I really don’t want this review to turn into a rant about politics or economics or really my personal beliefs, so I’m going to try and be brief (and to the point–*try* being the operative word). I think its difficult, though, to read this book and not have some sort of emotion invoked–whether because you agree with what Ehrenreich writes or because you disagree.
The basic premise of this book is whether or not low-wage employees are getting by with what they earn. The simple answer is “No.” In order to test her theories or ideas, Ehrenreich goes “under cover” in three different cities with a list of rules about what she can spend, what types of jobs she can take, and where she can live. She spends about a month in each city, and has about six jobs throughout the book: Maid (x2), Wal-Mart “associate,” Waitress (x2), and Nursing Home Aide (I feel like I’m leaving something out).
I found Ehrenreich’s narrative easy to read, partially because of her humor (although sometimes potentially offensive) but also because she really gets down to the nitty gritty about her experiences. What I found interesting, though, is that until the last chapter (“Evaluation”), all of the pertinent statistics and facts are hidden away in the footnotes. I am generally a lazy reader and sometimes glaze over footnotes (or sometimes don’t read them at all if they are endnotes). I am guessing she chose to do this as to not break up her narrative, but I think a lot of what she is REALLY getting at could be lost to readers (lazy ones at least). In many ways, though, what she writes in the main narrative is scary enough–the living conditions, the managers, the physical effects, the working conditions, etc., etc. In one particular poignant moment, Ehrenreich shows how difficult it is to actually receive aid or help (in terms of housing, food, medical, etc) as she is passed from one agency to the next (all basically dead-ends). I think the book could have used a little more of this than anecdotes from her jobs (although informative and entertaining).
Recommendation: While this book was relatively enlightening for a young, middle-class, white, educated reader (yes…me–although I have had my share of “roughing it” as a Sonic car-hop, telemarketer, and retail scrub to pay my way through school), I felt let down at the end when she didn’t give any calls for action. So people aren’t getting paid enough–what do we do about it? Raise the wages? Well, what repercussions will that have? Will the cost of living increase causing a circular effect? I’m not an economist, so I really don’t know, but I wanted to find this out. Bottom line–perhaps everyone should read this book, but I’m not sure what difference it would make.
*picture from www.greens.org.vt.edu/livingwage/ndcover.jpg