On (Not) Getting By In America

Posted: January 16, 2012 in post

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in AmericaNickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book is now over a decade old yet still speaks to the ever-widening gap between those who have and those who do not in America. Ehrenreich writes in a readable albeit heady style. While many low-wage workers today have attended and even graduated from college, her writing would be inaccessible to the vast majority of those about whom she writes.

There are a couple of assertions with which I take issue in the book. The first has to do with Ted, The Maids, Intl franchisee who is fairly demonized in the book by Ehrenreich. Having once been a franchisee with another service-based business, I am somewhat sympathetic to Ted who may not actually be as awful as he comes off in the book. Ehrenreich states that while she has never been to Ted’s house, some of the other “maids” describe his house as being, “very nice.” Some of my own employees described my house as being “very nice,” which I am sure it was or is by the standards of someone not quite able to squeak by in America, but I own a home which would be considered a “starter home” (at best) by any solidly middle-class American family. That’s not the only problem I have with the characterization of what is said about Ted and the business.

Granted, an expose of franchises would be required to delve entirely into the issue; however, I feel that Ehrenreich is somewhat disingenuous here as she makes an off-handed remark regarding Ted’s charge-rate versus what the maids are paid hourly: it would seem that when the maids receive “only” 28% of the charge-rate. This is the very kind of simplistic view often taken by those who have no insider experience into how a franchise works. The charge rate is what Ted can expect customers to reasonably pay for the service and accounts for his overhead which includes: the office space; the vehicles; the uniforms; supplies that he is probably required to purchase through either the franchisor or an “approved” vendor (at no-doubt exorbitant rather than discounted rates); insurance, which is notably high for any service business; the percentage cut on “sales” that he owes to the franchisor; advertising expenses, and finally, (hopefully!) a profit for the business from which Ted may pay himself and grow his business. This is my chief complaint, but it is minor because the book isn’t really about Ted or his problems. It’s about the inability of a good 20% (or more) of Americans to “get by” on the wages offered by many of America’s employers.

Ultimately, through my own experiences, what Ehrenreich writes resonates with me and angers me to the point that a part of me wants to ignite a revolution, and another part of me just wants to steer clear of low-wage America. This is not a book for the squeamish, but it is a book that I would encourage all of the “comfortably entrenched” middle wage office drones of America to read.

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