August 13, 2002
Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed"
Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed and the Working Poor
J. Bradford DeLong
I have loved all of Barbara Ehrenreich's previous books. Even when I disagreed--and I often did--I admired the argument, enjoyed the process of reading, and learned a lot from every page.
But this book was different. When I finished this book, I looked at it with a certain sense of what I can only call... loathing...
I did not dislike this book because of its underlying project. Writing up for the rich the results of an upper-class essayist's anthropological mission to see how the other half live is worthwhile. It is part of the task of afflicting the comfortable which needs to be carried out much more strongly if we are ever to have a better society. The point of Ehrenreich's rapiers of intellect, art, and wit are as sharp as ever when she points out that even so-called "unskilled" work--perhaps especially so-called "unskilled" work--is demanding and challenging: the memory skills required of a waitress, the physical labor of a house cleaner with a vacuum on her back, and the patience of a Wal-Mart "zoner" hanging up the same blouse for the ninth time all push human capacities close to their limits--and for truly lousy pay.
How lousy is the pay? Consider "Alyssa... [who] had come by... to inquire about a polo shirt that had been clearanced at $7. Was there any chance it might fall still further?" When you make $7 an hour at Wal-Mart, it matters whether an extra 10% is going to be taken off the price of the $7 shirt.
I did not dislike this book because how it reminded her upper-class readers that every job is worth doing well, and that people who do it well deserve respect: "...when I wake up at 4 A.M. in my own cold sweat, I am... thinking of the table where I screwed up the order and one of the kids didn't get his kiddie meal until the rest of the family had moved on to their Key lime pies.... I want them to have the closest to a 'fine dining' experience that the grubby circumstances will allow. No 'you guys' for me; everyone over twelve is 'sir' or 'ma'am'. I ply them with iced tea and coffee refills; I return, midmeal, to inquire how everything is; I doll up their salads with chopped raw mushrooms, summer squash slices, or whatever bits of produce I can find that have survived their sojurn in the cold storage room mold-free." That is something that her upper-class readers need to hear more often.
I did not dislike this book because of its introspection and navel-gazing. That was useful: to know that this upper-class essayist was shaken by how cruel she became toward the end of a long shift: "This is not me, at least not any version of me I'd like to spend much time with, just as my tiny coworker is probably not usually a bitch. She's someone who works all night and naps during the day when her baby does.... 'Barb', the name on my ID tag... [t]ake away the career and the higher education... and[its] more than a little disturbing, to see... Barb... she's meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I'd hoped."
I did not dislike this book because Ehrenreich itemized the tricks of the bosses: how they get their low-paid employees to value and work for praise, the mendacious anti-union videos of Wal-Mart that leave one wondering "why such fiends as these union organizers, such outright extortionists, are allowed to roam free in the land", and the sleight-of-hand at the moment of employment itself, when "first you are an applicant, then suddenly you are an orientee.... There's no intermediate point in the process in which you confront the potential employer as a free agent, entitled to cut her own deal..." Ehrenreich's insights are sharp as she itemizes the tricks that the bosses use to keep workers from exercising their bargaining power.
I did not mind that too much of the book was not about the experience of the working poor, but the experience of someone trying to find a cheap apartment on short notice (something that is always hard to do) while she cleanses her system of various chemical substances: "If I could just surrender to my increasingly aqueous condition and wait out the weekend with a novel, things would be looking up. But... [the bird] wants to be out of his cage... squawking... pacing dementedly... sit on my head... worry my hair and my glasses frames.... [I am] a cringing figure, glasses peering out the porthole of her sweatshirt, topped by a large, crested--and, I can only imagine, quite pleased with its dominant position--exotic white bird. But I cannot incarcerate him... It's... my way of earning my shelter, to be this creature's friend and surrogate flock." The peculiarities of her particular situation make up some of the best, or at least the funniest, parts of the book.
