Nickel and Dimed

9780312626686_p0_v2_s260x420Banned books week is officially celebrated in September, from 22 – 28.  Around that time I saw some great displays at the library and at Barnes and Noble.  Of course I browsed, and found that I had read a few them already.  One book I had recently read I was surprised to find was banned or challenged in a couple locations in 2003, 2010 and 2011.  Writer, journalist, and activist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote Nicked and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America in 1998, and even 15 years later this book is still making waves.

Before taking on this project, Ehrenreich had been an experienced journalist.  In research for the book, she went undercover, working several minimum or low wage jobs in a couple of different spots around the country.  She does this bravely, without the help of friends, contacts, her degree, work experience, or health insurance.  Some of the jobs she took on during this year-long experiment include waitressing, housekeeping, and being a Wal-Mart sales associate.  What she discovers while working some of these jobs full-time is that she could barely survive, often having to get a second job just to be able to house, feed, and clothe herself.  She makes a strong argument for a living wage – even back in 1998.  What she’s suggesting is not that radical, and even though I was a strong believer in this ideology before reading the book, I’m only more firm in that belief now.

It’s no wonder that some may feel threatened by what she reveals in this book.  It’s not exactly celebrating or promoting capitalism.  Sure, minimum wage may be perfect for young people just starting out, with little experience or education, searching for their first jobs.  What about adults who are possibly supporting families on these paltry salaries?  It’s almost impossible.  Her sharpest criticism of the American capitlist system comes at the end of the book, where she evaluates her experience as a low-wage worker:

“When someone works for less pay than she can live on – when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently – then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life.  The ‘working poor,’ as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society.  They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high.  To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.” – 221

The introduction of the book includes some interesting statistics about minimum wage, and what a living wage was considered then.  It would be nice to see some of this updated, especially in today’s tough economic climate.  Those who may have voted to have t his book banned may consider it to be an argument for socialism, and that may have some validity.  Instead of choosing one side of the living wage issue or the other, how about a reevaluation of our minimum wage or living wage as a compromise?


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