Two Reviews

by Bob Roman

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. New York, Metropolitan Books: Henry Holt and Company, 2001. 221 pp Hardcover $23.00

One big problem with political books is that they are not often read by people who do not already pretty much agree with the author. Books on a special interest draw a readership concerned with the special interest. Books with an ideological subtext draw their own readership. Barbara Ehrenreich has succeeded in writing a special interest book (the working poor) with an ideological (left) subtext that can easily be read people who very much disagree with her perspective or are not overly concerned with her topic. You could, for example, give this book as a present to you reactionary Uncle Ernie and it’s likely he would read it, enjoy it, and possibly even learn from it.

This is not an easy thing to do.

The basic premise of Nickel and Dimed draws upon a grand old tradition of journalism, that of assuming an identity to do a story. Specifically, “how does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? How were the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market going to make it on $6 to $7 an hour?”

In this case, Barbara Ehrenreich did not so much assume a false identity as a misleading biography: an older woman forced by circumstance to return to the job market after a long absence with little savings, no special skills, a car, and few or no friends in a new town. Ehrenreich drew up a fairly strict set of ground rules for herself to follow in each of the three cities where she attempted to live. These rules were a reasonable simulation of her assumed biography, and she applied them in Key West, Florida, in Portland, Maine, and in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. She chose these venues partly for whimsical reasons but partly, also, to control for race and for local politics (Minnesota having a liberal tradition).

Her experiences were depressingly uniform. Poverty is poverty and it imposes its own priorities. A lack of resources restricts choices, leaving one more vulnerable to exploitative situations. This applies to both economic and personal situations. Ehrenreich found that despite tight labor markets, large corporations such as Wal-Mart, often manipulated job applicants into being supplicants, denying any possibility of even individual bargaining over the conditions of employment. Likewise, for people working at near the minimum wage, an informal support network of friends and family is often crucial to staying off the streets, but too often the price for this support is high.

A lack of resources also means that, of necessity, one’s time horizon for planning ahead (listen up, Banfield!) is very near, forcing such people into making decisions that are considerably more expensive in the long run. Housing is an excellent example of this. Many of the people Ehrenreich worked with and indeed Ehrenreich herself lived in motels where the monthly expense is considerably more than even a modest apartment. But the motel does not get paid monthly but daily or weekly, so each payment is less than an apartment’s monthly rent and, more to the point, the motel does not demand a month (or more) rent in security deposit. While Ehrenreich did not mention it, this does raise the issue of access for the poor to reasonably priced credit.

Housing ends up being the immediate deal killer in all three metropolitan areas. Affordable housing, meaning housing that costs no more than 30 percent of one’s income, is simply not available to people working near the minimum wage. Barbara Ehrenreich makes no systematic attempt to diagnose the reason for this beyond some observations about what might be called wealth inflation. But finding reasons isn’t the purpose of her book. Rather, she lets her experience, and the experience of her fellow workers, illustrate the problem. She does point out (as have others) that our “official” definition of poverty is based on a “market basket” that assumes food takes a fixed percentage of the family income when in fact other necessities have inflated faster.

All these things will be enlightening to our hypothetical Uncle Ernie, but don’t expect a conversion experience for Ehrenreich’s experience can be interpreted in a number of ways. Most particularly, conservatives are likely to observe that her experiment was designed with a short life span, with no more than a month spent in each metropolitan area. Sure, the circumstances are tough but that’s life and ultimately, it’s for the best.

Our Uncle Ernie would point to one of the many interesting characters Ehrenreich met in her adventure, “Caroline” in Minnesota. She is the aunt of a New York friend; Caroline did in real life what Ehrenreich is doing as an exercise in journalism and then some. She took her children, left her husband, and ended up starting over in an unknown city.

It would be untrue to characterize Caroline’s life story as one disaster and hardship after another though she clearly has had more than her share. But it is clear that she is a survivor. Her advice for starting out in a new town: “Always find a church.” At this point, Uncle Ernie would be starting to plug Bush’s “Faith Based Initiative”, but regardless of that proposal’s merits or demerits, it’s beside the point. What Caroline is telling us, really, is that if you live so close to the edge of disaster, the safer place to be, the place that might make the difference between survival and not, is a place of human solidarity. Regardless of the merits of faith, this is exactly what a church community can provide, ready made. Solidarity is something survivors understand; when Ehrenreich concludes her interview, Caroline spontaneously donates “a family-sized container of her homemade chicken stew”. Don’t expect Uncle Ernie to grasp this without help.