I did not even--well, not much--mind the failure to do the economics of the situations she found herself in. An independent house cleaner in Portland, Maine makes "up to $15 an hour." The Maids charges its customers $25 an hour. The Maids pays its workers $6.65 an hour. And the owner of the franchise is comfortable, but not rich--he doesn't earn the $25,000 a year per employee that simple subtraction would suggest. So where in this business are the other costs? What sustains the enormous price gaps between what The Maids charges, what those who employ independent cleaners pay, and what The Maids pays?
I do feel a certain degree of pity for Economic Policy Institute economist Larry Mishel, faced with a Barbara Ehrenreich convinced that the reason wages haven't risen in the 1990s is that "employers resist wage increases with every trick they can think of and every ounce of strength they can summon..." He tried to explain to her that employers in 1990 did the same: employer resistance can account for the level of wages, but it is hard to see how--unless you think employers have grown meaner over the past decade--it accounts for slow rates of change.
The working poor are poorly paid and their wages are stagnating not because bosses are mean (although many are: the Wal-Mart boss who told Alyssa that she could not apply her employee discount to the $7 clearance polo shirt in a simple exercise of malevolent herrschaft comes to mind). They are poorly paid because our technology has dropped demand for low-education labor at the same time that our educational system has failed to upgrade the formal educational skills of our workforce. An earlier generation of leftists would have talked about how bosses are bearers of socioeconomic forces, which they cannot contravene or they will go bankrupt. As inadequate as many of its analyses were, at least it was looking in the right place.
I did not even loathe the book because of the strong pains Barbara Ehrenreich took to demonstrate that *she* was not one of *them*. The talk of the $30 lunch at understated French country-style restaurants, where she ate salmon and field greens while wondering aloud how people can possibly make it on $6 or $7 an hour; the dismissal of beautiful Old Orchard Beach as a "rinky dink blue-collar resort" (not the kind of place *she* would go to in her real life)--these grated as I read them.
Why, then, did I look at this book after I finished it like I might look at a dangerous insect? Because of its politics--or, rather, its antipolitics. In this book the government does not appear (save in footnotes discussing the lack of enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act). Yet if you look at the things that make the lives of America's working poor better, the actions of government have to rank high on the list. The government sets and enforces (imperfectly) the minimum wage; contrary to what you would believe if you read only the footnotes, the Fair Labor Standards Act does change the way America's workplaces function; for those with kids, the Earned Income Tax Credit provides low-wage workers with kids with a wage boost of forty cents on the dollar for each of their first fifteen hundred hours of work (if they file an income tax return with the IRS and claim it--a big if); what inadequate health care the working poor receive is paid for by the government; and if we are ever going to change the supply-demand balance of the American economy and significantly close the income gaps between working rich and working poor, publicly-funded education must play the major role.
Yet all these are invisible to Barbara Ehrenreich
Because all these are invisible to the Barbara Ehrenreich (see "When Government Gets Mean: Confessions of a Recovering Statist, _The Nation_ (November 17, 1997)), she can write that it is time for America's left to ditch the government. She believes that it is time to stop supporting it, to stop defending it, to stop arguing that what the government does is by and large good, to "...no longer let progressivism be understood as the defense of government." Why? Because "[b]y setting ourselves up as the defenders of... 'big government'... progressives have boxed themselves into a pragmatically and morally untenable position." To Ehrenreich, American government today is made up of "petty-minded bureaucracies like the I.R.S. and the D.M.V." when it is not made up of cops violating people's civil rights.
So from her point of view, the right thing to do is not to care about electing representatives who will vote for expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit and increases in the minimum wage, but to focus attention of "alternative services": "...squats, cooperatives of various kinds, community currency projects... [a cultural core] offering information, contacts, referrals and a place for people to gather."
