Howard Roarke goes slumming for fun and profit

Nickle and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, is the story of the author working low wage jobs around the country, trying to make her income meet or exceed her cost of living. She tries this in Key West, FL; Portland, ME; and Minneapolis, MN. Ehrenreich’s narrative is peppered with liberal socialist and Marxist rants about the difficulty of making ends meet in American low-wage work. In fact, it seems like this is the primary thesis of the book: pitting Ehrenreich’s social politics against the American economy in 1998-9, to see who is “right”. In other words, can someone make a living off the lowest paying jobs in America?

I picked up this book because it looked like an interesting test case for the kind of frugality proposed by the early-retirement writers: Mr. Money Mustache, Early Retirement Extreme, Your Money or Your Life, etc. These writers generally describe workers who earn far more than the wages in Ehrenreich’s story, yet they claim that their methods of frugality and saving will work for any income, large or small. I find some amount of naivete in this argument, since while they spend like they are, most of these writers never admit to being poor: they’ve never written about trying to find housing, food, or medical care on a shoestring budget. The whole premise of an early retiree’s frugality is based on having enough liquid assets to avoid exactly that situation.

Ehrenreich touches on this point in her book, noting that the starting conditions of one’s frugal lifestyle likely have a large impact on a person’s success. For example, having a $5000 emergency fund makes living on low wages much less stressful and difficult, since it’s possible to use the emergency fund as a buffer in lean times. One is less exposed to financial hardship with money in the bank: it’s simple personal finance, but it’s the kind of detail that determines whether a low wage worker winds up homeless due to an unplanned visit to the doctor. The question that I wish Ehrenreich had addressed a bit more critically and objectively is: can a low wage worker accumulate an appreciable emergency fund?

I don’t feel that Ehrenreich can answer this question because, despite having a Ph.D. in biology, her story lacks the experimental controls I expected her to use. Rather, her story is intensely subjective and personal, often neglecting the strategies or tools that could allow her to survive as a low wage worker.* For example, she doesn’t try to be as frugal as possible, which is a skill most low wage earners must master: she doesn’t shop at thrift stores; she frequently eats out at restaurants; she doesn’t look for housing that provides a kitchen where she can prepare cheaper, healthier meals. Her approach to housing, food, clothing, and transportation seems rather short-sighted, and rightfully so, given that she is not planning to live this lifestyle for more than a few months at a time. However, this bias is an important reason why she finds it so difficult to succeed in the difficult economic position she puts herself.

What makes Ehrenreich’s book feel more like a tale of “low-wage tourism”, rather than a story about making ends meet on a low income, is that Ehrenreich does several things that ham-string her efforts: she gives her earnings to co-workers; she quits jobs without thinking about finances, and she takes lower-paying jobs over higher-paying jobs. What’s more, she does this without developing a social support network. Ehrenreich treats herself as an island, as a sort of low wage protagonist from an Ayn Rand novel. It’s ironic that Ehrenreich notes how her coworkers rely on social support networks to meet the needs that their jobs don’t supply, and when an acquaintance offers Ehrenreich a place to stay while she finds another place to live, Ehrenreich turns her down, claiming she must do this on her own. All of these decisions, make Ehrenreich’s project appear more like a glib adventure, rather than investigative journalism about America’s working poor.

Ehrenreich concludes that low wage workers have to play a difficult game, and I agree. There is nothing easy about making ends meet on less than $15,000 per person per year. However, I know it can be done. I’ve done it, and I’ve known many others who have done it. Ehrenreich makes her own story unnecessarily difficult, and then holds it up as proof that low wage workers can’t make ends meet — which is simply mendacious.

What’s missing from Ehrenreich’s book is a genuine discussion of what low wage workers need to do to make ends meet. We ought to discuss the long-term thinking that Ehrenreich discards: such as buying kitchen utensils for her trailer in Key West, so she can cook meals at home, or living with her friend in Minneapolis while she hunts for an affordable apartment. These two examples would have allowed her food and shelter while she saved money.

Reading Nickel and Dimed has reinforced my belief that it is possible to live frugally and save money, regardless of one’s income. It’s certainly true that low wage workers cannot quickly save the enormous piles of money that the authors of Mr. Money Mustache or Root of Good have saved, but the difference is one of degree rather than kind. Had Ehrenreich made different decisions, she could have made a living in any of the cities she chose in her story. And while there are certainly changes we could make to the social programs offered in the U.S.A. to support low wage workers, there are also certainly changes that low wage workers can make to save money: such as cancelling television subscriptions and using the public library for movies and TV shows, cooking all meals at home and eating vegetarian, and getting low-cost or free cell phones and internet from companies like Ting or Freedompop. While some of these cost-cutting techniques may not be welcomed by many Americans (we do love our meat and television…), they are effective, and these are the cost-cutting techniques that the early retirement bloggers use to live on less than $15,000 per person, per year. Poverty is a complex problem, but there are little things people can do every day to address the problem.

* Ehrenreich notes this lack of experimental objectivity in her introduction to the book, but I still find her decisions difficult to accept.

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