Wednesday, August 15, 2012

"Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich

I was excited for this book club book, to move away from a novel and into an investigative-journalism piece.    I have no idea who the author is; apparently she's written a NYT's Best Seller or two and she writes for several big magazines, such as Time.

I'm not a politically minded person.  Nor do I understand economics well.  This book was published just after I finished high school, so I know at that time in my life I was only really aware of surviving my first semesters at college and sustaining my dating life.  I have a slightly better grasp of economic stability since being a mom and home-owner, but really for me all I need to know is how to make my husband's paychecks stretch over the span of the month.  But Ehrenreich got a better glimpse into American economics when she abandoned her affluent writer's lifestyle and chose to work minimum wage at three different jobs in three different cities, trying to survive and find housing for a month, trying to keep her head above water.  Her first stint was at a few restaurants and hotel service in Key West, Florida; then she joined The Merry Maids and volunteered at an Alzheimer's center in Portland, Maine; she wraps up her experiment in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, working at Walmart.

I am a stay-at-home mother with four children; my husband works two jobs.  We both have bachelor's degrees.  We have a mortgage.  Money always seems to be a playmate in a game of tag; sometimes we feel sufficient but often we feel like we're chasing our goals instead of realizing them.  But Barbara reveals a lifestyle that's entirely foreign to me.  I mean, sometimes we're short on money but I've never once doubted having food to eat and a home and changes of clothes and gasoline for our vehicles.  Even if my husband suddenly became unemployed tomorrow, I know we have family who would let us stay with them and share their own resources until we got back on track.  This book opened a new perspective to me, and it's disturbing to think there's so much more of this than I see in my cushy little middle-class suburb.  It's one of the problems America likes to ignore.

These are eye-opening anecdotes and should be read and considered, not ignored.  I wish the author would have dismissed the use of occasional obscene language and chosen more intelligent words, but in a way, her choice of low language reflects the lifestyles she depicts.  For the serious topic it's a quick read, and it's already changed the way I interact with service workers I encounter at the check-out when I buy groceries or ask a Walmart associate where I can find masking tape.

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