Nickel and Dimed

I read the first chapter of the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich for my class at school. The book was intriguing so I went ahead and finished it.

The basic idea is that a journalist attempts to take a low-income job to see if she can “make it.” She travels to three different cities, taking whatever job she can find and seeing if she can earn enough to make the next month’s rent. In Florida, she works as a waitress. In Maine, she becomes a maid and cleans houses, and in Minnesota, she works at Wal-Mart.

In each case, work was fairly easy to attain, but it often consisted of long hours, physically demanding work, demeaning bosses and low pay. Housing was extremely difficult to attain, and it accounted for the largest ependiture of a person’s income. Often, a second job was required in order to rent an apartment and buy food. When all this was said and done, the individual was still basically living in poverty.

What this book accomplished was to open my eyes to a group of people that are normally invisible. It is rare that the worlds of low-income workers and the middle class mix, at least in my life, and I would guess in many others. They may cross paths where service is rendered, but that is usually about it. It was certainly a matter I needed to consider in order to understand how many people in this country are living.

A few things stood out to me about the book.

  • The housing situation. In each city visited by the author, there was a lack of affordable housing. The competitive market drove the prices up for a residence that was neither furnished nor maintained properly.
  • The dedication of many low-income workers. There is a myth that those in poverty are irresponsible and/or lazy. While there are certainly some poor (and rich for that matter) who could be described in those terms, many low-income people are dedicated workers who take pride in their jobs.
  • The presentation of Christians. While as a waitress, the author noted that Christians were often the biggest complainers and the cheapest tippers. Although there may be some bias on the part of the author, this observation bears the stinking marks of truth.

There is a lot to learn from a book like this, so here’s some of my thoughts.

First, regarding politics. There are many political implications that could come from a book like this, and the author shared some of her views in this regard. I certainly don’t have all the answers when it comes to politics, but it could only help to consider the plight of others before making political pronouncements that may only help one group of people while hurting others, especially when those hurt are those in the greatest need.

Second, I was saddened to see Christians presented in such a negative light. Many Christians buy into the notion that if money is exchanged, they have the right to make demands of others. If an order at a restaurant is messed up, that is no reason to “tell the waitress off.” We don’t own any person in the service industry, and we should not treat them like we do. Our speech should be seasoned with salt, and our attitudes should reflect the grace of God in our hearts. If we are not careful, we may begin to look down on others who do not appear to be in our same “class of society.” Every other person we encounter is made in the image of God, and our actions should affirm this truth rather than deny it.

Many Christians are also notoriously frugal. While not every low-income worker is living in poverty, there are many who are. Giving generous tips to a diligent worker can be one way to help those who are in need who are also working to provide for themselves. While our actions to help others should not be restricted to business exchanges with service workers, the least we can do is show kindness in this area.

Third, I’ve kidded myself that I am the major factor in my present circumstances. Yes, I (mostly) worked hard in school and college. Yes, I have worked hard in my career. I’ve worked hard to get where I am today. Yet, there are many people in poverty who are working just as hard, if not harder. As they work hard, they often do not have the same advantages that I have with regular exercise, a (mostly) healthy diet, good health care and a strong church and family support group. So, instead of being “proud” of my current job and situation, I should continually praise God for what he has given me, using my income as a means of sharing with others in need.

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