch. This is because I’d told her I was living in a motel almost entirely on fast food, and she felt sorry for me. Now I’m embarrassed, and beyond that overwhelmed to discover a covert stream of generosity running counter to the dominant corporate miserliness.
But now I know something else. In orientation, we learned that the store’s success depends entirely on us, the associate; in fact, our bright blue vests bear the statement “At Wal-Mart, our people make the difference.” Underneath those vests, though, there are real-life charity cases, maybe even shelter dwellers.
Alyssa looks crushed, and I tell her, when Howard’s out of sight, that there’s something wrong when you’re not paid enough to buy a Wal-Mart shirt, a clearanced Wal-Mart shirt with a stain on it.
Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.
The money taboo is one thing that employers can always count on. I suspect that this “taboo” operates most effectively among the lowest-paid people, because, in a society that endlessly celebrates its dot-com billionaires and centimillionaire athletes, $7 or even $10 an hour can feel like a mark of innate inferiority.
These experiences are not part of a sustainable lifestyle, even a lifestyle of chronic deprivation and relentless low-level punishment. They are, by almost any standard of subsistence, emergency situations. And that is how we should see the poverty of so many millions of low-wage Americans—as a state of emergency.