Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America Summary and Analysis

"Evaluation"

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Ehrenreich considers how she performed, as though judging a stage-act. “I didn’t do half-bad at the work itself,” she writes, “but my track record in the survival department is far less admirable than my performance as a job-holder.” She concludes that “rent was the deal-breaker”; it was simply too hard to find shelter for prices Ehrenreich could afford on her meager salaries. She is led to conclude that a very simple, but serious, problem exists: rent is too high and pay too low.

The nation’s general increase in prosperity, moreover, is actually hurting the poor. Ehrenreich is writing in a time of relative economic strength (a far cry from today’s environment), and she describes how the rich and poor compete over land or housing; the more rich people there are, the more land they can buy up. Ehrenreich writes, in words that ring with something of an ironic tone today yet in many ways still hold true: “Since the rich have become more numerous, thanks largely to rising stock prices and executive salaries, the poor have necessarily been forced into housing that is more expensive, dilapidated, or more distant from their places of work.” Geography is often a key problem: job growth occurs near the affluent suburbs of a city, where rents are high, with the last remnants of affordable housing relegated to the inner city; the poor must then travel long distances to work, which in turn costs them money. The result is a vicious cycle, often with little to no relief.

Ehrenreich goes on to note that the low-income housing crisis does not seem to affect the official poverty rate. This is because the poverty rate is determined by cost of food, a method Ehrenreich argues is archaic, as food is “relatively inflation-proof”. Even if most of the nation were aware of the housing crisis, it is not at all obvious that the majority would advocate for intervention to solve it; we Americans accept a certain amount of health care help, but housing subsidies and expenditures on public housing seem to have gone out of favor.

Another misleading statistic is the fact that wages rose between 1996 and 1999. Complain to employers and they might just raise their hands and proclaim: “But wages are going up!” What the statistic does not tell you is that, in many cases, the increases have been minimal, and, more important, wages are still not up to 1973 levels. Putting the lie to the notion of socio-economic progress, Ehrenreich writes that “in the first quarter of 2000, the poorest 10 percent of workers were earning only 91 percent of what they earned in the distant era of Watergate and disco music.” Employers now (that is, at the time of the book’s writing, though one could extrapolate to today’s economic conditions) resist wage increases “with every trick they can think of”—hence the culture of patriotism and a common goal at Wal-Mart, the free lunches and discounted shop rates, the “mother’s hours” at The Maids.

So why don’t low-wage employees revolt? Why not demand better wages, or else pack up and leave? Ehrenreich explains that the precept of “economic man” does not quite apply to the poor, as it depends on mobility and education. It is often prohibitively difficult for low-wage workers to move from job to job, due to transportation issues, the cost of going without pay for even a short amount of time, and the complacency that can come with fear of the unknown. Within a given workplace, employers wield a variety of methods to demean their workers into a culture of servitude and obeisance, and to thereby keep them from organizing. There have even been cases reported of employers illegally penalizing workers for sharing their wages with others. All is in the interest of maintaining a docile work-force, but what this kind of culture produces is yet another vicious cycle: management distrusts employees and feels the need for repressive measures, but those measures cost money, therefore requiring the wages to stay low.

Whatever the fundamental cause, many Americans are earning far less than they need to live. Thus, the problem is not so much unemployment—welfare reform, for example, has resulted in far more people being employed—but the fact that full employment alone cannot keep a person or family from dire poverty. To acknowledge this fact is to concede that welfare reform “may have been, in human terms, a catastrophic mistake”—something which neither political party seems willing to do, as both Republicans and Democrats endorsed the reforms. This leaves the poor to essentially fend for themselves—while other civilized countries provide social safety nets in the forms of housing, child care, public transportation, and health care.

“‘I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that ‘hard work’ was the secret of success,” Ehrenreich writes. “No one ever said that you could work hard—harder even than you ever thought possible—and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt.” What then can we call those low-wage workers who work and work, give and give, for little reward, so that those better off than they can reap the benefits? They are, Ehrenreich writes, “the major philanthropists of our society.”

Analysis:

In “Evaluation”, Ehrenreich spells out what could be considered the fundamental thesis of her book: “Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.”

In those two sentences, Ehrenreich sums up the book’s stance and puts a cap on her journalistic endeavor. She was out to reach a conclusion (one she probably already entertained prior to diving in), and here it is. Interestingly, Ehrenreich offers her conclusion not as a climax or coda to the actual narrative, but as a sort of analytic postscript. In other words, she—as author, character, actor, persona—must remove herself from the narrative she has constructed in order to reflect on it, to draw meaning from it. Thus, what we have here is akin to a writer’s rumination on his or her own work, a self-portrait and self-analysis. The social imperative cannot be separated from the problem of literary form such auto-critique poses.

At the same time, after its opening passages, “Evaluation” goes further than any other part of the book in separating Ehrenreich herself from the equation. One can trace a shift in narrative perspective from first-person participant and protagonist to essayist, muckraker, and rhetorician. It is in a sense the shift from story to message. Ehrenreich, building upon the array of experiences and incidents detailed in earlier pages, now presents a unified diatribe, an excoriation of the shortcomings of the American economy, an exposé of the limits of our supposedly superior democracy when it comes to caring for the poor.

Where previously she may have subsumed her personal feelings into her role-playing, the ongoing theater I have already described, here Ehrenreich spares no ammunition, especially against what she perceives as the tyranny of the low-wage workplace. It’s the writer as politician and preacher, and her language is full of rhetorical flourish, combining specific images with sweeping proclamations. Consider the following passage: “When you enter the low-wage workplace—and many of the medium-wage workplaces as well—you check your civil liberties at the door, leave America and all it supposedly stands for behind, and learn to zip your lips for the duration of the shift.” One could note the alliteration of the final clause (“zip” and “lips”), coupled with the third near-rhyme at the end (“shift”); the figurative imagery of doors and a space apart from America; and the energizing effect of using the second-person. The point is that, in these final pages, Ehrenreich has forsaken the mandates of dispassionate observation; she lets her emotions hang out here, and the result is powerful and stirring—in part because those emotions have been allowed to simmer and build up during the course of the two hundred preceding pages.

Ehrenreich thus joins the ranks of Sinclair, Hugo, as well as Zola and a few other turn-of-the-century naturalists, with her move from discrete narrative flow—the graphic hiding its grapheme—to in-your-face, second-person sermon. Comparing her prose to such predecessors is not out of place. Rather, Ehrenreich seeks to associate the plight of her contemporaries with the much-ballyhooed problems of yore; her chief enemy is complacency, bred by a falsely earned sense of social progress. The point is that we are not so better off today than we were in the days of the muckrakers or of Zola and Dickens; at least, that is, the poor are not. We may be accustomed to thinking of today’s poverty as more a nuisance than the kind of crisis Dickens described in his works. Ehrenreich thinks otherwise. “[This] is how we should see the poverty of so many millions of low-wage Americans,” she writes, in a sense distilling her book into a single passionate entreaty—“as a state of emergency.”