Nickel and Dimed: Introduction, Part One
April 2, 2011 6 Comments
Today, I started reading Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich’s book on her experiment on living in poverty. As I read, I’ll write, sharing my thoughts and reactions to her experience.
Introduction: Getting Ready
In this chapter, Barbara shares what inspired her to undergo this experiment, her apprehensions, and her parameters, or “rules” that she will follow throughout the experiment.
It all started with a lunch with the editor of Harper’s—she was discussing ideas for her next work with Lewis Lapham, and she “drifted to one of [her] more favorite themes—poverty.” Themes. You know, I didn’t have a good reaction to that word. “Issues” would have been my natural choice, or “problems.” Using themes makes it sound like she’s talking about creative writing or literature, not one of the most enduring dark sides of human society since the beginning of time. At the time, of course, all I did was squint and read on. The pair wondered how people managed to live off of minimum wage, and how the women being booted off of “welfare” (this was published in 2001) would be able to manage. Barbara said that someone should do some good-old-fashioned journalism and “try it themselves.” Not her. Someone who had time on their hands. Of course, the evil editor suggested she do it.
The next paragraph is thus:
“The last time anyone had urged me to forsake my normal life for a run-of-the-mill low-paid job had been in the seventies, when dozens, perhaps hundreds, of sixties radicals started going into the factories to ‘proletarianize’ themselves and organize the working class in the process. Not this girl. I felt sorry for the parents who had paid college tuition for these blue collar wannabes and sorry, too, for the people they intended to uplift.”
Not this girl. She wasn’t going to do anything like that. The irony being, of course, that excluding the save the poor part, she was about to undertake the exact same thing.
Let me break from my analysis from a moment. I didn’t buy this book with the intention of writing about it. But after reading this chapter (and the introduction is as far as I’ve read as I’m writing) I realized that I had to write about it. While she recognized and acknowledged some of her privilege from the beginning (or at least acknowledges it at the beginning of the book), she doesn’t get the extent of it. Of course, that’s the privilege of being privileged—you don’t see exactly how much of an advantage you have. Her privilege started showing with “themes” on the very first page, and the paragraph quoted above is on the second page. I have no doubt it will continue to show itself.
Ehrenreich wrote this book with the intention of showing the masses exactly what poverty is like—as a reasonably well-off, straight, white, abled-bodied, cis-gendered woman experiences it as an experiment. She does acknowledge that she’s only experiencing it temporarily, as an experiment. She doesn’t recognize, at least at this point, that for poverty to be written about—and published—that someone from “outside” that sphere must swoop in and get a taste. The poor don’t get to tell this story for themselves, to have it published, to sell more than 1.5 million copies. It’s the rich benefactor tale all over again. And this bothers me.