“Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America,” by Barbara Ehrenreich

During 1998-2000, author Barbara Ehrenreich went undercover as low-wage, unskilled laborer in three different types of jobs. She wanted to experience first-hand just how difficult it is to support oneself as a low-wage laborer.

She spent one month working as waitress, one month as a house cleaner, and one month as a Walmart employee. She detailed her experiences in an excellent book, “Nickel and Dimed.”

In the restaurant in which she waited tables, she met full-time workers who were homeless. During the warmer months, a waitress that Ehrenreich worked with lived in her car. As winter approached, she would rent a room in a cheap motel. The hostess was also homeless, and the waitress would allow the hostess to shower in her motel room.

Ehrenreich asked the obvious question from a middle class perspective: why not rent an apartment instead of a hotel room? Because a landlord requires first month’s rent, last month’s rent, and a deposit. It was impossible to save up that much money without starving.

Of her three separate months working undercover jobs, Ehrenreich was about to become homeless as a Walmart employee.

Remember that the economy from 1998-2000 was much better than it is today in 2013. If it was that difficult to survive on full-time, low wages back then, it must be impossible today. During Ehrenreich’s time undercover, she met and worked with many women who, in addition to working full-time, relied upon family for housing and help with childcare. Some families shared living space with other families, and divided up the shopping and cooking. If it was that bad then, it does give one pause to think about how bad it must be today.

The latest edition of “Nickel and Dimed” was printed in 2008, and includes a new afterword by Ehrenreich. This book is a must-read for anybody who is interested in labor advocacy and fighting poverty.

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