Having read “Nickle and Dimed”

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.

Comment away.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

1 comment

  1. Indeed my friend, UUs in general want to open their congregations to people of all races yet they do not want to tackle to linkages between racism and social class. Were I not so stubborn I would have left due to UU snobbery alone. I remember well the night one of my classmates, now a respected minister, put on a skit at a seminary event entitled, “White Trash Cooking” which belittled poor, Southern whites. As that skit belittled most of the people I had known my entire thirty years at that point, I was furious. It felt just as insulting as if it been done in black face. I did not confront my seminary because the PC attitude lets some people be mocked for their social class but not others.

    The real issues around racism are ultimately based upon social class. I firmly believe that if we examined social class in our churches and helped UUs to become less snobbish/elitist, we would have a chance, only a chance, of becoming more inclusive.

    Congregants have told me that they thought friends or family would benefit from being in our churches but, because friends or family were not well-educated, they would not be welcomed.

    Our clergy do keep up appearances and that makes the situation worse. About half of our clergy are of the” governess class,” myself included. In my experience though, the other half are trust fund babies with more cash invested than their New England Puritan roots would permit them to display.

    I wish that UU ministers could organize a REAL union!!!

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