Belated Book Review: Nickel and Dimed (2001) August 12, 2015Posted by geoff in News.
All the minimum wage hoopla reminded me of a post I’ve long wanted to write: a brief debunking of Barbara Ehrenreich’s liberal classic, Nickel and Dimed.
Back in 2001, Barbara Ehrenreich (a writer with a PhD in biology) decided that she would experience just how hard it is to get by on entry-level jobs. Dr. Ehrenreich tried several jobs during 3 months spread over 2 years, sometimes two at a time (well, for a grand total of 3 days), including waiting tables, cleaning hotel rooms (well, for 1 day), cleaning people’s houses, being a nursing home aide, and working at Wal-Mart. She wrote up her experiences (with much drama and angst) in Nickel and Dimed and the book was a bestseller, forming part of the foundation and mythos of the Left’s class wars ever since.
I applaud her spirit in getting her hands dirty and diving into those sorts of jobs, but her blindness to logic and reality permeate her decisions and her actions. For example:
Unskilled Jobs. Her lack of logic is most simply shown with her statement,
The first thing I discovered was that no job, no matter how lowly, is truly “unskilled.” Every one of the six jobs I entered into in the course of this project required concentration, and most demanded that I master new terms, new tools, and new skills – from placing orders on restaurant computers to wielding the backpack vacuum cleaner.
That’s a nice sentiment, but a demonstrably stupid statement given her own experience. The jobs she worked typically required one day of training, and she never lasted at a single job more than a month. So those mad skills she’s lauding aren’t all that – she was able to work by the second day, and I think if she had worked for more than a month, she would have found herself on autopilot on pretty much every task she encountered.
Contrast this with the 10 years of education and training before she was granted a PhD in biology.
Time in Grade. The lowest wage you’ll ever earn at any job is, of course, your starting wage. It’s common to see wage increases after you’ve proven that you can do the job and will stick with your employer. She never stays long enough at a job to ever get a raise, nor does she stay in any profession long enough to move laterally to a better-paying company.
As a side note, everybody knows that transitions are more expensive than maintaining the status quo. I.e., moving is expensive, setting up in your new place is expensive, getting the money for deposits is expensive, etc. Staying longer in a given area and at a given job gets you past a lot of the one-time transition costs.
Poor Financial Decision Making. Naturally, it’s very difficult to make ends meet on minimum wage, when you’re a person who is unwilling to share lodging or resources. Ms. Ehrenreich’s refusal to share anything is often at the root of her financial woes. For example, she notes the sad case of a couple who are staying at a Days Inn where almost all their wages are expended on their room. When a coworker gets thrown out by her boyfriend, she goes to stay with the couple at the motel.
But why didn’t Ms. Ehrenreich offer to share her little trailer with the coworker? She could have halved her rent and utility bills, giving her a little disposable income (she was taking home ~$1030/month, and her rent was ~$650/month). Didn’t even occur to her, apparently, even though pretty much all her coworkers were living with someone (and sometimes a lot of someones).
She had a lower rent for a unit farther away, but the savings were getting eaten up by gas. Again, sharing the commute would have solved her problem. Apparently she’s not that environmentally-friendly.
Finally, she turns down a $10 job at Menards for a $7/hr job at Wal-Mart, in part because she’s so rattled and shaky she can’t think straight. Is there any point in listening to anything she has to say?
Why Are Entry-Level Wages So Low?: Dr. Ehrenreich asks this very question at the end of her book, immediately blaming on eeeevil employers and the docile workers who refuse to demand higher wages. Maybe. But she tells us earlier another, more obvious, reason why wages are really so low:
…most, but by no means all, of the working housekeepers I see on my job searches are African Americans, Spanish-speaking, or refugees from the Central European post-Communist world.”
Yes, Virginia, importing low wage labor will keep wages low. It’s a classic case of increasing the supply without increasing the demand. And of course businesses love it and want even more of it, even up to skilled professions like engineering and information technology.
Her solution is to increase the minimum wage, ignoring the counterproductive inflation and the greater attraction of the US job market for legal & illegal job seekers.
Conclusion. Her experiment was compromised by stupid decisions throughout, and her book is written with the whiniest, most self-important tone we’ve seen since Trump’s Art of the Deal. It’s sad so many liberals think this is meaningful or constitutes research.