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Barbara Ehrenreich is that rarest of breeds, a 21st century American who still clings to the tenets of Socialism.  At the suggestion of Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's, she decided to try to see how folks moving from welfare to work might be faring and if she could survive on the minimal income provided by a series of low level jobs.  Allowing herself a small amount of startup money, she went to Key West, FL; Orchard Beach, ME; and Minneapolis, MN; and found work and a place to live, with a goal of saving enough by the end of the month to pay the next month's rent.  Her jobs consisted of waitressing and working as a hotel maid in Florida, working at a nursing home and a house cleaning service in Maine, and at Wal-Mart in Minnesota.  Her essays about this experience first appeared in Harper's but are here expanded, barely, to a book length account in which we find out much about Barbara Ehrenreich, fairly little about the difficult lives of people she worked with, and nearly nothing about what she would suggest we do to make their lives easier.

You see, one of the most distinctive things about the book is that Ehrenreich creates a fictional version of herself.  She has to minimize her experience when she goes for interviews, has to disguise her true mission from co-workers and supervisors, has to (mostly) reign in her radical political views, etc.  But even more, she is a completely atomized being with no family and no friends.  This both makes her character in the book completely unrealistic and leaves her to spend all her time fixating on herself.  Both are unfortunate.  The lack of friends and family merely serves to point out what an utter impossibility it is for society to help people who have absolutely no support system of their own.  One of her main problems is the cost of rent--which must be recognized as a significant problem for a society that expects people to be able to afford living quarters near the hot economies that are producing jobs.  But it seems abundantly obvious that rent would be less of a problem if she was splitting it with a roommate, friend, or family member.  In fact, this is so obvious that her endless complaining abut her rent loses its effectiveness because we realize how easy a problem this would be to alleviate.

Equally maddening is her refusal to take advantage of the easiest opportunity that exits to find friendship and social assistance : church.  At one point she actually goes to a revival meeting, but it turns out she's only there to make fun of the service.  Later, when she arrives in Minnesota, she spends an evening with a woman who a friend has suggested she look up.  As far as we can tell from the text, this is one of the few times she spends a significant amount of time, and has a lengthy discussion, with someone from the social milieu she's purportedly investigating (the rest of the time she just seems to race back to her hotel room to type up notes).  But here she meets someone who has been on welfare, has been homeless, has actually packed up her children and moved to a strange city, without knowing she has a real life she could fall back on if things went badly.  And what is this woman's primary piece of advice :

    'Always find a church.'  People from the church drove her around to the WIC office...and to find a
    school for her twelve-year-old girl and day care for her baby.  Sometimes they also helped with

But no, Ehrenreich refuses this advice, and its hard to take her complaints about the lack of available help seriously, knowing that her anti-religious sensibilities prevent her from accepting one of the most readily available sources of assistance.

There is one other form of help available which Ehrenreich chooses not to discuss.  If she really were such a low income worker, I believe she would be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).  Ehrenreich shows that it is fairly easy to find a job in the current economy, and to find one that will pay in the range of $7 to $9.  At $8.50 an hour, your income for a full time job would be $17,680.  This would put you comfortably above the poverty level ($8,590 for a single person, $14,630 for a single parent with two children) and not only would you not have to pay Federal Income Tax, you would actually get money from the government under the EITC, hundreds, possibly even several thousand, dollars.

Don't get me wrong, I still think it's a difficult existence.  But by not taking advantage of, nor explaining, all of the opportunities that exist to make it less difficult, she seems to be stacking the deck in her disfavor, which, in turn, suits her political position.

Meanwhile, all we are left with is Ehrenreich.  Ehrenreich at work or Ehrenreich in a hotel room.  The rest of the working poor are merely a backdrop.  Sure, she's working the jobs that these folks work, but she's hardly living the life they lead.  She doesn't participate in their lives, neither individually by visiting their homes or having them over, nor communally by doing the types of things they do in their off hours.  The occasional comment from these folks that Ehrenreich does share suggests that in the first place, they are not alone, as she is.  Many live with family, or have spouses or steadies who work.  And they are not particularly dissatisfied with their lives, nor do they resent their employers.  Actually, most of them seem proud to be working, proud of their work, and proud of the companies for which they work.

