Near the beginning of Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich refers to poverty as one of her “more familiar themes.” Indeed, she has dealt with the topic in much of her writing, and part of the reason she is such an important voice in American journalism is that precious few commentators devote as much time and energy to illuminating the plight of the nation’s poor. We are a country that has never had much time for society’s bottom crust. This is because America was founded and carved out of the continent on principles of self-reliance; the enduring images of our national psyche are the log cabin, the bootstraps by which one might pull oneself up, the rags giving way to riches, Horatio Alger skipping down streets paved with gold. There is little room in such a vision for those who work hard but do not attain wealth. This is a society of winners and losers, and to the winners go the spoils.
This has always been the case, but the close of the twenty-first century witnessed a particularly glaring showcase of such willful blindness. Booms, in a way, are devastating to the poor, because when money seems to be falling from the sky who wants to be reminded of those still struggling? The Great Depression produced an iconography of poverty, a language of common humanity. A brief glance at the artworks of the period and one sees a genuine concern for those lower rungs, a real feeling for society’s “forgotten men.” It’s there in the books and the songs and the movies and the everyday phrases. Brother, can you lend me a dime? Look at the nineties, and no such luck. Judging from much of that decade’s writing, one would think the poor had simply vanished altogether. It was the age of dot-coms and a surging stock market, of the new self-made man and the gleaming new palaces he might build. It was also, coincidentally or not, the age of welfare reform, through which thousands were kicked off welfare programs established in the sixties and seventies and forced to find employment.
Nickel and Dimed stands today as, if nothing else, a searing indictment of welfare-to-work. It argues, convincingly, that welfare reform stemmed from a fundamental misunderstanding of American poverty—namely, that it is curable by employment. The more complicated truth, Ehrenreich points out, is that many of the nation’s poorest citizens remain poor no matter how hard they work, no matter how many jobs they hold. They sweat and labor and toil, on little sleep, junk food—because it’s cheap—and waning energy, just to keep a roof over their heads. That in turn proves nigh impossible, as rents are pressured upwards by the boom. The result is desperation—an emergency. And all the while, no one in the middle or upper classes seems to bat an eye.
Today, we as a nation seem aware once again of our poor. It’s because of the economic meltdown, and it may constitute a silver lining in the clouds. Of course, the meltdown has proven even more damaging to the already damaged poor than to the once-wealthy, and America is still a long way from the New Deal—let alone the welfare states of contemporary Western Europe. As the recession eventually wanes, however, and as successive booms come and go, Nickel and Dimed and other works of its ilk can serve as reminders of a problem that never seems to go away. (Is that perhaps because we feel we need it? Well, that’s a whole other book.)