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Nickel and Dimed,
Undercover in low-wage USA
Barbara Ehreneich
Granta publishers £8.99

In Nickel and Dimed Barbara Ehreneich goes undercover to join the ranks of the working poor and investigate living and working conditions in low-wage America.

She sets herself the aim of meeting her living expenses completely from her wages, expressing a willingness to take two jobs to do so.

She travels across the US, to Florida, Maine and Minnesota.  In Florida she works as a waitress, taking two jobs.  In Maine work in a care home at the weekends merges with a cleaning maid job during the week. In Minnesota the author finds herself within the giant multinational Wal-Mart, working as a shop assistant.

In each case Barbara Ehreneich fails in her task.  The waitressing jobs fall through because she collapses and walks out.  She finds that her work as a maid is so hard that her health begins to fail and she is revolted when a friend working with her struggles on despite serious illness and pregnancy.  Her last job, in Wal-Mart, is tiring and depressing, but what beats her in the end is simply the low wages.  It is impossible to find somewhere to live and pay the rent on the Wal-Mart wage.

This is the second issue throughout the book.  The low wages go along with awful housing.  Americaís poor have no hope of a house. Barbara Ehreneich travels from motels to trailer parks to completely unliveable dumps.  She meets the working homeless who canít afford any accommodation on their wage and live in the backs of trucks or sleep in cars.

For all the terrible reality of suffering in the book this is one to borrow from the library rather than to buy.  It is very much a journalistís book. There is a lot of repetition, but little time is spent on explaining or giving the background to issues.  There are many fine quotes but, as Barbara Ehreneich admits herself, she cannot claim to speak with the voice of the workers who spend their whole lives under the heel of Americaís bosses.

Ann Marie Powell



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