Domestic Spy

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 221 pages, $23.00.

Women's work in America can be an ugly
business--hard, repetitive labor,
usually for low wages and male bosses. There is the pink-collar ghetto of retail
and office jobs, and then there is worse: employment in sweatshops and fast-food
restaurants and domestic service. For uneducated women, for women without
choices who are leaving welfare or leaving home, this is often what work entails.

Recently the "living wage" movement has been addressing the economic issue,
pressing successfully for wages of $9 an hour or more in cities such as
Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. This surge in concern for the working
poor makes Barbara Ehrenreich's latest book, Nickel and Dimed, particularly
salient, even if it is sometimes a bit too much about Ehrenreich herself.

Nickel and Dimed owes its origins to a lunch with Harper's editor
Lewis Lapham. Thinking about the prospect of drastic changes in welfare rules,
Ehrenreich and Lapham wondered what sort of world women would be entering when
kicked off the dole. Jason DeParle has since covered this territory for The
New York Times,
producing finely etched portraits of women in transition from
welfare (and addiction and abuse and poverty) to work (and more poverty). Ken
Loach's current feature film Bread and Roses offers a fictionalized account
of the union struggles of Los Angeles's janitors, many of them immigrant women.
In her article for Harper's and the subsequent book, Ehrenreich takes a
different tack. Instead of interviewing working women or using them as the
starting point for a labor drama, she tries, in effect, to become one of
them--even if the transformation can never be more than temporary or incomplete.

As it happens, Ehrenreich is not too far removed from her own blue-collar
roots. Her father had been a copper miner, her husband a warehouse worker, and
her sister a low-wage employee in a series of dead-end jobs. This makes the whole
enterprise more psychologically risky, even though the author sets reassuring
limits: She will always have a car; she will never go homeless or hungry. Vowing
to take the best "unskilled" job and cheapest safe housing she can find,
Ehrenreich sets off on a picaresque journey through the world of residential
motels, budget-hotel restaurants, and rich women's kitchens.

The Ehrenreich model is not quite muckraking or social observation, though it
contains elements of both. Instead, Ehrenreich, trained as a biologist, convinces
herself that she will conduct her research "in the spirit of science." Such an
undertaking might well seem superfluous. After all, to determine whether market
rents can be paid out of rock-bottom wages hardly requires three months of
backbreaking labor; it's a mathematical calculation. Ehrenreich admits as much,
but says she wonders whether she can find stratagems to make the money stretch
further. What she uncovers instead is her own indignation on behalf of this
particular American underclass. "Janitors, cleaning ladies, ditchdiggers,
changers of adult diapers--these are the untouchables of a supposedly caste-free
and democratic society," she writes.

For her experiment, Ehrenreich selects three locales: Key West, Florida;
Portland, Maine; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. She presumably uses her own name
(though she changes many others in the book, to protect both the guilty and the
innocent). But she invents a résumé: She becomes a displaced
homemaker with just three years of college. Even at that, she is overqualified
for every job she holds, though, interestingly, no one ever tells her so. In
fact, when she "comes out" as a writer to selected co-workers before each
leave-taking, no one is particularly shocked or impressed. Her favorite response
is: "Does this mean you're not going to be back on the evening shift next week?"
Her conclusion is that her charade has been a success, making her observations
all the more trustworthy. But the obliviousness of her erstwhile colleagues also
signals their cultural isolation, a noteworthy phenomenon in itself.

Ehrenreich begins in Key West, near her real home. She works as a server,
successively, in two different hotel restaurants, making an hourly pittance plus
tips, and briefly adds on a hotel housekeeping job. Her first rental is a "sweet
little place" for $500 a month, but it is 30 miles away from town, a killer
commute. Eventually, she moves closer in, to a desolate trailer park. Her fellow
waitresses in this tourist mecca also struggle with housing, pairing up with
roommates, living in cars, or paying expensive day rates at nearby motels because
they have neither transportation nor a security deposit. "There are no secret
economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special
costs," Ehrenreich discovers, from out-of-pocket medical expenses to fast food
for the kitchenless.

