America's Working Poor: More "Nickel and Dimed" than Ever

Earlier this month, the tenth-anniversary edition of Barbara Ehrenreich's "undercover" investigation on how the working poor survive, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, was released.

To write the book, Ehrenreich, a published author and journalist with a Ph.D. in cell biology, told employers that she was a recent divorcee with only a high school education. She worked several minimum wage jobs over the course of one year--as a waitress, hotel maid, and Walmart employee--to show how difficult it is for low wage workers to support themselves. Her conclusion: in America, you can't.

The book was a powerful investigation that, ironically, was conducted at a time of enormous economic prosperity for most Americans.

Ten years later, as the unemployment rate rises and America's credit ratings sink, federal lawmakers in the U.S. are cutting social programs at an alarming rate. Programs which keep people out of extreme poverty, or at least lessen the impact. In the midst of this, the message of Nickel and Dimed is one that seems willfully ignored by most Americans; it is the message that employment does not cure poverty. It is also the message that, as the wealthiest citizens and corporations proceed to make record profits, they use the backs of the working poor to hoist themselves up.

As Ehrenreich points out in the book:
When someone works for less pay than she can live on...she has made a great sacrifice for you...The 'working poor'...are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone.
Ehrenreich is prominently featured in the 2007 documentary, "The American Ruling Class," waitressing at a diner. The following is an entertaining clip that recaps some of what was in the book, and cleverly morphs into a musical: