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404 of 458 people found the following review helpful
on March 11, 2002
I'm not sure I'll be able to adequately explain my feelings about this book. While I expected to love it, it left me disappointed. But I can't understand all the anger I've seen in reviews I have read. Barbara Ehrenreich's heart is in the right place, I'm just not sure that she has the proper attitude or experience to write a realistic picture of what it's like to try to survive on a low paying job. She tried, though, and I suppose I need to give her more credit for that. Her premise is that no one can have a decent standard of living while working for minimum wage, and I agree it's very difficult. But she believed that before she started her experiment, and I don't think she learned anything new from her adventures in the world of low paying jobs. She only searched for details that confirmed what she already believed, and in the end, she persists in placing blame on the workers who probably feel trapped in a situation they don't know how to leave.
I think that the major fault I find with this book is Ms. Ehrenreich's attitude. She seems condescending towards her fellow employees and resentful towards her employers. And at all times, it's obvious that she can't understand what it really feels like to have to live on what she's making. She knew she would never have to. Her attitude towards her co-workers is perhaps understandable. What seems most inconsistent to me is her opinion towards ALL of her bosses. I was especially disappointed in her description of one of her managers at Wal-Mart. She introduced her boss, Ellie by saying "I like Ellie", but then went on to scornfully describe her style as "the apotheosis of 'servant leadership'...the vaunted 'feminine' style of management." What's wrong with a person in a position of responsibility showing some respect for those she manages? Why couldn't Ms. Ehrenreich just accept her good luck in having a supervisor who was a genuinely nice person? I'm sure Ellie isn't getting rich on what she made at Wal-Mart, either. The pay scale for EVERY job within that store probably compares unfavorably to any work with which the author has ever supported herself!
The author's attitude towards the people whose houses she cleaned in Maine also troubled me. They are not the cause of the low pay and long hours she and her co-workers endured. It was obvious that Ms. Ehrenreich was ashamed of cleaning houses, of being in a role she saw as subservient. It isn't like that for everyone. Friends I have had who cleaned houses for a living, even through an agency, often became friends with the people whose homes they cleaned and I never had the impression that my friends felt inferior to the homeowners. However, it does seem obvious to me that the owner of the agency Ms. Ehrenreich worked for was being very short sighted when it came to his attitude on wages. By refusing to even consider a pay raise for his employees in what seemed to be a tight pool of potential workers, he was guaranteeing that his business would not grow.
Many of my personal feelings about this book come from the fact that from 1980 until 1993, I supported myself with a series of low paying jobs, everything from fast food worker, to telephone sales, to even Wal-Mart. Did I live well? At times I did. Most of that time I worked at least two jobs at a time, often with fewer than one or two full days off each month. But like Ms. Ehrenreich, I had the advantage of being a single woman with no children to support. I have no doubt that had I been raising children, I would have needed some kind of financial assistance. Things I could choose to do without as an adult would not be an option for a mother. Could a mother with children live without a car? Could I have given my children a good life without access to affordable health insurance? Could a mother with children live in a three-room furnished attic apartment with about 300 square feet of space? I have nothing but admiration for all the people supporting themselves and their families on low wages. Often people who knew I worked two jobs would ask why I worked so much, even inquiring if I had children to support. I always laughed and replied, "If I had children, how would I afford all the child care I would need to pay for to work so much? When would I have time to actually spend time raising my own children?" But even working up to 60-70 hours each week, the most I ever made in a year was about $18,000 gross. A careful, single woman (or man) could manage pretty well on that. But how could anyone support a family on those wages? While the author feels sorry in an abstract way for the difficult position of her fellow workers, she didn't come away from her experience with much compassion for them. She still doesn't understand that in the world of workers with few skills or little formal education, there are few choices, yet most of these people work very hard and take some pride in what they do. I expected this book to display more respect for workers who provide very necessary services to our society.
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194 of 218 people found the following review helpful
on May 14, 2006
Barbara Ehrenreich seems to have missed the point of her own research. Her proposed plan was to move to a new city with a small amount of capitol, find a minimum wage job and a place to live and try to make ends meet. She was searching for insight into the working poor who represent a large segment of American workers, made larger since welfare reform. She had the opportunity to be their spokesperson, but instead she was too busy complaining about her own discomfort.