Even as a waitress, Ehrenreich cannot escape Ehrenreich. She finds that it's
not good enough to be minimally competent. Her lifelong habit of perfectionism
haunts her. One night, she awakens prematurely, in a cold sweat, anxious over a
bungled order. Proud and perhaps conscious of her working-class background, she
bridles at every management slight; one of the book's themes is how poorly the
poorly paid are treated by their immediate superiors. She is befriended by a
waitress, and befriends a dishwasher in turn. Finally, out of exhaustion and
disgust, she simply walks out, feeling not vindication but failure. The actress
has merged with her role.

Then it's on to Portland, with Ehrenreich toting her indispensable laptop
to an apartment motel. "I chose Maine for its whiteness," to ease her
infiltration of the low-wage workforce, she says. There she navigates a barrage
of psychological tests, apparently designed to catch potential thieves, and takes
on two more jobs: one as a $6.65-an-hour maid for a cleaning service and another
as a dietary aide in a nursing home. Ehrenreich's stint as a maid elicits some of
her most passionate writing. At one point, she takes offense at a lavish house
filled with "neoconservative encomiums to the status quo" and considers "using
germ warfare against the owners, the weapons for which are within my apron
pockets." When one of her fellow maids falls and hurts herself but refuses to go
to a hospital emergency room, Ehrenreich writes: "It's not easy focusing on throw
rugs when all I can see is this grass fire raging in the back of my eyes,
white-hot and devouring house after house as it burns."

Ehrenreich's weekend job as an aide isn't much better, and the
seven-day-a-week regimen is brutal. "If you hump away at menial jobs 360-plus
days a year, does some kind of repetitive injury of the spirit set in?"
Ehrenreich asks. "I don't know and I don't intend to find out, but I can guess
that one of the symptoms is a bad case of tunnel vision. Work fills the
landscape; coworkers swell to the size of family members or serious foes. Slights
loom large, and a reprimand can reverberate into the night." But can she be sure?
Most of the women Ehrenreich meets do have lives outside of work--social
networks that provide some nurturing and financial support, as well as children
who absorb their energies.

When Ehrenreich flies to Minneapolis, she hopes a tight labor market and
reasonable rents will make for a "soft landing." With the help of
over-the-counter detoxifying drugs (she's been indulging in a little pot on the
side), she passes a drug test. She also finds a very dirty, scary place to live,
a residential motel with "thin little towels, which, even when clean, contain
embedded hairs and smell like cooking grease." She turns down an 11-hour-a-day
job at a housewares store that may pay as much as $10 an hour--a bad decision,
she later concludes--and winds up as a retail clerk at Wal-Mart, endlessly
redistributing clothes from shoppers' carts. Aghast at the paternalistic regime
and rigid work rules, she fantasizes about organizing a union. Meanwhile, at $7
an hour, she can't locate affordable housing and ends up burning through her
money at a Comfort Inn.

In the end, what has she accomplished? It's no shock that the dollars don't
add up; that affordable housing is hard, if not impossible, to find; and that
taking a second job is a virtual necessity for many of the working poor.
Ehrenreich is too busy scrubbing floors to give us more than a passing glimpse of
the people in that world. Nor can she really transform herself into just another
waitress or maid. She is both a prickly, self-confident woman and the possessor
of a righteous, ideologically informed outrage at America's class system that can
turn patronizing at times.

Still, Nickel and Dimed is a compelling and timely book whose insights
sometimes do transcend the obvious. It's important to know, for instance, that
low-wage workers, while often taking pride in their jobs, are routinely subjected
to an authoritarian regime that ranges from demeaning drug tests to bans on
"gossip" with other employees. The result, Ehrenreich argues, is "not just an
economy but a culture of extreme inequality." And our most appropriate response,
as members of the well-meaning middle-class? Not guilt, she tells us, but shame,
for relying on the underpaid labor of others--a habit the living-wage movement is
now trying to help us break.