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Book Review

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

by Barbara Ehrenreich


Reviewed by: Marsha Alexander, Environmental Design Specialist, University of Missouri Extension; Adjunct Assistant Professor, Environmental Design, University of Missouri Extension

Currently in the United States, millions of working families do not have wages high enough to meet their basic needs. Consequently these family units suffer tremendous hardships. The Welfare Reform Bill of 1996 required poor families to move from a cash assistance program to one that has a time limit for assistance and requires employment. Researchers around the country have begun to question the concept that work alone is the answer to poverty. How much does a household unit need to earn to make ends meet and what other support is needed? In researching the basis for her most recent book, Barbara Ehrenreich became a low wage earner to learn first-hand the strategies to survive on minimum wage. She vividly describes with persistence and humor how difficult it is to survive on the wages of our lowest paid wage earners. Her book examines the sobering realities many American workers routinely face just trying to earn a living.

Ehrenreich had the advantages of a graduate degree, private health insurance and good health, a car, and money for her first month's rent. Yet she had to work two jobs to cover her meager existence. The author spent about three months in 1999 and 2000 in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota working as a cleaning woman, waitress, nursing-home aide, and Wal-mart associate. Housing, transportation, nutrition, health care, nutrition, clothing, and psychological well-being were all issues she faced routinely throughout her journey.

The author had only herself to manage. Consider just how difficult her circumstances would have been with children or an aged parent or a disabled family member to support? These are the circumstances millions of our working poor are facing daily. Thousands of people are entering or re-entering the work force each month as low wage earners due to welfare reform, divorce, previous job loss, and more. How can we expect people who don't have the conceptual knowledge or skills to make it when someone with the advantages of this author could not? As an extension educator, when reading this book, I found myself saying these people need our resources! However, minimum wage earners are just trying to make it to the next paycheck and accessing our educational resources are generally not on their radar screens. Often, as Ehrenreich found, working two jobs was the only way to support herself on minimum wage. That left little time or energy for anything but sleeping and working.

This book is written in such a way that you can hardly put it down, as it is funny, provocative and so very telling about our current underside of capitalism. Hard work as an employee may not be the only solution to poverty. As Ehrenreich's experiences clearly exemplify, a support system that includes affordable housing, health care, childcare, and basic food needs is essential to providing working families the aid their employment does not.





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Last update: Tuesday, May 05, 2009