Nickel And Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, by Barbara Ehrenreich
I only read this book because it was the CASA book of the month selection , and there is little enjoyment I could take out of this book on any level. My lack of enjoyment with the book’s material springs from two different problems I have with the book. The first is with the author’s strident tone, with her feminism and Marxism and all of the radical leftism that I find so difficult to appreciate in any sort of reading material but which finds itself frequently on my reading list despite my great distaste of it. The second area of immense dislike I have for the book is with the fact that the author is unfortunately quite right that people cannot make it on their own on minimum wage jobs, and that even with better salaries making it is a difficult matter in our contemporary society, as much as it pains some of us to admit. As much as I wish it would be otherwise, I can entirely relate to and understand the author’s concerns and editor-imposed struggles, even as I despise her worldview and approach.
The book takes a mocumentary sort of approach of the kind found in Michael Moore movies. The author was challenged by her editor to attempt to live the life of an unskilled laborer, and she chose to do three different sorts of work in three different states: serving as a waitress in Key West, as a maid/caregiver in Maine, and as a Wal-Mart associate in the Twin Cities. In all cases she did her best to live within her income and see what sort of life could be lived by those who worked in the sort of McJobs available in the late 90’s in the service economy. Afterwards she gives a reasonably fair if very fierce evaluation of how she did, and more to the point, the implications of that, and manages to defend low-wage workers from the sort of abuse they get from others. She finds herself to be a somewhat average low-wage worker and finds the general context of employment and housing to be highly unreasonable, something that I have found myself, given that many workers and their concerns and dignity and well-being are largely invisible to the political and economic elites of our country.
Thus far the author and I are agreed, as much as it pains me to admit it. The real question is what can be done about it. We all know that housing is too expensive and that wages are far more inelastic than prices are, with disastrous consequences for the well-being of people like myself. But where is housing to be built when the wealthy can bid up any land beyond that which can be turned into affordable housing, when only trailer parks and tiny houses are on the mind of city zoning officials , and where the public coffers are empty. If cities will not zone for affordability and no one can be found to build affordable housing, there is not much that can be done by the poor people themselves, since government is not going to stand in the gap. The same can be said for any other areas. If we do not believe that morality can be enforced by law when it comes to private personal conduct, then it is inconsistent and unreasonable to demand that social morality be enforced on businesses in order to treat people with dignity and honor. The author has her heart in the right place, and her sense of justice is well-formed, but it is a shame her politics and religious beliefs are such a mess.
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