For starters, Ms. Ehrenreich doesn't give up her health insurance or car during this entire experiment. In fact, at one job she develops an itchy rash and instead of doing what the working poor who have no health insurance would do - go the the nearest drug store and buy something OTC and hope for the best - she calls her personal out-of-state dermatologist for a prescription so she is itch-free in a matter of days. Barb, honey, that's not how it works for people without health insurance! They work sick, uncomfortable, injured and even itchy. Really.

She also had the advantage of a car, which she used to drive to multiple employers during the first few days of a new job hunt, filling out applications, having interviews and hunting for an apartment. A car is a luxury many working poor don't have, so they are not able to visit 10 or more potential employers on a single day to put in applications and have interviews like she did. The real working poor use public transportation, bicycles or shoe leather. If the job location or housing is more than a mile from a public transportation route, it's off the radar for many people. I wish Barb had tried this at one of her test cities so that she could see how inconvenient, frustrating and limiting public transportation can be.

She seemed to have her pick of jobs at every location, finding work was never a problem, and she berates those who say it is. However, she refused to work more than an 8 hour shift, and complained that at one job she had to go 2 1/2 hours without a break and she didn't think she could make it. Oh gosh, the horror! Would love to see her do farm work, or road work.

There is a lot of complaining about the cost of rent increasing faster than the minimum wage scale. This is true, and an excellent point. She failed at all of her minimum wage locations because the cost of housing broke her bank at the end of the month. But never once did she consider having a roommate. That would have cut her expenses by 50%! And when she got to the end of the second week in Minneapolis without a paycheck and without a reasonably priced room, it never occurred to her to sell her car. Barb may have been working with the poor, but she just didn't get it.

I was offended by her inappropriate sarcasm and her obsession with ethnicity - describing every single person she saw or met by race FIRST. But I was most offended by her not understanding that people come in a vast range of "normal." There are many people working the jobs she worked who just aren't capable of working as a manager or professional writer and never will be. They have found employers who respect their abilities and they take great pride in their work. The same work that Barbara had such contempt for. In fact, while working at Wal-Mart she describes her work by saying, "I could be a deaf-mute...autism might be a definite advantage." Really, she wrote that, real sensitive, huh?

She also seems to think that everyone who is lower middle class is fat, and that fat people are to be disrespected. She writes, "Everyone knows that the lower middle class are tragically burdened by the residues of decades of potato chips and french toast sticks." She refers to Wal-Mart customers as "wide-bodies" and fears if she's standing in the wrong place at the wrong moment she might be crushed by one.

She laments over and over, "Why don't they get out of these jobs, find something better, move up in the world?" Just maybe, Barb, some of these employees are already working up to their abilities, are proud of the fact that they have jobs, and a social circle at work of people who respect them.

Her true colors show when she walks out on, quits without notice, and even leaves other employees the responsibility of returning her uniforms in every single location. She has no thought for the workers she left short handed, or the bosses who were left under staffed. She might write that her coworkers are important, and she might have done some kind things for them, but she was an irresponsible and thoughtless employee.

I give this book two stars instead of one because it is well-written. It is the content that I object to. Barb might write about the lower middle class, but she surely does not understand what it means to live lower middle class. She never really got it. There are many better books on the plight of the working poor listed on this amazon page and in many of the other reviews.
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371 of 423 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2009
I don't think someone from a privileged upbringing like Mrs. Ehrenreich could possibly understand what it feels like to live the lives of those she profiled in this book. While she could step into their shoes for a brief few days, she knew she had a lavish book contract she was doing it for, she knew she had an education and a world of options available to her. She would never be able to experience something more intense: knowing she would have no safety nets, no help, no future, and a past she feared to reminisce in.

I found her condescension offensive at times. At one point, she referred to TGI Friday's in a scoffing manner, as part of an example of things the poor like; in reality most struggling people could not afford TGI Friday's, that seems to be a middle class establishment. I remember that in my own life (rife with struggle), I had seen TGI Friday's as a special occasion place, for celebrations like birthdays and holidays. Ehrenreich's attitude sheds light on how limited her understanding and pity is. She sees TGI Friday's like I would see a Burger King.