And from her point of view a Democratic victory in the 2000 election would have been something to fear, because of its "almost certainly debilitating effect on progressives and their organizations" (see "Vote for Nader," _The Nation_ (August 21/28, 2000)). Never mind that a Democratic Labor Secretary would place a higher priority on enforcing labor laws in a worker-friendly manner, never mind that under a Democratic president the NLRB is more union-friendly, never mind that a Democratic congress would pass and a Democratic president sign minimum wage increases that did not come with enough riders to make their overall benefit questionable, and never mind that under Democratic congresses and presidents the tax code becomes more progressive. None of these are on Ehrenreich's radar screen.
Why not? I don't know. She's smart. She's an extremely skilled observer. She's witty and writes extremely well. The economists of the Economic Policy Institute had their chance to brief her.
Yet it seems as though none of it took...
A passage from an article taken from the book...
Posted by DeLong at August 13, 2002 02:25 AM
Mr De Long,
Can you please explain to me why you equate wealth with happiness - or I should say, that money and happiness are directly related?
Your description of her opinions on the government has a whiff of that "forget politics, let's withdraw to our own little conclaves" sentiment that James Dobson and the like expressed after impeachment failed. Depressing, really.
Her opinions sound like that, not yours, to clarify. Doh.
>>Can you please explain to me why you equate wealth with happiness - or I should say, that money and happiness are directly related?<<
If your money and your happiness are not related, then please send me all your money. It will make me happier, and it will not make you less happy.
I think you're off target on this one. You wanted Ehrenreich to write a different book -- a book of analysis, not a book of experiences. Because Nickel and Dimed is a description of her experiences, and because the government programs you mention are part of the background to those experiences, they don't get in the book. Seems fair enough to me.
In fact, when it comes to finding opinions (rather than omissions) to criticise, you get angry at footnotes and at two articles in The Nation. Criticising such material is fair game, but footnotes and material not even in the book hardly justify your strong words ("loathing", "dangerous insect").
Your review reminded me a Marxist friend many years ago, criticising "All Quiet on the Western Front" for lack of class analysis. It may be true, but it just isn't the point.
FWIW, I thought Ehrenreich navigated the obvious dangers of a book like this well. (By emphasising she isn't really poor she risks being patronising. By claiming to know what it's like she risks being presumptuous.) It may not beup there with "Down and Out in Paris and London", or with "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists" and "The Jungle", but the point of a book like this is to prompt questions rather than to provide answers---and she succeeds admirably. Hats off to her.
Oh, the link to the clipping from the book gives a "permission denied" error.
Hi Brad --
Saw you had reviewed Ehrenreich's latest, so thought it would be worth a scan. But it bugged me.
It didn't bug me because of your politics. For the most part, you and I see things in similar ways. And when we don't, I generally understand why we don't.
It didn't bug me because it was meta-faux-elitism. While that might have been true -- you seemed equally eager to establish how down you are with the folks as Ehrenreich was -- but that's par for the course in making the argument you were making.
No, the reason why your review bugged me was because you used one of the hoariest writing tricks in the world: a rote & repetitive parallelism ("I didn't dislike this book because..."), and a darn tedious one at that.
Hey Brad. Nice article but don't use that writing style again. No need to beat around the bush . . .
I would be happy to send you my money - if I thought it would help you. However, I have noticed that with more money, people are less happy. Therefore, I cannot harm you - with a clear conscience.
I hope Ann Coulter catches this for her next book:
"...the strong pains Barbara Ehrenreich took to demonstrate that *she* was not one of *them*. The talk of the $30 lunch at understated French country-style restaurants, where she ate salmon and field greens while wondering aloud how people can possibly make it on $6 or $7 an hour; the dismissal of beautiful Old Orchard Beach as a "rinky dink blue-collar resort" (not the kind of place *she* would go to in her real life)--these grated as I read them."
I did not like it in the diner
I did not like it out in China
I did not like it in the fields
I did not like it with my meals
I did not like it in my bed
I did not like it on my head
I did not like it in the Post
I did not like it on the coast
I did not like it on my bike
I did not like that Echenreich!
