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Book Review: Nickel and Dimed is a (decent) car wreck.

In 2001 Barbara Ehrenreich wrote Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America.

You can get an idea of what the book is about by checking it out on Amazon; I won’t waste your time here reiterating a synopsis of a 7-year-old work.  I’ll simply give you some of my observations.

Ms. Ehrenreich doesn’t mention her upbringing, but judging by how she seems to be rubbernecking the poor as if they were a 3-jalopy-pile-up on the interstate, I’m assuming it was solidly middle class.  She details the daily struggles well, but she only touches on the culture of the poor.  She is always on the other side of the divider, peering in.  She seems to concentrate only on the money and survival.  Her tone is more political than condescending, but it seems like she found no solace in anything, anywhere.  About halfway through the book, I was feeling a bit defensive.  You see, until I was 13, I grew up in that car wreck.  Ms. Ehrenreich deigned to stop and watch for a few short months, but my formative years were trapped there.

In my life, I’ve been exposed to ridiculous wealth, depressing poverty, and middle class struggles. I have to say the most generous people are the people who have the least.  You can start clicking frantically to bring up theories for this ranging from John Stuart Mill’s to Ayn Rand’s, but don’t bother to post them here.  I’ve heard ‘em all.  The fact remains: the poor are the most generous social class.  You don’t see it because you are not in it.  They don’t have piles of money; their charitable deeds are invisible to the accountant’s eye.  A meal here, a place to stay there, clothes for the baby, pots and pans, furniture, beds.  Goods and good deeds exchange hands on a constant basis in the lower ranks of society.  Ms. Ehrenreich’s situation was very real for many folks, especially displaced immigrants without a community, but she only alluded to the lines of help and grace that regular people supply everyday.

Don’t get me wrong.  There wasn’t enough ‘help and grace’ to sustain anybody in the tenement complex I grew up in.  Unions are still relevant and the minimum wage needs to be raised to at least 10 dollars an hour.  Decent daycare must become more available, as well as elderly care.  Anyone who spends 2 hours living at poverty level could see how these improvements could empower masses of people.

Ms. Ehrenreich does well to point out the ironic inconsistencies and hypocrisy of welfare and aid agencies.  For example, most poor are working at least two jobs.  That leaves odd times to pursue aide from government offices, many of which close their doors at 5 p.m.  Poor working people don’t have hours to spend waiting in line as an underpaid and grumpy government worker wades through paperwork, only to be told they made 12 dollars too much to qualify for food stamps.

The author’s observations helped to change my mind about faith-based programs.  At one point in her travels, the author is given advice by a woman who was a poor single mom in a new city.  She told the author to “find a church.”  The logic of it astounded me.  Churches are usually open 24/7.  They have food banks and thrift shops, free supplies and support.  They are usually within walking distance or a short bus ride away.  Government agencies can’t offer what churches can offer immediately and directly to the people who need it most.  They have a structure in place that can be utilized.  I’m sure some senators can come up with some government guidelines that would make the situation palatable to the religion-weary of us.  Faith-based programs are a band-aid approach, but this book reminded me that such temporary solutions are necessary.

If you want an educated white lady’s disenfranchised observations on what it is like to live in the poverty heap, have a read of 2001’s Nickel and Dimed.  The story reads easily and you can get the book done quickly.  Although I feel a bit ‘put on display,’ the hard reality is that most people live and die in the comfy middle class and lend no thought to the people they are stepping on to stay there.  The book tells the story of a car wreck that casual gawkers should be forced to study.

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