Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich has changed not only how I view the working poor, but it has changed my life. Not in any hugely dramatic way, but in ways that I hope make life a little easier for some folks.
This is the story of an upper-middle class woman with a Ph.D. who wants to see how life adds up when you are working an entry level (read: minimum wage) job and trying to pay rent and eat.
Some things really pissed me off:
Did you know that in some states, a person who works in a "tipped" position (waitress etc.) does not make minimum wage PLUS tips. The tips they get are applied to their hourly wage up to the point where they are only making $2.13 per hour plus tips (assuming their tips plus wage add up to that state's minimum). Florida is one of those states, California is not. Sometimes the difference between make it or break it for these folks can be $10 a month. Think about that the next time you are wondering how much to tip your waitress, or the people washing your car at Ducky's, or the next time you stay at a hotel with maid service. Oh, ya, did I mention that the maids at hotels are often paid by the room, not by the hour...so clean up after yourself a little better. The sooner they can move on to the next room, the better.
Did you know that a lot of maids who work for a maid service (that come to your home and clean) are independent contractors and therefore do not get medical benefits and are not covered by worker's comp insurance? This in an industry with a high probability of repetitive stress injuries, and other more acute injuries. This infuriated me.
I can't do the book justice in a brief review. It is about 200 pages long and it is a very quick read. The author does not pretend that she is experiencing this lifestyle the way that most people really are. Even though she doesn't use her education, experience or credentials to get a job, she still has a Ph.D. and money in the bank, and has an "out" whenever she wants to. She also allows herself enough money to get a "rent a wreck" so that she has transportation (a luxury many people don't have) and enough cash to pay for first month's rent and deposit. She also starts her journey in good health and with a high self-esteem. Again, both are luxuries that many people do not have.
Barbara Ehrenreich has also written a book called Bait and Switch in which she examines what happens when you've "done everything right" (gotten a college degree, etc) and are a middle-class, white collar worker looking for a job.
Ehrenreich writes with an easy style and a subtle wit. Read it (them). It'll make you think.