In fact, Ehrenreich is surprised to find herself sharing many of these same feelings about her work.  Early on in the endeavor, while waitressing in Florida, she realizes that she truly cares about doing a good job and providing quality service to her customers.  Though, for obvious reasons, she chooses not to dwell on it, this is really the key to understanding why both Marxism and Welfare failed.  The doctrine of the Left precludes the possibility of people receiving satisfaction from their work.  They are supposed to be alienated from it and to resent the employer who exploits their labor.  Instead, for almost all of us, our work provides a measure of self worth and, on some level, we end up feeling a sense of ownership of the business.  Though for much of the book Ehrenreich engages in navel gazing
that will only appeal to her hardiest fans, in the closing pages she offers a truly moving assessment of how she did, and the pride she takes in having, for the most part, succeeded is genuinely effecting.  Here is a denizen of the upper middle class basking in the glow of just making ends meet; imagine how much more powerfully such an achievement must effect someone who has been living on government assistance for years.

So we come to the end of the book and it seems reasonable to expect Ehrenreich to draw some conclusions about the whole experience and to suggest some alternatives.  But, other than some self congratulations and a half-hearted pitch for a living wage (estimated to be about $14 per hour) and rent control, she doesn't bring much to the table.  Allow me then to suggest some ways to give such workers more control over their lives :

    (1)    Privatize Social Security : Let these workers take control of their own retirement money and
            manage it.  Let them build it into a fund that will both provide for their own future and give
            them an increased sense that they themselves are genuinely responsible for that future.

    (2)    Re-privatize Health Care : Create a program of Medical Saving Accounts, tied to Catastrophic
            Insurance, whereby workers would pay into a private account which would be used for health
            care costs, but which would allow them to draw down some proportion of the money they
            have left at the end of the year.  This would turn us all into more efficient health care
            consumers and return power to our hands, instead of leaving it in the hands of bureaucrats at
            HMOs, Managed Care, and in the government.

    (3)    Privatize Public Housing : Instead of building high rises to warehouse the poor and working
            poor, take all the money we currently spend on Public Housing and turn it into vouchers to be
            used in buying homes.  This will give folks an investment to build upon, a greater sense of
            responsibility for where they live, and a deeper attachment to the community.

    (4)    Re-privatize the Education System :  Take all the money we currently spend on public
            schooling, turn it into vouchers, and let parents decide where to spend their money.  This will
            make the education system more efficient and more responsive to parents and students.  It will
            also re-invest parents in the education of their children.

Each of these suggestions has two components, one public, one private, which share a symbiotic relationship.  They each bring free market forces to bear on the various strands of the Social Welfare Net, which should help to strengthen it, but also make it work more efficiently, giving taxpayers a bigger bang for their buck.  At the same time, by making recipients of social welfare into paying consumers they confer responsibility on people, enabling them to assert increased control over their own lives.  If having a job and doing it well can have such a positive effect on peoples' lives, how much more empowered will they feel when they are providing for their own retirement, buying their own houses, paying for their own health care, and deciding how their own children will be educated?

Still, let's not kid ourselves, no matter how much faith we put, and responsibility we vest, in people, some folks just are not going to provide for themselves, either because they are unable to do so or are unwilling.  As a society we have decided that we will not allow this permanent underclass to completely fall through the cracks, but we've also found that government programs designed to help them are grossly inefficient and not much help.  On the other hand, religious and private institutions have a much better track record of providing basic services (meals, a place to sleep, even health care) than does government.  So here too, we should shift dollars from public programs to private, allowing churches, shelters, and the like to accept government dollars, if they so choose, with no strings attached.  This will serve to foster community, with local organizations providing assistance to local people, and will deliver more effective social services to the truly needy.

Can I get an Amen ?


Grade: (C)


See also:

