Slumming for dollars

A media insider samples how the other half works.


by Barbara Ehrenreich (Metropolitan Books, $23)

TODAY'S INVISIBLE MAN is more likely to be a woman, ringing up your groceries, serving you at IHOP, taking your airline reservation. As Barbara Ehrenreich points out in her powerful and often humorous new book, Nickel and Dimed, the "working poor" do not really register in our vision—they only turn up abstractly in political speeches. While the nation's media machinery has marketed every form of fringe culture to the affluent mainstream, the working poor struggle on in low-wage obscurity, the truest perpetual outsiders.

Ehrenreich sets out to document these lives, not by the journalist's usual "objective" methods but by total immersion. Uprooting herself from her Key West home, this longtime lefty writer for magazines like TIME and Harper's reenters the "unskilled" labor market—first as a waitress, then as a hotel housekeeper, maid, nursing-home aide, and Wal-Mart clerk. In three different parts of the country—Florida, Maine, and Minnesota—she spends a month trying to survive on working-class wages, emulating, to the degree she can, the millions of dislocated women who've been pushed off public assistance by late '90s welfare reform. Her aim, she says, is "straightforward and objective—just to see whether I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day."

The exercise is startlingly difficult to pull off. As she combs through classified ads and bounces from mobile home parks to weekly rate motels, Ehrenreich finds it nearly impossible to secure housing that she can afford on Wal-Mart wages. (And that's with no kids to support.)

However, this checkbook-balancing act is only a small part of Ehrenreich's tale. Nickel and Dimed is less about economic survival than it is about an educated, accomplished professional, accustomed to her "gloriously autonomous" life, confronting the deadening drudgery of down-market America. "The kitchen is a cavern," she writes, describing the anatomy of her new workplace, Jerry's Restaurant, "a stomach leading to the lower intestine that is the garbage and dishwashing area, from which issue bizarre smells combining the edible and the offal: creamy carrion, pizza barf, and that unique and enigmatic Jerry's scent, citrus fart." At one point, she writes, "I get so homesick for the printed word that I obsessively reread the six-page menu."

Idle moments for menu reading are few, however. Wherever she goes, the labor is exhausting and oppressive; breaks are clocked to the minute, employee conversation is barred, and even taking a drink is prohibited. "No fluid or food item can touch a maid's lips when she's inside a house," Ehrenreich reminds herself while wiping a bank of sliding doors in 95-degree heat. The rhetoric of class warfare may be mostly out of fashion among today's intelligentsia, but Ehrenreich has no such qualms: She wonders if the affluent Mrs. W., in whose home the maids are sweating blood, "will ever have occasion to realize that every single doodad and objet through which she expresses her unique, individual self is, from another vantage point, only an obstacle between some thirsty person and a glass of water."

EHRENREICH EXPOSES, perhaps better than anyone before her, the aggressively demeaning impact of "personality" exams and drug tests, monitoring and bullying, training videos and uniforms, all of which seem designed to convince people that their lives don't carry a value greater than seven bucks an hour. This psychological manipulation may partly explain why, as Ehrenreich finds, most of her fellow dead-end jobbers don't seem to resent their lot very much. One maid comments on cleaning rich folks' toilets, "I don't mind, really, because I guess I'm a simple person, and I don't want what they have."

Yet there's another possible reason why these workers aren't outraged by their jobs, and it's a reason Ehrenreich sometimes seems to overlook: The fact is, not everyone aspires to the creative freedom and varied challenges enjoyed by the professional essayist. Some of the people Ehrenreich encounters are trying to take pride in their seemingly dismal jobs, yet their effort typically elicits from her only scorn or impatience. For instance, she finds herself one morning assigned to "the most dutiful and serious" of all the maid teams and notes derisively that their conversation revolves around "baseboards, windowsills, and ceiling fans—never, of course, poverty, racism, or global warming." Surely everyone doing society's dirty work deserves far greater respect and greater pay, but Ehrenreich would have been even more convincing if she'd shown some of these strivers a little more respect herself.

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