I read Hired by James Bloodworth in 2018 which is the author’s eye-opening account of working undercover in Britain as an Amazon warehouse picker, Uber driver, call centre worker and carer on zero-hours contracts in the mid 2010s. Barbara Ehrenreich undertook a similar experiment almost 20 years earlier in the United States and ‘Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America’ first published in 2001 is now regarded as a classic of narrative non-fiction reportage. The book is split into three parts: ‘Serving in Florida’ sees Ehrenreich working as a waitress and housekeeper, ‘Scrubbing in Maine’ is about her experience as a cleaner and ‘Selling in Minnesota’ where she folded clothes in Wal-Mart.
‘Nickel and Dimed’ was recently featured in the Guardian’s top 100 books of the 21st century at number 13, so hopefully a reprint will happen at some point, maybe for its 20th anniversary (I found a US edition of the book in a charity shop). Worryingly, some aspects hardly feel dated at all, particularly the problem of finding affordable housing which touches on many of the issues raised in Evicted by Matthew Desmond. More worrying still is that conditions will only have got worse for those earning minimum wage since the global economic crisis in 2008, especially where healthcare insurance is concerned.
The Goodreads reviews of ‘Nickel and Dimed’ are very polarised with the one-star reviews primarily by those who fundamentally disagree with the experiment itself. The premise of an educated middle-aged liberal white woman attempting to immerse herself in the world of the working poor has strong potential to be dealt with in a clumsy and patronising way. However, Ehrenreich is transparent about the numerous advantages she had such as access to a car, no childcare needs, none of the barriers associated with a lifetime in poverty and the option of ending the experiment at any time if she needed to. The experiment is limited by Ehrenreich only spending a few weeks on average in each role, so it is impossible to delve deeply into all of the complex socioeconomic issues at play in these circumstances in a 200 page book. What it does show, however, is that it is barely possible to achieve even the most basic standard of living on just one minimum wage role, and for most of the experiment, Ehrenreich has to take on a second job to make ends meet.
‘Nickel and Dimed’ is an impressive and still relevant piece of undercover journalism about the realities of minimum wage work and what it really amounts to, in a far more engaging way than some dry statistics ever could.