Her choice to go to a dry cleaners was far removed from the choices most underprivileged people would make. Most would hide a stain or purchase a few new outfits from a thrift store rather than blow money on dry cleaners - I cannot name a single truly poor person that I have known in my life that would even know what a dry cleaners is like and what it costs. When you struggle, you don't have room in your budget for such expenses. Barbara could only make room because she never felt real struggle.

Her food choices were also illustrative of a life of privilege. I made do with oatmeal and Ramen when I struggled, budgeting 5-10 dollars a week for food. Her purchasing habits illustrate the sort of budget a rich woman would draw up on a "poor man's salary" and reminds me of an online project I found, by someone else, where they attempted to eat all organic for 300 dollars a month (a food stamp budget). These little trial experiments run by privileged people, to get a taste of being poor, are as authentic as me claiming to be rich by wearing costume shop baubles and smoking a cigar. It's costume play, it never allows you to draw into any of the emotional and social depth of the group you're trying to understand.

These and numerous examples illustrated the fact that the book was written, simply, for an upper middle class audience. I found the book to be well-written and sometimes persuasive, but overall it left a bitter taste in my mouth. I, unlike Barbara, struggled during my lifetime and had been in similar or worse situations as the people she eyed pitifully, and then decided to write about, in her best-selling book.

This book was part of the required material we would read in a college advanced English class I was in. I found it ironic that I would have to read a wealthy woman's account of what it was like to be poor, considering my own experiences. I was a homeless 18 year old girl that had managed to win scholarships based on my high performance in high school, despite the fact I was just riding out of a 2 year struggle with schizophrenia, which I was diagnosed with at 16 after a sudden, horrific, long episode (which would fade away as rapidly as it came, only to haunt me like a specter, capable of reappearing throughout my life). Because of my illness, I had alienated my family and friends, many of which never knew the extent of my problems. I left home and lived in squalid apartments with boyfriends or friends.

There I was, without a computer, often relying on school labs to write essays and papers when I wasn't at one of my two jobs I had to churn through to even afford to support myself and the gas I needed to drive to school and to my jobs. I worked at a Toys R Us store and at a clothing store. I purchased all my clothing from thrift stores. Yet, with tremendous pride, I never spoke about my own struggles. Once I read this book, however, I felt exhausted with it's pitying tone and it's assumptions that one could possibly evoke the despair, the hideousness, of being disadvantaged.

I spoke briefly about my experiences in class, and found that people would not meet my eye, and often regarded me with distaste. When I explained how I could live on 5 dollars a week for food, stretching a box of oatmeal and ramen noodles to survive, nobody would even comment. The classroom was full of middle and upper class students that could mutter about how they could feel and understand the poor people in the book, could write essays proselytizing about the awfulness of society and how it shuts out the neediest among us. Yet at the same time, they were uncomfortable with being my friend, with helping me, with even hearing me talk about what I was going through. Knowing I was homeless and struggling had them regard me as weird, had them judging me and assuming I was a drug addict or that it was all my fault. Despite what they read, they could only apply their learned assumptions as far as it served them, to advance themselves in their class and to showily talk about how they "feel" for the poor. I simply made my much wealthier classmates uncomfortable, for I didn't exist comfortably in a book as a flat character they could sympathize over. I was a living, breathing person that challenged their imagined generosity - sure, they cared ever so deeply for the poor, and yet here was a poor person among them, and not one person offered me a place to stay or any sort of help. Of course, I didn't ask for it, but it made the things they wrote in their essays or spoke of in class completely meaningless.

I talk about my experiences within that class because it reflects my experiences reading this book as a whole. The target audience's ability to relate to poor people by living vicariously through Ehrenreich's experiences is really displacement of their guilt and lack of true compassion. I would guarantee that 90-95% of people that have read this book were only temporarily affected emotionally, and that most, if not all, were not changed for life in any way. Most would still hold the same assumptions and judgments of homeless people, of people that struggle, that need welfare to make ends meet. The majority would not dedicate a fraction of their paycheck, or their time, to help underprivileged people in their communities.

This book does not make a real difference in society. It advances Ehrenreich to required-reading status at privileged private colleges and it gives guilty, privileged people another cause or issue to tack onto the growing lists they care about but would not sacrifice for. Just like how most people are well aware of the poverty and hunger in conflict, AIDS and drought-torn Africa, and yet only a fraction of a percentage would put their lives on pause and go overseas to distribute vaccines and food aide pouches. We can all shed a tear over a documentary on Darfur, but our excuses as to why we put our own massively advantaged lives and privileges first, over going to the Sudan to volunteer, ar endless.

