Nickel and Dimed

By Barbara Ehrenreich.
Granta Books
ISBN 1 86207 521 2

Too often the US conjures up an unreal world of unlimited
economic opportunity, opulence, huge meals and extravagant
entertainment. Of real life for ordinary people remarkably little
is known.

Ehrenreich dispels our ignorance. Her book is an account of the low
wage jobs she took on and the life that she had to live as a
consequence. Whether waiting on tables in Florida, cleaning houses
as a “merry maid” in Maine or working for Wal-Mart in Minnesota
nothing had prepared her for the transience, exploitation and
poverty that people in her position had to tolerate.

In each job much is demanded of employees and the consequences of
“management by stress” enormous. She and her fellow workers are
sandwiched between dissatisfied customers and dictatorial

There is a human side to her story. She confides in a few fellow
employees and here and there friendship bonds are created. There
are also moments of wry humour – as a merry maid she is forced to
engage in “waterless cleaning”, doing a whole house in a few
minutes in such a way that gives the appearance of “clean” for its
wealthy owners. But with Wal-Mart and merry maids established in
Britain who is going to have the last laugh?

John Pierson is senior lecturer, Institute of Social Work
and Applied Social Studies, Staffordshire University.

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