Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed": Hoisted from the Archives

Il Quarto Stato

(2007): Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed": Hoisted from the Archives: "I did not even loathe Nickel and Dimed because of the strong pains Barbara Ehrenreich took in her prose to demonstrate that she was not one of "them"...

  • The talk of the $30 lunch at understated French country-style restaurants...
  • ...where she ate salmon and field greens while wondering aloud how people can possibly make it on $6 or $7 an hour.
  • The dismissal of--beautiful--Old Orchard Beach in Maine as a 'rinky-dink blue-collar resort'...
  • ...(not the class of place she would ever go to in her real life).

These grated as I read them.

They grate still.

But if that was not it, why, then, did I look at Nickel and Dimed after I finished it like I might look at a dangerous insect?

Because of its politics--or, rather, its antipolitics.

In this book the government does not appear (save in footnotes discussing the lack of enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act). Yet if you look at the things that make the lives of America's working poor better, the actions of government have to rank high on the list. The government:

  • sets and enforces (imperfectly) the minimum wage;
  • contrary to what you would believe if you read Ehrenreich's footnotes, the Fair Labor Standards Act does change the way America's workplaces function;
  • for those with kids, the Earned Income Tax Credit provides low-wage workers with kids with a wage boost of forty cents on the dollar for each of their first fifteen hundred hours of work (if they file an income tax return with the IRS and claim it--a big if);
  • what inadequate health care the working poor receive is paid for by the government; and
  • if we are ever going to change the supply-demand balance of the American economy and significantly close the income gaps between working rich and working poor, publicly-funded education must play the major role.

Yet all these are invisible to Barbara Ehrenreich

Because all these are invisible to the Barbara Ehrenreich (see 'When Government Gets Mean: Confessions of a Recovering Statist, The Nation (November 17, 1997)), she can write that it is time for America's left to ditch the government. She believes that it is time to stop supporting it, to stop defending it, to stop arguing that what the government does is by and large good, to ' longer let progressivism be understood as the defense of government.'


Because '[b]y setting ourselves up as the defenders of... 'big government'... progressives have boxed themselves into a pragmatically and morally untenable position.'

To Ehrenreich, American government today is made up of 'petty-minded bureaucracies like the I.R.S. and the D.M.V.' when it is not made up of cops violating people's civil rights.

So from her point of view, the right thing to do is not to care about electing representatives who will vote for expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit and increases in the minimum wage, but to focus attention of 'alternative services': '...squats, cooperatives of various kinds, community currency projects... [a cultural core] offering information, contacts, referrals and a place for people to gather.'

And from her point of view a Democratic victory in the 2000 election would have been something to fear, because of its 'almost certainly debilitating effect on progressives and their organizations' (see 'Vote for Nader,' The Nation (August 21/28, 2000)).

Never mind that a Democratic Labor Secretary would place a higher priority on enforcing labor laws in a worker-friendly manner, never mind that under a Democratic president the NLRB is more union-friendly, never mind that a Democratic congress would pass and a Democratic president sign minimum wage increases that did not come with enough riders to make their overall benefit questionable, and never mind that under Democratic congresses and presidents the tax code becomes more progressive.

None of these are on Ehrenreich's radar screen.

Why not? I don't know. She's smart. She's a skilled observer. She's witty and writes extremely well. The economists of the Economic Policy Institute had their chance to brief her.

Yet none of it took...