This week, The Simple Dollar is conducting a detailed review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. This title is a bit of an unusual choice for a review of personal finance books, as it details an educated and affluent woman’s attempt to get by while working at low-income jobs. Can we learn anything from this noble experiment? Let’s find out.
This portion of the book finds Barbara in Minneapolis, working at a Wal-Mart in the women’s clothing section. I found this section the least enjoyable in the book, because the class biases that Barbara largely kept in check here come shining through over and over again.
As I’ve mentioned before, there is a link between one’s personal appearance and one’s financial situation. I’m not talking about the need to wear a $2,000 pair of jeans; I’m referring more to the mere appearance of cleanliness and appropriate decorum in public. Barbara spends much of her time in this chapter commenting on the fact that many of the inexpensive clothing items at Wal-Mart are cheaply made and designed to (poorly) fit overweight people.
She even comments on the real cause of this, that inexpensive food is often loaded with empty calories and that there is a direct connection between food cost and nutritional quality. An individual must choose a point on this spectrum that they’re comfortable with, but the fact of the matter is that many people’s choices on this spectrum are limited by a severe cap on the cost.
She’s also critical of the behavior of the working class, commenting on the fact that many working class people allow their children to run amok in Wal-Mart, but here she’s quick to realize that this has a root cause, too: many working class people, especially those with children, have little or no time in which they’re not working, either at their employment or at the task of managing children, and Wal-Mart offers something of a respite from this drudgery. In short, the working class often uses Wal-Mart as a place to escape, if only for a little while, and not feel as though they are looked down upon. Where do you go to escape? I generally don’t go to Wal-Mart, but I do recognize that everyone needs an escape from the drudgery of life on occasion.
I guess I was disappointed by Barbara in that she allowed her upper-crust values to slip out here and blur her perspective on the Wal-Mart shoppers. The simple fact of the matter is that classism exists in America and the author of this book, even though she means well, is as guilty of this bias as anyone else.
Tomorrow, I’ll sum up my thoughts on Nickel and Dimed and give my recommendation on whether to buy it or not.
Nickel and Dimed is the third of fifty-two books in The Simple Dollar’s series 52 Personal Finance Books in 52 Weeks.