There’s a lot that Uncle Ernie won’t understand. When we meet Caroline, she’s living with her husband in a rented three bedroom house. It’s expensive. It’s shabby. It’s in a chancy neighborhood. But with two incomes, they’re earning $40,000 and have a life that works, albeit precariously. It was a tough struggle; it damaged her health. You might get Uncle Ernie to concede the need for some specific assistance, but I imagine him holding Caroline up as if she were a trophy, proclaiming it can be done!

For socialists, this is beside the point. It doesn’t matter that given hard, smart and lucky effort some measure of security might be gained. The outrage is a society, our society, that in order to function demands that there be losers and in doing so creates them just as it does yuppies, super stars, businessmen, etc. Ehrenreich’s book merely documents the ugly process of making sausage. As Upton Sinclair’s Jungle did, one hopes it may move some of the privileged to take action or, more to the point, be ready to lend a hand when the poor themselves take action. As Barbara Ehrenreich says at the end of her book:

“Someday, of course and I will make no predictions as to exactly when they [the working poor] are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they’re worth. There’ll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption. But the sky will not fall, and we will all be better off for it in the end.”

Civil Rights Since 1787: A Reader on the Black Struggle Edited by Jonathan Birnbaum and Clarence Taylor. New York, New York University Press, 2000, 936 pp Softcover $29.95

I should confess to a certain conflict of interest in writing this review. Jonathan Birnbaum is a Chicago DSA member. I first met him some years ago at the now defunct Midwest Radical Scholars and Activists Conference. Over the years, I’ve come to know him as one of the more amusing, interesting and informed conversationalists in an organization replete with such skills. He has saved me from death by boredom at any number of conference literature tables.

Yet when Jonathan Birnbaum tossed a review copy of this book in my lap last Fall, it wasn’t the combined mass of 900 pages that made me sit up and shout; it was the title of its introduction: “It Didn’t Start in 1954”. I was hooked.

The book consists of 182 articles, essays, original documents. It is divided into 6 parts: “Slavery: America’s First Compromise”, “Reconstruction”, “Segregation”, “The Second Reconstruction”, “Backlash Redux”, “Toward a Third Reconstruction”. Civil Rights Since 1787 bills itself as “A Reader on the Black Struggle”; however, its main emphasis is actually on what is called the Second Reconstruction, the U.S. civil rights struggle of the second half of the Twentieth Century. But for that struggle to make sense, it needs to be in context. The prior record of the struggle needs to be presented.

Even so, context will be a problem for some readers, particularly for those documents from the Nineteenth Century. Birnbaum and Taylor do provide an introduction to each selection and a longer introductory essay for each section, but even so: not only is the language somewhat different, but the documents are redolent in implications no longer obvious. This seems less true of the more contemporary material (or perhaps I’m getting old). It is clear, though, that the first audience for this book is the college (and perhaps high school) classroom where instructors and supplementary material can provide that context, or where the book itself is the supplementary material for a more specific syllabus. With this in mind, it almost seems that the book might have been better published as a CD, with annotations, links and a supporting web site.

The part devoted to the Second Reconstruction includes about a third of the material in the book. The essays, articles and documents from this time are subdivided into “The Legal Strategy” (which is mostly material about Brown v. Board of Education, including the actual Supreme Court order), “Labor Days”, “The Churches’ Hour” (extensive!), “Economic Justice”, “Black Power”, “Electoral and Street Politics”, “Discrimination: Ongoing Examples”, “Affirmative Action”.

My two favorite essays in this book are from this part: Stokley Carmichael’s essay on Black Power: “What We Want”, and Bayard Rustin’s “From Protest to Politics”. Both were enormously controversial when they were fresh, and they both defined what seemed to be very different perspectives on the struggle. Yet from a distance of thirty years, they somehow seem not so different, almost complimentary. Considering the subsequent political careers of the respective authors, there’s an essay in there somewhere. With 182 selections, folks will find their own favorites.

Likewise, with so much material, you’ll find selections that might have been better left out. My own particular disappointment was “The Abolitionist Movement” by Herbert Aptheker. Now, it would have been odd to not have included something by Aptheker in this volume (on the other hand, there’s nothing by Robert Fogel), but this particular selection was simply Aptheker’s attempt to turn the Abolitionist movement into a leninist fairy tale. It doesn’t give either the subject or Aptheker much credit, and it comes at a place where the historical coverage is less dense thus the failure is more noticeable.

But look, folks, there’s a lot of material in this volume, and it’s impressively indexed. If you’re at all interested in U.S. history, particularly African American history, it belongs on your shelf. And at $30, let no one say you never get more than what you pay for; this book is truly a labor of love.

Originally published in New Ground 77, July — August, 2001.