This book will not help the plight of the poor, it does not change the stereotypes that affect the ability of struggling and poor people to land better jobs, or help homeless people gain respect and shrug off the misconstrued assumptions applied to them by others. This book rings hollow, it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of anyone who has ever TRULY struggled and endured years of struggle. I myself have had very little in my life but I constantly give back; I worked tirelessly and have put myself through nursing school and upon my graduation, I intend to travel abroad to offer humanitarian aid. I don't want to paint myself off as a saint, I am simply trying to prove my point here - this book is just meaningless heart-string tugging fodder for a guilty generation of people that are unwilling to take the steps necessary to challenge and change the social ills causing poverty and struggle in America.

The causes of poverty are intricate and networked, like a web, across the nation, connecting industries and employers. If you are not fighting actively against the forces behind them, you are supporting them (just as with remaining silent about racism, sexism or any other semi-transparent social force). We are all complicit by shopping at stores like Wal-Mart, which encourage the devastation of the lower class, or by carefully holding onto our privileges and status and refusing to actually give, and give generously and plentifully (not just money you would've spent on your latte, but money that you will actually miss, knowingly wanting it to go for those who would have never otherwise had that money in the first place).

We need to mobilize everyone to act and to vote for which companies they support and which people they reward.

We need to protest the gross overpayment of sports stars and celebrities (who in turn endorse soccer balls and Nike shirts that are made by children in sweatshops and sold by struggling people in Wal-Marts nationwide).

We need to be politically active.

Oh, but already, it's a lot of work, it requires time and effort, and a sacrifice of one's own comfort. So of course, it won't happen, but we'll see plenty of sales of books like this, which can momentarily affect someone's life but in the long run have no positive effect on the struggling working poor it intended to expose.
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74 of 86 people found the following review helpful
on July 15, 2002
This book could have been great. I consider myself pretty liberal, and am aware of the housing, low income and high expeneses that many people have to live with in this country.
However, Barbara Ehrenreich trivializes these problems by whining about minor problems, or more serious issues that can be dealt with. For example, she is horrified at renting a room where the bathroom door must be closed because it next to the kitchen. And her Wal-Mart job, which does have some real problems, is so, well, boring. Plus, the work and the random drug tests are demeaning. Does she really think that you can gain more self respect by collecting a check from the government than by cleaning a house or being a waitress? And how could she possibly be surprised that "dietary aide" included washing dishes? What did she expect?
Another problem; two months is not really enough time to know what life is like on low wages in one city. And, when she was in Florida, she just couldn't help going home to answer e-mails, etc.
One last thing. She was extremely condescending towards all her coworkers. When her coworker in The Maids gets hurt, she feels she should say who she is, that, somehow, she can't stand by. That's fine. The problem is that she says the reason she can't stand by and watch this woman's pain is because she's educated, a Ph.D. What does that have to do with compassion or humanity?
Anyway, she clearly started this expereience with no idea of the world she was entering, and left it still not understanding it.
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135 of 161 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 2001
In this book, the author, Barbara Ehrenreich, took time out of her busy upper-class life as a writer/journalist to see if she could make ends meet in the unskilled job market. It was no surprise to find out that she could not. Ehrenreich is trying to make an important point about the needs of the working poor in this country, but her approach may hurt her cause more than it helps.
While reading this book, I was continually distracted by an ever-increasing dislike for its author. The author was incredibly self-aggrandizing. In her "evaluation" section, where I assumed she would be evaluating the ability of a low-income worker to survive, she spends the first several pages patting herself on the back for being such a hard worker. Although Ehrenreich is a well-received author with a PhD in biology, the author seems like a bored socialite who for whom the poor are a "hobby."
Ehrenreich gives lips service to the traditional liberal ideals, but doesn't seem at all kind-hearted or giving. For example, she admits that while working at Wal-Mart she planted seeds of discontent with her co-workers not in a serious attempt to unionize, but was rather, "just amusing myself."
Perhaps more importantly, the author doesn't seem to consider her audience with anything other than contempt. Who does she think is reading the book? To whom is she selling her message? Only others like her? Her insensitivity insults and alienates a large portion of the populace, and potentially clouds her message. To name a few examples, the author criticizes or ridicules Christians, midwesterners, fat people, short people, people who live in trailers, fraternity members, people who hire maids, teachers, the elderly, and my personal favorite, the mentally ill. I am amazed that the author (who has a PhD, you know) wasn't smart enough to upholster her arguments in better-smelling cloth. I myself am an ardent liberal, and agree with most of her conclusions. But my dislike for the author and her approach made me feel defensive even of Sam Walton!
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44 of 50 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 8, 2009
Ehrenreich tries to live like the working poor do in the United States - and in some respects, she does so. She lives in cheap motels, works jobs for barely over minimum wage, and understands the headaches and plights of her coworkers. On the other hand, she does it in a halfway manner - starting out with a fund of money, always having access to a car, purchasing items far out of her price range, and so on.

