“Would she fully encompass the awareness of a poverty-stricken life? ” This is the first thought that ran through my mind, as I picked up the book Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Eherenreich. A month long journey, no scientific research, on living life in America as a lower class citizen. I could feel my face beginning to burn with rage and spite as I began to read the introduction-I was skeptical. She proved me wrong.
I grew up as part of the lower income class in the midst of Brooklyn, New York. My mother’s income tax returns for this year stated that she made a little over $12,000-I had known these figures since as far back as I could remember, for they were always being thrown in my face. Finances were always a struggle and an issue in our lives-we were always “financially disabled”. Work was never a question or a “learning responsibility” as it was for most 13-year olds-It was just a way of life.
It was my reality, and I did not know any other way, until I began college, where I worked three jobs while attending school my first year. I did this until I burned myself out falling asleep while standing on the train, or even at work or in class. My grades suffered and I realized I need to change some aspect of my life, or I would fall into the poverty stricken statistic like my mother. I thought Eherenreich would make a fool out of herself writing this book, when in fact she touched me where it hurt most.
My feelings had finally been touched by an outsider. It is my belief that by carefully painting a devastatingly realistic portrait of the American lower class, Barbara Eherenreich exploits the government and forces the oblivious working middle class and those whom have never been poor, to open up their eyes and see the painstaking reality of it all. “Welfare reform. “-This is how it all began. The disturbing investigation of how people, women mainly, survive off wages as low as six or seven dollars an hour.
Eherenreich was assigned the task of going into the workforce and experiencing, first hand, what poverty was really like. This is where my skepticism began. I never thought she could do it. I almost laughed to myself. “Survival of the fittest”, I began to think– They would feed her to the dogs and she would be eaten alive within a week. Her strength and determination soon demonstrated to me just how wrong I was about her, as it did her. I believe she did not think she would make it either, although in her perception she had indeed failed.
Determination, however, goes a long way. When you are forced into a certain way of life, I guess you just have to accept it and adapt to it. Applying for a housekeeping position, she acquired her first job as a waitress, (due in part to the fact that she was white), at a place called Hearthside. Housekeeping was dominated by the Latino females. At Hearthside, she learned, through the lives of her fellow co-workers, that she was better off than most, even under her restricting circumstances. Most of her fellow co-workers showed to live in trailers, motels, or even in their cars.
It was difficult to be able to afford to pay first months rent as well as a security deposit, whereas motels did not require so much money up front, even though it proved to be more expensive in the long run. Eherenreich allotted herself this rent money before she even began her venture, so she was not burned with it when beginning her project. She begins to realize that the disgrace bestowed upon the lower class was nonchalantly accepted, whereas, this is utterly mortifying as well as shocking to those who have not lived and worked under such conditions.
For instance, the right to be able to go to the restroom during working hours was only protected by the law since the year 1998, and is still an ongoing battle which many workers are continually deprived of (I know this from personal experience). Employers fire employees when they are no longer “of use”, due to work-related injuries leaving them unable to work. These degradations are not ones that most of us have ever experienced and cannot nor will we ever even conceive of enduring.
With the realization that she needs to move to a closer location, Eherenreich migrates into a residential trailer park, as well as taking on the task of a second waitressing position, at a place called Jerry’s. Here she decides that the management, although still a horrid chaos of power hungry mongers, is more professionalism then her other employers. The double shift is beginning to catch up with her, however, and she ends up leaving Hearthside, only to find herself needing yet another job to compensate for the lack of rent money. Finally she acquires her “dream” job of housekeeping, and yet still cannot keep up with both jobs.
In a fit of chaotic “entropy”, as she calls it, Eherenreich gives up. “It is only an experiment,” she claims. The exit door was awaiting her, as it had been anyone else who had wanted to be so brave as to leave their income behind in search or hopes of a new or better job. It was so easy for her, and this is where she believes she has failed, and I believe her to have succeeded. In her perception, she has forsaken everyone and everything without a second thought, only because she was never bound to it; it was only an experiment. In my opinion, she succeeded; because she indirectly found what it was she was searching for.
She became friendly with some of the co-workers and this allowed her to see them almost as a part of her life at the moment. She was able to sympathize with them and share their pain. Through their lives, she was able to see the truth in their hurtful lives, and represent the lower working class, through them, rather than mainly her own experiences. It was to my liking, especially, her vivid descriptions of the lives of these people, as well as her own. I felt that I could truly see my own reflection mirrored through them, and a warm smile of satisfaction had, in turn, emanated from my face.