Am I the last person to have read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, the 2001 work of “investigative social commentary” describing the impossible situation of the working poor? My Day Job supervisor loaned it to me; the copy is making its way through the office.
Like the film Super Size Me it isn’t digging up inaccessible truths, only invisible and incovenient ones. That’s why I can excuse some the criticisms levied against Ehrenreich — that she was setting herself up for failure, though her own background well compensated her the lack of social networks many of the poor rely on — and get angry at her main detractors who think that branding her a Marxist is convincing or conclusive.
I would like us to talk about the book and what it reveals.
But two things first. I found two points of overlap (I’ll combine them here) between Nickel and Dimed and Suburban Nation, which I read last. First, that exurban McMansions — the figure is a house over 3,000 square feet — needs domestic help to be managed, but that the very nature of modern suburbs it is stratify income levels (even more than class, presuming one looses income but not class in retirement) with great precision. This isolation breed a class of youth out of touch with any needs but their own.
Second, and something only glanced at in Ehrenreich’s book, is what Matthew Gatheringwater calls the “governess class” — those striving children rising out of the lower (even lower middle class, an odd place) by means of their wits and training. I’m in that class, and I think most of the ministers I know are, no matter where they buy their suits today. The governess class passes for comfortable, but knows their situation is precarious. I don’t want to be poor, but it certainly seems a possibility looking over a lifetime. It wouldn’t take much for the house of cards to fall, and I think I’m a bit ahead of the curve. (Another reason for my interest in sustainable living.) Indeed, most Unitarian Universalists I know — all those teachers, social workers, middle managers and the like — fit there, and in time this self-knowledge can ossify into a kind of neo-Victorian moralism. I see it in some of the former libertines of my Southern days. It is a perverse vindiction of Christian Science principles, here, to recognize and accept the poor is risk becoming them. For a “denomination of pallor” like ours, is it emotionally safer to talk about race than class? I’ll come back to that later.