Barbara Ehrenreich (2 books reviewed)
Barbara Ehrenreich Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Barbara Ehrenreich
-OBIT: Barbara Ehrenreich, Explorer of Prosperity’s Dark Side, Dies at 81: Her book “Nickel and Dimed,” an undercover account of the indignities of being a low-wage worker in the United States, is considered a classic in social justice literature. (NY Times, 9/02/22)
    -TRIBUTE: She Kicked Ass: The late Barbara Ehrenreich was a model for leftist writers and thinkers, combining deep knowledge, scathing wit, and a righteous anger at injustice. (Nathan J. Robinson, 9/05/22, Current Affairs)
    -TRIBUTE: The Long Fight of Barbara Ehrenreich: Remembering the champion of the working class, scourge of the self-important, and my friend of 50 years. (DEIRDRE ENGLISH, 9/07/22, Mother Jones)
    -TRIBUTE: Model Practitioner: Remembering Barbara Ehrenreich (Chris Lehmann, September 6, 2022, Baffler)
    -TRIBUTE: On Barbara Ehrenreich: Look at yourself, she always asks the reader; what do you see there? (GABRIEL WINANT, 9/11/22, N+)
    -TRIBUTE: My Revolutionary Inspiration, Barbara Ehrenreich: Remembrances of the late author have focused on her best-selling Nickel and Dimed with only rare acknowledgement of the major roles she played in women’s liberation and U.S. socialism. (Lynne Segal, 9/15/22, Boston Review)
    -TRIBUTE: Barbara Ehrenreich helped make inequality visible – her legacy lives on in a reinvigorated labor movement (Adia Harvey Wingfield, September 12, 2022, The Conversation)
    -ESSAY: Disease of Our Making: Wars produce warlike societies, which in turn make the world more dangerous. (Barbara Ehrenreich, March 23, 2003, LA Times)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ARCHIVES : Barbara Ehrenreich (The Well)
    -Barbara Ehrenreich : contributing writer (The Nation)
    -The Progressive
    -Barbara Ehrenreich's ZNet HomePage
    -BOOK SITE : Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich (Henry Holt)
    -ESSAY : Nickel-and-Dimed On (not) getting by in America.(Harper's Magazine, January 01 1999 by Barbara Ehrenreich)
    -EXCERPT : from Nickel and Dimed (Indiana U)
    -EXCERPT : from Nickel and Dimed : Maid to Order (Barbara Ehrenreich, April, 2000, Harper's)
    -INTERVIEW : Three Part interview with Barbara Ehrenreich about Nickel and Dimed (James Fallows, May 2001, The Atlantic Monthly)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : Life on Minimum Wage (Radio Nation)
    -INTERVIEW : BARBARA EHRENREICH : Maid to Order (David Barsamian, October 11, 2000, Alternative Radio)
    -ESSAY : Warning, This Is a Rights-Free Workplace (Barbara Ehrenreich, March 05, 2000 , NY Times Magazine)
    -ESSAY : Your Urine, Please  (Barbara Ehrenreich, The Progressive)
    -ESSAY : BEHIND THE BOOK : Underpaid and undercover: surviving on seven bucks an hour (Barbara Ehrenreich , Book Page)
    -ESSAY : What Are They Probing For ? : Applying for a job? Get ready for a test of your innermost thoughts (Barbara Ehrenreich, June 2001, TIME)
    -ESSAY : Christian Wahhabists (Barbara Ehrenreich, January 2002, The Progressive)
    -ESSAY : Barefoot, Pregnant and Ready to Fight (Barbara Ehrenreich, TIME)
    -ESSAY : Talking Back to Mom : Re-reading the Feminine Mystique (Barbara Ehrenreich, LA Weekly)
    -ESSAY : When Government Gets Mean : Confessions of a Recovering Statist (Barbara Ehrenreich, The Nation)
    -ESSAY : The Post-Liberal Apocalypse.(Democratic Party Convention 2000) For four days in August, it was end-times in L.A. ( Barbara Ehrenreich, The Progressive, October 01 2000)
    -ESSAY : Why the Religious Right is Wrong  (Barbara Ehrenreich, September 7, 1992, TIME)
    -ESSAY : Religion Starter Kits (Barbara Ehrenreich, The Progressive)
    -ESSAY : On Prayer (Barbara Ehrenreich , Z Magazine)
    -ESSAY : The Vision-Impaired Rich  (Barbara Ehrenreich, The Progressive)
    -ESSAY : The New Creationism: Biology Under Attack  (Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh, 6/9/97, The Nation)
    -ESSAY : VOTE FOR NADER  (BARBARA EHRENREICH, August 21/28, 2000, The Nation)
    -ESSAY : Don't Blame Me (Barbara Ehrenreich, November 28, 2000, TIME)
    -ESSAY : Communism on your coffee table! Barbara Ehrenreich on how all-conquering capitalism has turned Karl Marx's "Communist Manifesto" into a glossy adornment that goes with most decorating schemes. (Barbara Ehrenreich [04/30/98] , Salon)
    -ESSAY : The Week Feminists Got Laryngitis (Barbara Ehrenreich, FEBRUARY 9, 1998, TIME)
    -ESSAY : Chasing Monica : The House managers got their wish -- a chance to probe, examine and even "de-brief" the luscious Lewinsky. (Barbara Ehrenreich [01/29/99] , Salon)
    -ESSAY : The Charge: Gynocide  The Accused: The U.S. Government  (Barbara Ehrenreich, Mark Dowie and Stephen Minkin, Mother Jones)
    -REVIEW : of DOWN AND OUT, ON THE ROAD : The Homeless in American History. By Kenneth L. Kusmer (Barbara Ehrenreich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of JIHAD VS. McWORLD By Benjamin R. Barber  (Barbara Ehrenreich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of CREATING A NEW CIVILIZATION The Politics of the Third Wave. By Alvin Toffler and Heidi Toffler (Barbara Ehrenreich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  THE SILENT PASSAGE Menopause. By Gail Sheehy (Barbara Ehrenreich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of   DIVORCE An American Tradition. By Glenda Riley   (Barbara Ehrenreich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  THE IMPERIAL MIDDLE :  Why Americans Can't Think Straight About Class By Benjamin DeMott  (Barbara Ehrenreich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of   A TENURED PROFESSOR  By John Kenneth Galbraith (Barbara Ehrenreich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of   MARY HEATON VORSE The Life of an American Insurgent. By Dee Garrison.  (Barbara Ehrenreich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  INTIMATE MATTERS A History of Sexuality in America. By John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman  (Barbara Ehrenreich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  A GOOD ENOUGH PARENT A Book on Child-Rearing. By Bruno Bettelheim  (Barbara Ehrenreich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  DAYS LIKE THIS A Tale of Divorce. By Phyllis Gillis  (Barbara Ehrenreich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  PERFECTION SALAD Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century. By Laura Shapiro  (Barbara Ehrenreich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of   WOMEN AGAINST CENSORSHIP Edited by Varda Burstyn (Barbara Ehrenreich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  FASTER The Acceleration of Just About Everything. By James Gleick   (Barbara Ehrenreich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  WE BAND OF ANGELS The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese. By Elizabeth M. Norman  (Barbara Ehrenreich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of   AMERICAN NOMAD By Steve Erickson (Barbara Ehrenreich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of   CLASS ACT America's Last Dirty Secret. By Benita Eisler  (Barbara Ehrenreich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE PILL, JOHN ROCK, AND THE CHURCH The Biography of a Revolution. By Loretta McLaughlin   (Barbara Ehrenreich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  Frozen Desire: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Money By James Buchan (Barbara Ehrenreich, Z Magazine)
    -BOOKNOTES : Author: Barbara Ehrenreich  Title: Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class  Air date: October 8, 1989 (C-SPAN)
    -INTERVIEW : Mothers Who Think: Does President Clinton feel women's pain -- or cause it? Feminist author Barbara Ehrenreich lashes out at a White House workplace that seems organized around President Clinton's 'problem.' (Lori Leibovich [03/19/97] , Salon)
    -INTERVIEW : Writing for the Mainstream : An interview with Barbara Ehrenreich (October 1997, Z Magazine)
    -INTERVIEW : Rites of war : After studying the roots of combat, Barbara Ehrenreich finds the Balkans crisis all too familiar. (Peter Werbe, 4/21/99, Metro Times)
    -INTERVIEW : MEDIA DIET:  Barbara Ehrenreich (Utne Reader)
    -PROFILE : Barbara Ehrenreich Enemy of Labor (Judith Shulevitz, March 29, 2000, Slate)
    -PROFILE : 1995 Visionaries (Utne Reader)
    -ARCHIVES : ehrenreich (TIME)
    -ARCHIVES : "ehrenreich" (Mother Jones)
    -ARCHIVES : ehrenreich (The Progressive)
    -ARCHIVES : Directory | Barbara Ehrenreich :  A complete listing of Salon articles on Barbara Ehrenreich
    -ARCHIVES : ehrenreich (Slate)
    -ARCHIVES : ehrenreich (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : ehrenreich (Mag Portal)
    -ARCHIVES : ehrenreich (Find Articles)
    -ESSAY : When Will Real Waitresses Write Their Own Books? (Lauren Sandler, Newsday)
    -PROFILE : Slumming With Barbara Ehrenreich : Wealthy, White Woman Plays Poor and Makes a Killing. (Derek Copold, September 2001, Texas Mercury)
    -REVIEW : of NICKEL AND DIMED On (Not) Getting By in America. By Barbara Ehrenreich (Dorothy Gallagher, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Nickel and Dimed (J. PEDER ZANE , Charlotte News-Observer)
    -REVIEW : of Nickel and Dimed (Steve Early, The Nation)
    -REVIEW : of Nickel and Dimed (Philip Connors, In These Times)
    -REVIEW : of NICKEL AND DIMED On (Not) Getting By in America. By Barbara Ehrenreich (Laura Miller, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Nickel and Dimed (Arianna Huffington, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Nickle and Dimed (Katherine S. Newman, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Nickel and Dimed (Anne Colomosca, Business Week)
    -REVIEW : of Nickel and Dimed (JEANNIE KEVER, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America By Barbara Ehrenreich (Steve Weinberg, Chicago Tribune)
    -REVIEW : of Nickel and Dimed : How Low They Can Go : Social critic Barbara Ehrenreich explores the life of low-wage workers and finds them bowedóbut not brokenóby the weight of an economic boom (Mark Gleason , Book)
    -REVIEW : of Nickel and Dimed (Richard Hunt, City Beat)
    -REVIEW : of Nickel and Dimed (Vivien Labaton, Ms)
    -REVIEW : of Nickel and Dimed (Eileen Boris, Boston.�com)
    -REVIEW : of Nickel and Dimed (Lowell Ponte, Front Page)
    -REVIEW of Nickel and Dimed (Knowledge@Wharton)
    -REVIEW : of THE HEARTS OF MEN, American Dreams and the Flight From Commitment. By Barbara Ehrenreich (Carol Tavris, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of RE-MAKING LOVE The Feminization of Sex. By Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs (1986) (Judith Viorst, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Worst Years of Our Lives (1990)  (HERBERT MITGANG, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE WORST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (H. Jack Geiger, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Kipper's Game By Barbara Ehrenreich (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Kipper's Game (Michael Upchurch, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of BLOOD RITES Origins and History of the Passions of War. By Barbara Ehrenreich (1997) (Michael Sherry, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Oct 9, 1997 Michael Ignatieff: The Gods of War, NY Review of Books
       Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War by Barbara Ehrenreich
       The Rosy Future of War by Philippe Delmas
       Postmodern War: The New Politics of Conflict by Chris Hables Gray
    -REVIEW : of Blood Rites (Thomas Powers, The Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW : of BLOOD RITES: Origins and History of the Passions of War  Barbara Ehrenreich (Jam Book Reviews)
    -REVIEW : of Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War.(The Humanist,  Edd Doerr)
    -REVIEW : of BLOOD RITES (New Statesman,  Roz Kaveney)
    -REVIEW : of Blood Rites (Cath Walsh, Richmond Review)
    -REVIEW : of FEAR OF FALLING The Inner Life of the Middle Class. By Barbara Ehrenreich  (Jefferson Morley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Fear of Falling (Scott London)

