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Books: Nickel and Dimed
Tuesday, 2004 February 10 - 11:38 pm
Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich, explores a writer's experiment trying to make a living as a typical American wage-slave. This book sparked a controversy at the University of North Carolina when it was put on the required summer reading list for incoming freshmen; the book was dismissed as liberal propaganda.

Most folks don't even think about the lives of the service workers that surround them: the cashiers at Wal-Mart, the hotel cleaning staff, the waitresses at Denny's. They are a pervasive and yet invisible group of people to us, to the pampered middle class. What are their lives really like? Nickel and Dimed takes a look at that.

The book shatters one common conservative myth: that poor people are lazy and unemployed. On the contrary: there are millions of people who are working, some taking two jobs, but who still live in poverty because housing is so expensive and wages are so low. That is a message that liberals have been unsuccessfully trying to deliver for decades. Perhaps that's why conservatives are so fearful of this book.

The book casts a very sympathetic eye towards the lives of these "wage-slaves", and rightfully so. Now, while I certainly recognize the need for affordable labor in a capitalist economic system, I also recognize that as a civilized society, we need to give hard-working people at least a chance to lead a healthy and happy life. This means: affordable housing, affordable health care, public transportation, and a decent education. If we do not, then what we are doing is institutionalizing a caste system, a society in which we say that poor people are less deserving of a human lifestyle than poor people.

Some Republicans might argue that the poor, if they would apply themselves, could lift themselves out of poverty. But the fact is, the institutions we have in this country work against that. Poor people don't have access to the same quality of education as the rich. They don't have the same job opportunities, because they are less mobile (travel costs money, after all). They have to spend more time earning enough to eat, and therefore have less time to seek out education and better-paying jobs. Worst of all, their employers have economic incentives to keep them underpaid and ignorant.

Some folks won't be quite so sympathetic as I am, or as Ehrenreich is. To those people, I only say this: you try living that lifestyle for a while, and then I'll have more respect for your opinion.

Rating: 4 / 5
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Posted by Ken in: booksreviews


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