From my perspective, the book best illustrates how a wealthy white woman can make it somewhat as a poor white woman, but does not fully engage and understand the plight of people who have to live it. She buys expensive belts, clothes, and justifies spending money on things that most poor just wouldn't do. I realize these habits are almost hardwired into our consumer culture - but the criticisms are right - she did a lot of the sabotaging of herself. However, that doesn't reduce the challenges in aggregating the capital to move into a real apartment, at affordable rates, that most poor just can't muster.

Of particular interest to me are the health concerns faced by the poor - from lack of care, to woefully inadequate nutrition (empty calories from convenience stores and overpriced prepared grocery store food), to the rigors of 8-16 hours of manual labor. Barbara, as a fit woman, well fed and exercised throughout the years, struggles after a month - how do people who do it full time for decades manage?
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72 of 85 people found the following review helpful
on January 29, 2009
I really wanted to read this book because of all the great reviews, but I was horribly disappointed. And instead of feeling educated, I felt insulted.

Yes, this book does enlighten those who don't already know about poor working conditions that working for low hourly wages and having to support not only yourself but a family, really, really sucks and is really hard to do. And yes, sometimes the "working poor" get stuck in self-perpetuating cycles. And yes, don't assume that just because you have a job, you shouldn't be poor or homeless....but come on, isn't it already obvious to everyone that it's a hard knock life for those who can't make ends meet?? The working poor would not willingly choose to be "working poor" if they could help it.

This book is definitely geared towards those in the upper echelon of society because for those who ARE actually waitresses, Merry Maids, and Wal-Mart employees, it's like a slap to the face. Ehrenreich exaggerated the things that didn't need to be exaggerated (like cleaning poop-stained toilets) but failed to underscore the things that really matter. I mean, harping on spending $30 for a pair of Dockers, $20 for a belt, and not being able to purchase a $7 polo shirt at Wal-Mart is just lame. I can find much cheaper pants at TJMaxx or at my local Salvation Army. If you're going to conduct this social experiment, stop complaining about the things actual people in those working conditions silently endure every single day.

For a book that supposedly opens a new perspective on the working poor, it was a poorly conducted and poorly written experiment with too much of the author's own personal sass, bias, and repeated emphasis on a PHd in biology. Oh, how noble of Ehrenreich to take off her royal crown and toil in low wage jobs like millions of Americans do everyday. You would've gotten a much better and much more real take on the working class situation by following the life of an actual member of the "working poor" and writing an autobiography from those findings.

Ehrenreich writes this book as if she is an expert on the situation because she has "lived" like the working poor, but honestly, it's just like how Tyra Banks donned a fat suit for a day and claimed she knew how it felt like to be overweight/obese. Or how she magically understood the trials and tribulations of being a homeless person because she pretended to be one for a day. Great concept for a book, just sloppy (despite the foreshadowed grandeur) and poorly executed.
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141 of 170 people found the following review helpful
on April 5, 2006
This was the first Barbara Ehrenrich book I read, and it will probably be the last. I am concerned about matters relating to America's working poor and was drawn to the book because I thought it might provide some insight about how people really can live on the income low-wage jobs provide. The last time I worked a job that came close to minimum wage was a number of years ago, and back then I was in college and had campus housing, student loans etc. as a backup. There are many people in the U.S. trying to subsist on low wages, and I thought maybe this book would help me understand what they're going through and what they need to better their situations, so that I can use that information in my own advocacy.