Can you please explain to me why you equate wealth with happiness - or I should say, that money and happiness are directly related?
When I took microeconomics as an undergraduate, one of the people in my lab section was an heiress who had gone to a tony private high school with a friend of mine, who was also in the section.
At one point, the section discussed the concept of utility and the assumptions which underlie the concept. My friend, who had just seen Citizen Kane at the university's film co-op, argued that more money doesn't necessarily make one happier. After a couple minutes of that, the heiress interrupted:
"Are you arguing that money doesn't make people happy?"
"Oh. Well, think what you want."
It was one of the most illuminating discussions of the subject I have had the occasion to hear.
Reading this makes me think of those poultry part-sorters who died in the '80s because the Reagan administration couldn't be bothered to enforce even such important regulations as the law againt lock-up shops, and so they were unable to escape the building when it caught fire. Someone should ask "Barb" if she can see the difference - or minds the indifference.
I went through the utility lectures as well, though I bought in to the philosophy of Mr. DeLong and your heiress for quite some time. It wasn't until I had children that I realized what my true source of happiness really was. I guess that's why they say that you'll never look back and wish you would have worked more and spent less time with your kids.
Sure, websites, books, great jobs, and professional recognition feel good on the front end - as does the corresponding wealth they generate. But, what of the good things in life? The really good things. They can't be bought and sold - this I guarantee.
It is also interesting how often we hear the cliche about the lottery winner who claims that "it was the worst thing that could have happened in my life."
I often consider the comparison of the spoiled child who is given what they want, on command, and the child who must "suffer" in many ways to get their way. Which is better off? Yet based on the value system of a few money grabbing elitists, we redistribute wealth from unhappy rich people to happy poor people.
You can keep your money, I don't want it. And I would rather not participate in your twisted social experiment.
So, to Mr. DeLong - I won't send you my money. Not for my interest, but for the good of human kind.
However, I have noticed that with more money, people are less happy.<<
Which people are those? I mean, when I'm in Philly, I don't see the homeless performing musical numbers and dancing on enchanted Dumpster-brand trash receptacles.
Besides the pains of having to deal with it, what unhappiness does wealth or even financial comfort cause? Besides poor little rich boy syndrome, that is.
>>>>>Which people are those? I mean, when I'm in Philly, I don't see the homeless performing musical numbers and dancing on enchanted Dumpster-brand trash receptacles.
You don't live where I do, obviously. In University City, here in St. Louis, the rich folks live blocks away from the poor folks. The rich are stewing in front of their TV's every night. While down at the loop, the homeless, and the street kids are having drum circles, singing, dancing, and sharing stories. They play chess, hackey sack, and enjoy each other's company.
I walk through both neighborhoods every night with my family - and there is a clear difference that is the opposite of your theory.
Yet, the FCC just made a mandate that all TV's should be digital ready by some arbitrary date. That way, EVERYONE can stew in front of quality TV.
>>>>>Besides the pains of having to deal with it, what unhappiness does wealth or even financial comfort cause? Besides poor little rich boy syndrome, that is.
And what exactly is that "syndrome"? Isn't that what we're talking about?
Why don't you go experience a little of the homeless life in your area? It's not as bad as you might think. It's all relative.
Christ, this is ridiculous.
While down at the loop, the homeless, and the street kids are having drum circles, singing, dancing, and sharing stories. They play chess, hackey sack, and enjoy each other's company. <<
Having worked in Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health services as well as with other homeless causes, to say that the little scene you likely made up is the reality of homelessness is to be incredibly stupid.
Let me get this straight. You and your family just walk from the rich part of town to the poor part of town...in St. Louis...every night. Do you also have bluebirds flutter down from branches and alight upon your outstretched hand as you sing a little song?
