I remember once learning about hunger and homelessness and poverty. I was young then, too young to really know what it all means but just young enough to learn through compassion rather than fact, to remember the meaning without having to argue about its validity. The program that exposed me to these topics is now sadly discontinued but suffice it to say it opened my eyes and left a lasting impact on me.
Recently, I read a book that reminded me of many of the lessons I learned that long while ago. It reminded me that poverty hides in plain sight and that those who live in its clutches do not deserve it any more than you or I. Not that I ever thought that those who are poor deserve to be poor, that they are somehow lesser, but the glitzy world of those quite safely afloat tells a very seductive lie: that perhaps that is merely the way things are, that people will be poor, that we’re doing the best we can.
A rather pathetic excuse, don’t you think? Somewhere in the range of “the dog ate my homework” and “I was late because there was traffic (like there is every morning).”
I’ve never believed that a problem only has one solution, which might seem surprising if you had a cursory acquaintance with my background and absolutely not surprising if you truly understood my background. Life, in a sense, is a problem, not in the sense of something frustrating and bothersome (though sometimes it is that) but in the sense of being a puzzle, a dynamic, intricate, complex puzzle with rules and no rules simultaneously. Life is a conceptual problem, and no correct answer exists to how it must be lived. This, of course, also means that a solution obtained may not be the best one and to convince yourself otherwise despite knowing the truth is merely delusional at best, cold-hearted and selfish at worst.
To believe that the current solution to poverty, which ultimately underlies the pressing problems of hunger and homelessness, despite the living, breathing human proof otherwise is a self-conceit of damnable proportion. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich explores the issue of low-wage living in the United States and its relative invisibility to those living a comparatively to seriously and strikingly affluent lifestyle. While the book is by no means an exhaustive source on the shortcomings and failures of modern society in addressing and supporting those living at the bottom of the income spectrum, it is a wake-up call. Nickel and Dimed draws attention to the many challenges facing those living on low wages, in poverty even if their situation is not officially recognized as such.
I will admit, when I first started reading Nickel and Dimed, I felt a little annoyed with the author. She seemed incredibly self-centered and more focused on bemoaning the loss of her upper-middle lifestyle than on digging into the implications of the lives and conditions she saw around her as she dove into her experiment to mimic and stay afloat in a low-wage lifestyle. To her credit, she grew a lot as the protagonist of her little story, but more importantly, as the book, and her experiment, progressed, she did, in fact, dig into the implications of her experiences, interactions, and observations. The research and background she put into supplementing her own experiment were thorough and meticulous. I also realized that her seeming self-absorption was not a fault in her but rather a reflection of the shocks someone who is in no way, and likely never has been, familiar with a life of poverty may experience as she or he begins to grasp exactly what that new, unsavory lifestyle entails.
In essence, Nickel and Dimed reads like a personal narrative: the experiences of author Barbara Ehrenreich as she undergoes the experiment of trying to maintain a place of residence and feed herself via low-wage work. The book is well-written and well-paced, and reading it entirely is time well-spent. Through description of personal experiences, Ehrenreich reveals the many challenges facing an individual attempting to stay afloat in the lowest sector of the income scale. It is through these moments also that she conveys the deep contrast in the accepted boundaries and limitations of human endurance and behavior between those living the low-wage lifestyle and those living more comfortably than that. Low-wage workers work harder and often at far greater physical and emotional expense to receive far less than those comfortably in the middle class and above. Via footnotes, Ehrenreich details research and supporting information that provides context, a setting and a scope, for the situations she encounters, demonstrating that hers is not the story of an upper middle class woman failing to adjust to a less privileged lifestyle but of a human paralleling the lifestyle of the many people who experience such steep obstacles to mobility and survival every day. Nickel and Dimed’s greatest triumph is in providing a foothold for an empathetic understanding of the situation rather than a merely factual one, in helping the reader learn by compassion rather than by easily-dismissible and –forgotten data.