Instead, I found that this book is mainly about Ms. Ehrenrich and her prejudices, insecurities, and snap judgements about people. Other reviewers have said the same things, but my biggest problems with the book were:

- The whining. This woman whines about everything. The work is physically hard. She's tired at the end of the day and her clothes smell bad. She doesn't sleep well because she's petrified of someone breaking into her room and stealing her laptop. She gets a skin rash and it itches, so she calls her "personal dermatologist" (must be nice to have such a thing) and gets help. Waaah, waaah, waaah. I really wished she had spent more time talking about social impacts of working poverty, or the experiences of the people she worked with who were TRULY poor, than whining about her own discomfort.

- The fact that she regularly took "breaks" from her experiment back to her old life, and she continued to access financial and other resources during the experiment. That's not a luxury the real working poor have - to just step away from their life whenever the going gets tough. The fact that she did seriously undermined her experiment.

- The fact that she just doesn't seem interested in working that hard, or doing things that may be unpleasant. I think this, more than anything else, showed Ehrenrich's true colors as a privileged middle-aged woman who has very little capacity to understand the very people she's writing about. She's shocked at how dirty the kitchens where she works are, and how the smells of the restaurant "cling" to her when she gets home. She gets unreasonably angry when patients in a dementia unit throw food at her (hello, the patients have DEMENTIA, they aren't doing it on purpose). Cleaning houses is nasty because you have to deal with cleaning up people's body hair and bodily waste. Her shifts at Wal-Mart and her job cleaning houses make her tired because she's on her feet so much, and she expresses surprise, because after all, she works out and is in good shape! There were many times during the reading of this book that I wanted to roll my eyes at Ehrenrich's privileged cluelessness. Yes, work is not always easy or fun. What a revelation! You get the sense that not only does Ehrenrich want employees to be paid more for their work, but wants the work these people do to be clean, pleasant, involve no bad smells, and be psychologically rewarding at all times also. Sorry, but the world does not work like that. Ehrenrich works as an academic and author and so it's no surprise she's been shielded from the harsh realities of life, but the whining and hand-wringing she did over her 'dirty jobs' was really over the top, if you ask me.

