A Year of Living Dangerously

Definitional books come around about once a decade. Such books so describe the reality of the age in simple terms that the impact is felt from after-dinner conversations to federal policy discussions. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America will likely join this pantheon.

Ehrenreich, a masterful journalist, tells her own story and the stories of the people she met on her journey to find out how people in the service sector are able to survive when income doesn’t match expenses. Challenged by a magazine editor to investigate her wonderings on this topic, she "went undercover." The result is a very readable description of life’s reality for those often invisible—the housekeepers and fast-food clerks (often the same person)—who are "(not) getting by in America."

Ehrenreich chose three U.S. cities for her investigation—Key West, Florida; Portland, Maine; and Minneapolis. In each city, she applied for jobs and apartments using her own name, but not her doctorate degree or writing vitae. She simply said she was a homemaker re-entering the job market.

In each city Ehrenreich found work—several jobs, actually, since that’s what was required to pay for housing. She discovered that the economy functions differently in the bottom quintiles than in the professional class with which she is more familiar. In several of her jobs, the workplace "held" the first paycheck in order to ensure that she would give notice before quitting. But if the first paycheck is withheld, it is difficult to pay the required deposit and first month’s rent required in most low-rent situations. This double bind—needing more money up front and having money earned tied up in other places—is not uncommon in low-wage culture.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2002
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