As A Written Leaf: “Nickel and Dimed”

By: Elyanna Saperstien  |  August 31, 2020
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By Elyanna Saperstien

Nickel and Dimed 
By: Barbara Ehrenreich
Genre: Investigative Journalism/Memoir 
Total score: 9/10
Book in five words: America and the minimum wage.
If you Love: Easy but meaningful reads; strong narrative voices — this is the book for you.
If you Hate: Numerical understanding without the human aspect of social issues — this is the book for you.

This old book was a new discovery after I had seen a random, positive review on Goodreads recommending it to anyone who wanted to understand America’s blue collar class (with a tenth of America’s labor force laid off, it seems particularly apropo).The book follows the author’s journey of trying to sustain herself for a year on working class wage. Ehrenreich examines the reality of the “other half” of America, and in the process, she chronicles her travels across the United States with her ever-present companions: fear, hunger, pain, and curiosity.   

Though this book was written in 2001, it retains a startling relevance (at least in terms of the humanity aspect; although, as time and legislation has moved on, this book is relevant to some states in the U.S.more than others). As you read, you’ll fall in love with both the language and all of the side characters you only meet for a couple of pages. From waitresses, busboys, and cooks, to housekeepers and dietary aides, she captures her surroundings with succinct accuracy and evocative depictions. What separates this book from other explorations of minimum wage in America is its intense personability. Ehrenreich abandons coworkers, tries to help others, and deals with the guilt, empathy, privilege and compassion that led her on this journey in the first place. This lack of distance humanizes a population that, as Ehrenreich points out, has been largely hidden from view. 

Ehrenreich travels from Florida to Maine — sit on her shoulder as she works the late shifts and searches for housing and food. For anyone who has not had to struggle with job, food, and home insecurity, this book will be a real eye-opener. As someone who grew up with parents in white collar jobs, who has been blessed with a college education, I still thought I was relatively ‘in touch’ with America. I could not have been more wrong. This book is for all those who have a desire to understand and engage with what American poverty, survival, and minimum wage appear as with their humanity still intact. 

Though the book is not a rigorously statistical one, it’s an incredibly human one. This book remains, and always should be, an integral part of the library of anyone with, or looking to form, an opinion on minimum wage.

Agree? Disagree? Have something to say? Books to suggest? 

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