What is this – nevillegirl reviews a nonfiction book?! Does nevillegirl even read nonfiction books? Why yes we do, my precious. There, I’ve channeled Dobby and Gollum in the same paragraph. Dobby refers to himself in the third person.) Anyway, I do indeed read nonfiction books but somehow haven’t reviewed many (any?) here yet. I love good nonfiction; some of my favorite books in that genre were written by Bill Bryson and Joy Hakim.
Barbara Ehrenreich was (and still is, as far as I’m aware) a fairly well-known journalist when she began thinking about the struggles of the very poor – how did they survive, she wondered, on minimum wage? Someone suggested that she should live that way for a while to see if it was possible. So she tried it. Ehrenreich worked as a waitress and hotel maid in Florida, a clean woman and nursing home aide in Maine, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk in Minnesota. Sometimes she got by fairly well, but in other places she put in long hours of hard work for very little money.
I’d read several favorable reviews of this book and knew that my mom and aunt really liked it. However, I was mainly interested in it because I work a minimum-wage job. I wash dishes from eight in the morning until close (anywhere from 3:30 to 4:30) one weekend day a week for a little over seven dollars an hour. It’s a decent job; it’s helping to pay for college. It’s not particularly difficult mentally, but it does require a lot of energy and sometimes a lot of strength to lift the heavy trays of dishes. It keeps me on my feet all day. It’s rather boring because I do the same things over and over. Unlike writing, where I feel like I actually accomplish something, I occasionally feel that this task is useless: the dishes just get dirty once again. As soon as I do my job, people are undoing it and the stacks of plates begin to pile up. All this means that I’m very glad that my job is only one day a week because I don’t think I could handle more than that, at least right now. I have lots of other things to do and besides, it’s hard, dull work.
But what if I had to work this job five, six, or seven days a week, to make just enough to live? Nickel and Dimed was fascinating because it gave me a look at how physically hard and mentally infuriating that would be. As I wrote earlier, Ehrenreich often worked long hours for very little pay – and yet she was not respected for doing so. Instead, she was often regarded as stupid and unhelpful. The well-to-do have the attitude that, “Someone has to do those menial jobs, but it shouldn’t be me!” but then they don’t treat those workers decently either.
However, what interested and angered me more was that some of the owners or companies that Ehrenreich worked for treated their workers extremely poorly. In particular, Wal-Mart refuses to let its workers form unions because that would mean that the workers would demand basic rights. I was very happy to see that some Wal-Mart workers planned to go on strike on Black Friday. They should.
So can someone live on minimum wage? It turns out that they can – but just barely. And there are a lot of ‘buts’ in that answer. They can survive, but they might have to live in dangerous areas because they can actually pay the rent for homes in those neighborhoods. They can survive, but they won’t have enough money to buy healthy food. They can survive, but they will probably never make enough money to get out of their situation; they’ll always be making just enough to get by, but not much more.
I think this is a book that everyone needs to read. It’s Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for our time; it’s modern-day muckracking. If you’ve ever felt irritated because you didn’t get instant gratification while at a restaurant or store, you especially need to read this book. (And that’s pretty much everyone, right?) I know that it’s annoying when a waitress takes forever to bring your food or whatever, but you have to understand that they work very hard for very little money and receive very little respect. We often look at the poor and/or those on welfare as lazy people who need to go to work, but the truth is that a lot of them do work. And yet for all the effort and hours they put in, they still aren’t getting paid enough to reasonably live on.