    -2001 HHS Poverty Guidelines
    -ESSAY : Who is Paid the Minimum Wage and Who Would be Affected by a $1.50 per Hour Increase (D. Mark Wilson , Heritage Foundation, June 2001)
    -ESSAY : $8.25 an hour in a million-dollar world : It was hard for lower-end workers to make ends meet in the Bay Area of the dot-com boom. And it's still hard in the bust. (King Kaufman, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Venus at the Ballot Box : Women may lean toward the "Mommy State," but their politics are more complex than pundits recognize (Cathy Young, Feb 2001, Reason)
    -PROFILE : Noreena Hertz : Infantile Leftist : A new critique of the corporate state has been the focus of extensive media attention. It is intellectually vacuous, says Martin Wolf (Prospect, July 2001)
    -EXCERPT : from The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values  By NANCY FOLBRE
    -REVIEW : of The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values  By NANCY FOLBRE  (EMMA ROTHSCHILD, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Poverty, Inequality and Health: An International Perspective  by David Leon, Gill Walt  and Mind the Gap: Hierarchies, Health and Human Evolution by Richard Wilkinson (Ronan Conroy, British Medical Journal)
    -REVIEW : of The Market System: What It Is, How It Works, and What to Make of It, Charles E. Lindblom (George Scialabba, American Prospect)
    -ESSAY : The PC crowd : A look at the economics of political correctness (The Economist, Jun 14th 2001)
    -REVIEW : of  HOW MEN FEEL Their Response to Women's Demands for Equality and Power. By Anthony Astrachan  (Ron Hansen, NY Times Book Review)