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Living hand to mouth 

by Sheri Boggs

Flipping burgers. Cleaning house. Waitressing. Retail work. These are often the jobs we get fresh out of the gate, when we're just starting out, saving for a car, putting ourselves through school or getting that all-important "experience" to put on our blank resumes. Eventually, we work our way up the evolutionary ladder of vocation -- either we graduate and enter a new strata of work by wielding the all-important diploma, or we find a trade and get progressively better at it. Sometimes, we stay in waitressing or retail, but you can bet they're not the sorry gigs of our youth, but are instead nice places with reasonably good customers. The pay -- and the status -- are a lot better than where we started out.

It's easy to forget "crap jobs." The brutal hours, the tedium, the demeaning work. If you think about those jobs at all, what you remember are petty, despotic bosses in ill-fitting fast-food aprons, nannying positions with would-be dysfunctional junior Rockefellers and entire department floors where clothes would fling themselves on the ground for you to pick up the minute you turned your back.

It's a scenario light years away from the day Barbara Ehrenreich realized she would be writing a book about just those kinds of jobs. That book, Nickel and Dimed (Metropolitan Books, 221 pp.) has caused a national sensation. But while having lunch with Harper's editor Lewis Lapham at an "understated French country-style place" where she had the "salmon and field greens," Ehrenreich never thought she'd be the one to write it. She was discussing ideas for future Harper's articles with Lapham when she launched into one of her favorite tirades, how the millions of people affected by welfare reform were supposed to make it on $6 or $7 an hour. She told Lapham the magazine ought to send someone out there to try it for herself as some sort of old-style journalism experiment. To her surprise, he responded that the perfect person for this assignment was her.

So, grave misgivings and balkiness more or less in check, Ehrenreich came up with both a game plan and some rules. First, she couldn't fall back on skills gained by or used in her education or usual work, which she jokingly reasoned with herself shouldn't be a problem, "not that there were a lot of want ads for essayists." Second, she would take the highest paying job offered to her and do her best to keep it. And three, she would live in the cheapest accommodations available, as long as they were reasonably private and safe.

As the reader goes with Ehrenreich "on the job," what becomes readily apparent is her gift for narrative and the quickwitted aside. Waiting tables in Florida, cleaning house in Maine or working at Wal-Mart in Minnesota, Ehrenreich manages to make hours of tedious, hard work, well, riveting, to read. Whether it's getting scolded for dolling up tired desserts with a little extra whipped cream or considering the implications of "time theft" at a Wal-Mart orientation, Ehrenreich amuses while never losing sight of the bigger picture.

In some of the book's most compelling passages, she watches as an injured colleague limps through a full day of punishing housework to keep from losing a day's wages or the tyrannous boss's approval. At Wal-Mart, Ehrenreich quietly encourages her underpaid and overworked fellow team-workers to organize and unionize. And once the day's work is over, she finds herself struggling to afford simple nutritious food, or to keep her efficiency apartment effectively locked and secure.

While the idea of a well-off liberal academic joining the ranks of poverty-level wage slaves is an appealing one, Ehrenreich admits that the experiment is skewed from the very beginning.

"With all the real-life assets I've built up in middle age -- bank account, IRA, health insurance, multi-room home -- waiting indulgently in the background, there was no way I was going to 'experience poverty' or find out how it 'really feels' to be a long-term low-wage worker," she writes. "My aim here was much more straightforward and objective -- just to see whether I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day."

By the book's end, Ehrenreich is pleased to have "made do" -- just barely. What is most interesting in reading Nickel and Dimed is that while it is intelligent, well reasoned and entertaining, it is also just as frustrating. Ehrenreich raises questions and shines a glaring light on issues that have no easy answer. It's as if she's saying, "Hey, I'm a social critic, not a social worker." Which is fine, but it's hard to read this book without wanting to do something. The closest Ehrenreich comes to offering solutions is by sharing her opinions, which are steeped in everything from the social sciences to biology to literature.

As a low-wage worker, Ehrenreich was mystified to see her personality alter, to find herself hating customers and getting involved in petty workplace disputes. Her self-esteem even begins to erode, especially when she realizes that as "Barb" -- the woman she might have become had her father not climbed out of the coal mines and had she not put herself through school -- she's meaner, slyer "and not nearly as smart" as she would have liked to be.

What Ehrenreich comes to realize, though, is that it's not just the low wages, nor is it the commonly held belief that "being poor is a choice" that keeps the people around her down. It's also the mind-numbing haze of drug tests, personality tests, idiotic training videos, paternalistic power structures and cultural disdain for low-wage work that contribute to the (temporary) sense of hopelessness and frustration that Ehrenreich encounters.

Citing everything from the studied correlation between power and behavior in humans and other animals to making the assertion that the working poor are the unnamed philanthropists of our society for giving up so many things the rest of us take for granted, Ehrenreich successfully and memorably makes her case.

In fact, by the time the reader hits this statement, it seems not so much like hyperbolic rhetoric as it does simple fact: "There seems to be a vicious cycle at work here, making ours not just an economy but a culture of extreme inequality."
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