Barbara Ehrenreich on “Nickel and Dimed”

Nickel and Dimed (2011 Version)

On Turning Poverty into an American Crime By Barbara Ehrenreich

I completed the manuscript for Nickel and Dimed

in a time of seemingly boundless prosperity. Technology innovators and   venture capitalists were acquiring sudden fortunes, buying up  McMansions  like the ones I had cleaned in Maine and much larger. Even  secretaries  in some hi-tech firms were striking it rich with their  stock options.  There was loose talk about a permanent conquest of the  business cycle,  and a sassy new spirit infecting American capitalism.  In San Francisco, a  billboard for an e-trading firm proclaimed, “Make  love not war,” and  then — down at the bottom — “Screw it, just make  money.”

When Nickel and Dimed was published in May 2001, cracks were   appearing in the dot-com bubble and the stock market had begun to   falter, but the book still evidently came as a surprise, even a   revelation, to many. Again and again, in that first year or two after   publication, people came up to me and opened with the words, “I never   thought…” or “I hadn’t realized…”

To my own amazement, Nickel and Dimed quickly ascended to  the  bestseller list and began winning awards. Criticisms, too, have   accumulated over the years. But for the most part, the book has been far   better received than I could have imagined it would be, with an impact   extending well into the more comfortable classes. A Florida woman  wrote  to tell me that, before reading it, she’d always been annoyed at  the  poor for what she saw as their self-inflicted obesity. Now she   understood that a healthy diet wasn’t always an option.  And if I had a   quarter for every person who’s told me he or she now tipped more   generously, I would be able to start my own foundation.

Even more gratifying to me, the book has been widely read among   low-wage workers. In the last few years, hundreds of people have written   to tell me their stories: the mother of a newborn infant whose   electricity had just been turned off, the woman who had just been given a   diagnosis of cancer and has no health insurance, the newly homeless  man  who writes from a library computer.

At the time I wrote Nickel and Dimed, I wasn’t sure how many   people it directly applied to — only that the official definition of   poverty was way off the mark, since it defined an individual earning $7   an hour, as I did on average, as well out of poverty. But three months   after the book was published, the Economic Policy Institute in   Washington, D.C., issued a report entitled “Hardships in America: The   Real Story of Working Families,” which found an astounding 29% of   American families living in what could be more reasonably defined as   poverty, meaning that they earned less than a barebones budget covering   housing, child care, health care, food, transportation, and taxes —   though not, it should be noted, any entertainment, meals out, cable TV,   Internet service, vacations, or holiday gifts. Twenty-nine percent is a   minority, but not a reassuringly small one, and other studies in the   early 2000s came up with similar figures.

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