And what exactly is that "syndrome"? Isn't that what we're talking about?<<
Yes. Now stop making up patently ridiculous bullshit unless you want to renounce the capitalist system and eat out of trash cans for the rest of your life.
I am a Capitalist, and I don't want to renounce it. Rather, I want to renounce the ridiculous redistribution of wealth schemes within it.
>>>>Let me get this straight. You and your family just walk from the rich part of town to the poor part of town...in St. Louis...every night.
Uh, it's only a mile and a half. U City is very diverse in many ways, including income and wealth - similar to many inner city University towns. Actually the loop - a bastion of homelessness, is bordered by a neighborhood with nary a house below 500k.
2 minutes of research would save you the embarassment of supporting your entire position on my "bullshit". When you, or anyone else, finds that BS to be true, then you will only justify your position with more ad hominem rhetoric, so what's the point?
>>>>>Do you also have bluebirds flutter down from branches and alight upon your outstretched hand as you sing a little song?
You are a sheep in sheep's clothing my friend
>>However, I have noticed that with more money, people are less happy.<<
Which people are those? I mean, when I'm in Philly, I don't see the homeless performing musical numbers and dancing on enchanted Dumpster-brand trash receptacles. <<
And the joke is, I'm sure both of you guys regard the Laffer curve as ridiculous.
'Rather, I want to renounce the ridiculous redistribution of wealth schemes within it.'
Ah ha! Trying to save the poor from the misery of wealth is pretty nice of you. It's alsoi really mean to rich people.
So your problem with the book was the unrelated Nation article?
It's quite interesting to read that book in parallel with some business or economic material on the delights of capitalism. I read it in parallel with "Built to Last". All that stuff about tying the "associates" into the corporate mission fits in well with the "we see a lot of Walmart employees here" from the homeless shelter.
As for Ehrenreich's theory that employer resistance keeps wages low, I think you take a cheap shot. Sure education has _something_ to do with it, but she has a strong point. Perhaps you'd like to explain why competitors to e.g. the Maids that would pay slightly more and offer better service do not spring up?
On the contrary. Laffer has proven himself to be accurate in his model, IMO. What would give you the idea that this off topic concept is in any way related? I could, with equal evidence, assume that you obviously don't accept Pythagoras, and his theorem.
Dean: my point was actually aimed at your interlocutor rather than you. I was suggesting that he is using an argument from an extreme value of a function to make generalisations over the entire form of that function, and that this was the argument (IMO unfairly) attributed to Laffer.
"As for Ehrenreich's theory that employer resistance keeps wages low, I think you take a cheap shot. Sure education has _something_ to do with it, but she has a strong point. Perhaps you'd like to explain why competitors to e.g. the Maids that would pay slightly more and offer better service do not spring up?"
Posted by Citizen K at August 14, 2002 04:43 AM
Here's an idea, K: Why don't you start up a Maids service and find out for yourself?
I was suggesting that he is using an argument from an extreme value of a function to make generalisations over the entire form of that function, and that this was the argument (IMO unfairly) attributed to Laffer.<<
I"m not sure what it is that you're attributing to me. I used Patty's beloved hyperbole to make the point that homelessness is generally not a remarkably positive thing, that even if the homeless are "playing chess and having drum lines", in general, they still don't know where their next meal is coming from.
Unless that's an unfair or illogical generalization, but I already know it's not.
>>I used Patty's beloved hyperbole to make the point that homelessness is generally not a remarkably positive thing, that even if the homeless are "playing chess and having drum lines", in general, they still don't know where their next meal is coming from<<
But you weren't just randomly making that point; you were attempting to use it to establish an argument that in general, people with more money are not less happy (in the context of the specific example that if Brad DeLong were to receive Dean Barkiw's money, he would be happier). That's vulgar Lafferism.
But you weren't just randomly making that point; you were attempting to use it to establish an argument that in general, people with more money are not less happy (in the context of the specific example that if Brad DeLong were to receive Dean Barkiw's money, he would be happier). <<
Actually, I was using it to make the point that people without any money are generally miserable. There's a difference.
