Nickel and Dimed to Homelessness

Book Review:

             With the events of September 11, 2001, we have to go back to the Barbara Ehrenreich book that was published earlier this year.  In Nickel and Dimed, we read of Ehrenreich’s attempt to survive on entry-level salaries at various service sector jobs.  While she did not focus on airport security, the jobs she undertook were low wage, high demand, stressful and left her unable to afford housing. “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,” said Ehrenreich.

             Erenreich worked for Wal Mart, a restaurant in Florida, and a hotel as a cleaning woman.  She was barely able to pay the rent on a poverty motel, and had very little cash left to eat or pay for transportation.  She attempted to work two jobs with very little success.  “The United States, for all its wealth, leaves its citizens to fend for themselves—facing market-based rents, for example, on their wage alone,” said Ehrenreich. 

             We learned after September 11th that workers at our airports are paid close to minimum wage and spend long hours looking at x-ray machines.  Because of deregulation and some degree of corporate greed, our airport security staff are untrained and underpaid.  News sources told us that Boston’s Logan Airport had a turnover rate of 200% over the last year.  It looks as though the airline industry has jeopardized public safety to reduce costs.

             Ehrenreich’s book describes the extremes of tedium and backbreaking labor that she had to endure.  Underlying the entire book was the struggle to maintain housing for a single adult.  She met families that were themselves struggling, but was willing to take her in order to prevent homelessness.  She describes the exploitation of female employees at a cleaning company, which were a throwback to women in the workforce of the 1950s.

One woman broke her ankle and felt that she had to continue to work through the pain.

             Nickel and Dimed is a wonderfully revealing indictment of the wholesale deflation of income over the last 20 years.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported last year that over the last two decade the average income of the lowest income families fell by 6% nationally while the highest income families grew by 30%.   The 1990’s saw an explosion in wealth with huge increases in revenue from the stock market and the obscene increases in the disparity of incomes.  Salary disparity between the CEOs yearly salary is now approaching 500 times the salary of the average line worker of a company.  A better example of these concepts is in Michael Moor’s book, Downsize This.

             There is a widening gap in America between the rich and the poor.  The highest 20% of the workforce as 20 times the wages of the lowest 20%.  It now takes over $10 per hour at 40 hours a week to be able to afford a fair market apartment in most communities.  Ehrenreich’s book dramatically demonstrates the housing insecurity facing many people in our cities.  She stays in substandard apartments and poverty motels.   She tries working two full time jobs, and she attempts with little success to use the social services that exist.  In the end, she finds the incredible struggle facing workers at Wal-Mart or restaurant workers.  She found that there are no longer many unskilled jobs, and it is difficult to afford to live in one of the most prosperous countries in the history of the world

 Copyright NEOCH published 2001 Issue 50