Ultimately I felt the book did a poor job of getting Ehrenrich's point across. What I took away from the book is "poor people have to work nasty, stinky jobs that are awful. Oh, and by the way, they don't get paid enough." As another reviewer mentioned, civilizations are built on the backs of unskilled, low-wage workers, but the U.S. has evolved to the point where we should be able to provide at least a living wage and health care to everyone and bear the costs of those things. But that's not Ehrenrich's issue. She seems indignant about the fact that people have to serve food or clean houses or stock retail shelves AT ALL and seems to believe humans should not be subjected to such indignities. What Ehrenrich would have those people do for money instead, I am not sure, as we can't all teach in private colleges and write books for a living. There will always be services that need to be performed and a need for service workers, and many times the same people working service jobs are the same people CONSUMING services from other service workers, something that Ehrenrich completely ignores - in her world, only overprivileged yuppies or fat white people consume services like restaurant food or discount store clothing. Ehrenrich would have done better if she cut the whining in this book in half and focused more on the economic realities of the poor. As it stands, she just ends up reinforcing the conservative idea of "the liberal in the ivory tower" and does little to advance concerns about the plight of America's working poor.
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136 of 164 people found the following review helpful
on July 10, 2002
I bought this book thinking it would be thoroughly, if not exhaustingly, researched. I was terribly disappointed. The author only had three experiences (Florida, Maine, and Minnesota) as a "low-wage earner." Each lasted no more than a month.
Over and over, she demonstrated her laziness; her lack of research is just one example. For instance, she never shopped at yard sales or second-hand stores. If she had, she would have learned what many of us did during lean years and what today's immigrants know -- you can buy a collared shirt, in good condition and unstained, for $1 or less. You can buy a used "hot pot" to boil water, heat canned soup or veggies, cook small quantities of pasta, etc. You can buy a used can opener, plate, spoon, etc. for the cost of one fast-food meal.
My grandmother, a single mother of five, worked two cleaning jobs (houses during the day, a truck stop at night). My parents worked in low-paying retail jobs. (My mom was on her feet seven hours every day, until she was 82.) I am the first in my family to have attended college. But I know what it's like to live on minimum wage ($2.10 in those days), working seven days a week at two jobs to make ends meet. I'm not saying it's easy (and it helps to be in your 20s or early 30s) but there are plenty of us who did it and went on to higher paying jobs.
I agree with other reviewers who said they thought the author looked down on the people she worked with. Her attitude seemed to be that they were stupid drudges, victims of the system and selfish affluent people, but - not to worry - enlightened Barbara to the rescue.
What a shame -- the concept of this book is excellent. If it had been properly researched and written without such a glaring "agenda," it could have sparked a valuable dialogue about issues that need to be resolved.
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493 of 605 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon July 4, 2001
I know my the name of my UPS delivery man--I know that he likes to play soccer, that he projects a cheerful and energetic personality, and has for the last ten years he's delivered to our office. I know the name of the woman who serves my friend and me breakfast each Friday morning at a chain restaurant. I've bought charity lotto tickets from her sons and know the story of her daughter who died when the insurance company insisted on using a cheaper lab. I know that when minimum wage increased, management cut her hours so her paycheck remained the same, but the workload increased. But I don't know anybody at the copy shop, the fast-food joints, or even the grocery store. They all merge with the background, human servants of the commercial machine upon which my life depends.
NICKEL AND DIMED: ON (NOT) GETTING BY IN AMERICA tells the story of what a privileged and articulate writer experienced when she attempted to live as an "unskilled" working class person. Barbara Ehrenreich spent time in Key West, Maine, and Minnesota holding down jobs as a waitress, nursing home aide, cleaning woman, and Wall-Mart "associate." She attempted to live on the wages these jobs paid--without drawing on her skills as a PhD, author, or lecturer.
Ehrenreich writes well. Her story engages the reader from the first page of the introduction to the final page of her "Evaluation" chapter. Her frustration leaked through the page and into me. I became enraged at the humiliating bosses and the abusive working conditions--and then I'd close the book and reflect that millions of people endure worse with no hope of writing up their notes and producing a best-seller from their experiences.
While the anecdotes of Ehrenreich's experience were at least entertaining, her evaluation of the experience became the most interesting part of the book to me. She evaluated her experience through the Liberal lense of class conflict and power dynamics. It would be interesting to read a companion volume written by a "Conservative" journalist who ventured the same experiment.
She discovered that while no job is truly "unskilled," the low wage jobs that she got made physical demands, some of which could be damaging if performed month after month--even for a physically fit person. She found few no rewards for heroic performance, that "the trick lies in figuring out how to budget your energy so there'll be some left over for the next day" (p. 195). She found that it is nearly impossible to earn enough money to survive on with just a single job, even during the tight labor market of 1999:
"Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don't need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high" (p. 199).
She examines the pressures exerted on workers to keep them subservient and from asserting their power. She challenges the idea that we are a democracy if large numbers of citizens spend half their waking hours in what amounts to a "dictatorship" in the workplace. She also speculates on the depressive effects of the disempowerment to which the "working poor" must submit.
Ehrenreich challenges the myth of the American Dream. Even her co-workers subscribed to this myth, working hard so that someday they, too, could live affluent lifestyles, failing to evaluate the extreme unlikelihood that they would ever leave the ranks of the working poor. Our last elected president came up from poverty--so did his opponent, Ross Perot. "This is America, anybody can become a millionaire!" That is the myth--one which keeps the workers docile. Ehrenreich believes that eventually that myth will be rejected:
"Someday ... they are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they're worth. There'll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption" (p. 221). Although she never actually uses the word "revolution," her book demand that it's time for the "Compassionate" Conservatives to stop telling the workers to eat cake and to pay attention to the growing inequalities in our society.
Five stars for the courage to do the research and five for writing style. I only give her conclusion four stars because I believe her experiment deserved a better epilogue, more forcefully dispelling the post-Reagan myths about poverty and upward mobility. Regardless of your political/economic beliefs, this book demands to be read. Perhaps you'll evaluate Barbara's experiences and come to different conclusions ... or perhaps you'll find that you start seeing people who had been an invisible part of your life all along. Don't avoid this book, you owe it to yourself and to the people who stock your shelves, run the cash registers, deliver food to your table & clean your hotel rooms.
(If you'd like to dialogue about this book or review, please click on the "about me" link above and drop me an email. Thanks!)
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