I'm kind of wondering how arguing that homelessness and poverty are generally a very bad state to be in (as is evidenced by a great number of people on this planet) is equivalent to arguing that there is an optimal tax rate at which government will reach its peak revenue.
"Supply-side economics will work" and "It doesn't make people happy to not have a home or food or clean clothing or health care" are not equivalent, Daniel. The misery of homelessness is not really debatable. The rich may be just as miserable as the poor - but Dean's only argument is that they're stewing by their TVs in St. Louis, which is much more of a baseless generalization than anything I've said.
Increased wealth creates greater happiness/utility ceteris paribus. The ceteris paribus is key. There are some preternaturally happy poor people, and some preternaturally depressed rich people. But, significantly reducing the wealth of either is much more likely to reduce happiness (the quantity of reduction is debatable) for both individuals than to increase happiness. Also, a preternaturally poor person may initially already be happier than a preternaturally depressed rich person, but that doesn't mean that the poor person wouldn't be able to enjoy the higher quantity or quality of consumption goods that he or she could purchase with greater wealth.
Patrick R. Sullivan says he has an idea. It's not a very interesting one, though. Brad tells us that wages dropped due to technology and lack of education. But a maid service is not an education intensive business. Why is this business run on sweatshop principles?
I think you're a little unfair to Nickel and Dimed. For the main part of the book, Tom Slee's arguments apply--she's talking about experience, not analysis, and the goal is to drive home the problem rather than to offer a solution.
The last chapter, "Evaluations," is where the politics should come in. And that chapter has a few implicit policy suggestions.
"Welfare reform itself is a factor weeghing against any close investigation of the conditions of the poor. Both parties heartily endorsed it, and to acknowledge that low-wage work doesn't lift people out of poverty would to be admit that it may have been, in human terms, a catastrophic mistake" (p. 217). Seems to be against welfare reform--and implicitly in favor of government help for the poor.
After quoting the EPI's figure of $30k as a living wage for a family of three, and saying that employers wouldn't pay it: "Indeed, it is probably impossible for the private sector to provide everyone with an adequate standard of living through wages, or even wages plus benefits, alone.... Most civilized nations compensate for the inadequacy of wages by providing relatively generous public services such as health insurance, free or subsidized child care, subsidized housing, and effective public transportation" (p. 214). Sounds like she's in favor of all those things.
So this isn't an anti-government screed--unlike the two Nation articles where all the damning quotes came from. Does this mean that Ehrenreich is recovering from her "recovering statist" phase? I hope so.
(Alternatively, it may mean that she sees both parties as so unwilling to help that people have to bypass the gov't. I think this is unwise. But at least the good guys should be able to use the stories of Nickel and Dimed and say "Here's how we help out those hard-pressed workers that Ehrenreich is describing." Shouldn't we?)
Citizen K misreads my posting as:
" Patrick R. Sullivan says he has an idea. It's not a very interesting one, though. Brad tells us that wages dropped due to technology and lack of education. But a maid service is not an education intensive business. Why is this business run on sweatshop principles? "
Gaining first hand experience is not, "very interesting"? Even when one professes ignorance of the why of the situation?
Well, all I can say is that people who DO TRY my suggestion, usually end up understanding it. And they never forget it.
You're previously suggested to people that they should start maid services, they did so, and then agreed with you? Can you communicate the knowledge they earned in the process with this new-fangled "writing?"
Jason McCullough seems to be a devotee of some kind of "new-fangled" reading. What people learn from the first hand experience of starting a business is what Citizen K professes not to understand.
Perhaps Jason would like to submit a simplified business plan for me to examine?
I personally hated the book. By taking these jobs, she is taking jobs from people who really need them. Plus she has a PH.D. in Biology, where does she get the right to start playing psychologist/social worker?