Nickel and Dimed: Introduction, Part One

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.


About Brittany-Ann
Brittany-Ann is a proud, self-identified feminist with fictional tendencies. She currently writes for and moderates at My Fault I'm Female. She smokes camels, reads Dumas, and navigates a conservative state as "one of them darn liberals."

6 Responses to Nickel and Dimed: Introduction, Part One

  1. Cate says:

    Granted, I read Nickel and Dimed a few years ago and don’t have the most awesome memory of it, but I seem to recall her acknowledging her privilege more and more as the book went on and she began to realize just how privileged she actually was/is. As you write about it I’m interested to see if that’s actually the case.

    • Brittany-Ann says:

      That’s good to hear. At this point I have my apprehensions, especially about how her class privilege, able-bodied privilege, and race privilege are manifesting themselves, but I am hopeful that as she progresses, she’ll get better The quotes I’ve chosen are about half troubling, half encouraging, so we’ll see.

      Part 2 of the introductory chapter will be a little more meaty, with more quotes and so on. It was just getting to long to put it into one post. Hopefully I’ll be able to cover the rest of the book with one post per chapter!

  2. Marc says:

    Throughout the book, and I read it about a year ago, the one thing that gets me is that the psychological effects of poverty is never mentioned. If Babara (much easier to spell than her last name, so she’ll be called such) wanted to knnow about poverty, perhaps she should let them have a voice, rather than vicariously living a pseudo-impoverished lifestyle.

    She did this as part of a book, and knows that there are times when she can simply call it quits, returning to her America dream. In short, psychologically, she was never in the same place as Americans who truly are hopeless, which would help explain many of the social problems they face.

    I, for one, am privileged, and as such, I’ll never completely and fully understand the hurt and pain of people living in poverty, nor will my experiences, if I attempted to live their “lifestyle” ever give me a full understanding of what they really feel each day and the hopelessness and disenfranchisement they face.

    In short, if she wanted to write about poverty, perhaps she ought to actually be opened and honest with the people with whom she lived and worked, rather than swooping in, pretending to be in their circles, and then dropping the news, only to move on to another place to find more “subjects.”

    There are all kinds of problematic research methods, and even if she were to present herself honestly as a writer and researcher, issues of power and differences in social class will always somewhat taint the studies, but at least it’ll give the people she wished to give a voice to more of a voice, rather than this pseudo-intellectual, choose-your-own-adventure bullshit.


    • Brittany-Ann says:

      I agree. One of my main issues is that she doesn’t give the people she “reporting” on a voice. Instead, she’s swooping in and saving them by reporting on their plight by pretending. That quote about the sixties radicals is dripping with contempt at their attempt to blend in, try out “the lifestyle,” and “save” the working class–but she’s doing the same thing.

      Another thing that realllly got me was the expectation that the “low-wage class” would fall down in astonishment when they discovered she was a writer. Along with another passage quipping about the lack of a manager’s reaction to her “writing” it sounds like she has this impression that the poor are completely illiterate, and that none aspire to be a professional writer themselves.

      To sum it up: the psychological effects of being at the bottom of the food chain and so easily replaced are a huge part of poverty. That’s where she missed the mark.

  3. Pingback: Nickel and Dimed: Introduction, Part Two « A Bookish Beemer

  4. Pingback: Nickeled and Dimed: an Unfinished Project « A Bookish Beemer

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