Nickel and dimed
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“I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium,” Ehrenreich writes, “that ‘hard work’ was the secret of success: ‘Work hard and you’ll get ahead’ or ‘It’s hard work that got us where we are.’” She lives in the shadow of her father, who successfully climbed his way from the mines to the middle class. Her memories are filled with grade-school admonitions—work, work, work—and a vision of the American Dream—Horatio Alger pulling himself by his own bootstraps and making his way through the world. The reality of the low-wage workplace is a mockery of these notions. Ehrenreich’s fellow low-wage employees work impossibly hard, for little to no reward. Mobility is next to nil; how could it be otherwise, with the costs of transportation and changing jobs and the condescending or else outright demeaning tone of the workplace? The truth is that the old Puritan work ethic does not seem to do much good for the poor. Ehrenreich’s travails put the lie to the stereotype of the lazy poor—“If only they would get jobs!”—and lead her to question her own homegrown instincts. Why do the maids of The Maids move so quickly, she wonders, when they are paid by the hour? Why not stretch the time out? These are not questions borne of laziness, but rather of exhaustion.