Book review: Nickel and dimed

Occasionally, those of us who live our lives in wealth and comfort might stop to think about how those less fortunate than ourselves manage their lives. Millions of people in the US alone live off low wages, under $10 an hour, and try to make ends meet, somehow. How successful are they?

Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book Nickel and dimed, was determined to find out. It is a common belief that the poor should be able to get by with their lives, assuming they are realistic about their situations. My own take, at least before starting to read the book, was that anyone with a full-time job should be able to live without too serious a concern about money should ey choose to do so. Unfortunately, so many of them prioritize material goods over necessities like food, so they appear to be doing very badly. Now, perhaps it’s my obvious conservative agenda speaking (thanks, Salman), but I find it reasonable to place at least a large chunk of the blame on such people if they choose to buy a new television rather than healthy food. Not all the blame belongs on them, of course, but a lot of it does.

Although a well-educated woman, with a PhD in biology, Ehrenreich was interested in learning for herself, in practical terms, how well one could get by without her advantages. So, she decided upon the following plan. She was to try to get by working only at jobs that didn’t require an education while balancing her budget. She did this, for one month at a time, in three locations: Key West, Florida; Portland, Maine; and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

But even though she tried to live without her usual advantages, she still had at least one important advantage over many: she was on her own, unencumbered by children or a family.

On the surface, it would appear that this ought to be possible, and not too hard. If she can earn $7 an hour, working 40 hours a week, that would be $280 a week, or (roughly) $1120 a month. Supposing housing costs $500 a month, that leaves $620 for food and various other expenses.

I expected that to be the end of the story, but surprisingly, it isn’t. She experienced considerable difficulty in finding housing at $500 a month and ended up living in motels a good portion of the time. And even the cheapest motels are far more expensive than $500 a month. When she did find apartments for around $500 a month, they were awful: far below the standards that anyone I know could conceivably consider acceptable.

Another factor that came into play for Ehrenreich was having to devote a substantial portion of her time to finding employment, especially at the beginning. Employers forced her to travel to relatively far-away locations for various interviews and drug tests before hiring her, so gas also became a heavy cost. Of course, it was already a fairly major cost to begin with: living near her work was generally too expensive to be a realistic option, so she had to commute half an hour or so each way to her job.

In short, she had a lot of trouble balancing her budget, and she draws our attention to many of her coworkers, who were presumably not disguised reporters, who experienced similar difficulties.

As I was reading this book, however, alarm bells kept going off in my head. A quick glance on Craigslist suggests that it is possible to get housing, acceptable housing even, for less than what she had expected to pay, and certainly for less than she did pay. Even on the peninsula, surely a more expensive location than the places she was trying out, there are plenty of affordable options.

I suspect that one problem she encountered is that she was only staying at these places for a month each. On top of that, she seems to have found all her housing by looking for available apartments either as she walked or drove by or in apartment finding pamphlets. It’s possible than ten years ago, when she was conducting this experiment, that was a reasonable thing to do, although I doubt it. Now it’s definitely not: pamphlets are always out of date and hopelessly incomplete. I guess she was unwilling to use computers to help her with her housing search, but why? Having access to a computer isn’t an advantage she has over other people: anyone can use a computer in a library. I know people who only have internet access in libraries, and they manage perfectly well.

She seems to overspend heavily on other things too. In her wrap-up, she mentions spending $9 a day on food. Really? Really!?!?! That’s roughly what I spend (I think), buying loads of organic produce in Palo Alto, which is an exceptionally expensive city, and mostly shopping at some of the most expensive places in Palo Alto. I think an impartial observer watching me would conclude that, not only am I not trying to be thrifty with my food, but I’m actively trying to spend as much as possible. I know that people can eat probably more satisfying meals, and definitely more healthy ones, than Ehrenreich did on far, far less.

Fine, so they had cooking equipment, which helps to save money in the long run. But pots and pans aren’t very expensive. The fact that she spent as much as she did here suggests that she just wasn’t trying particularly hard.

Actually, a lot of people complain about spending a substantial portion of their income on food, but it’s hard for me to be too sympathetic. In fact, Americans are spending less and less money (relative to their incomes) on food; here’s a chart detailing food expenditure over the years; as of 2004, it’s below 10% on average, compared to 24.2% in 1930, and it has been fairly steadily declining ever since. I’m not certain, but I think the chart includes meals at restaurants; eating out is something we seem to be doing more and more often. One would expect that to cause us to spend more on food, but that is not the case somehow.

There’s another reason her experience is hard for me to reconcile with my prior knowledge: tons of people roughly my age, with no particular skills, move away from their families to distant locations with no money to speak of to their names. A lot of these people do just fine under these circumstances. Does a typical 25-year-old looking for adventure know something she doesn’t? It appears that most of them do better than she did, although it’s hard to think of any survival secrets they might have. Sure, many of them have families to fall back on if things get too unpleasant, but I suspect most of them don’t need that crutch.

So, I’m left a bit confused. It’s hard to point to many specific errors Ehrenreich made, but it’s fairly clear to me that she could have done a lot better. I have another book on my increasingly daunting to-read list that I hope will clear up some of my confusion: Scratch Beginnings by Adam Shepard. Shepard ran a similar experiment to Ehrenreich’s, but he was far more successful with it. It will be interesting to learn why, when that book finally makes it to the top of my to-read list.


About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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2 Responses to Book review: Nickel and dimed

  1. Nathan says:

    I haven’t read this book, but I heard similar things about it from other people. I actually have the impression that poor people have trouble making ends meet for totally different reasons. It’s not that they aren’t sufficiently competent to use their money efficiently when they are buying necessities. The problem is that there is an entire industry whose purpose is to take advantage of people who don’t have cash reserves and aren’t capable of foresight or high school level math. Check cashing (and other forms of short term loans) and rental appliances are the two most egregious such rackets that come to mind. The purpose of these businesses is to make basic amenities more readily available to people without much money. But in the long term, the effect of these businesses is to charge poor people small monthly fees for basically nothing. They only exist because the customers are people who haven’t been taught to think about the situation in that way — they only know how to live paycheck to paycheck.

    Seeing those numbers does make me feel a bit guilty about my own monthly budget, though…

  2. Pingback: Book review: Scratch beginnings | Quasi-Coherent

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