Book: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
Author: Barbara Ehrenreich
Published: 2001 (Holt)
It's not possible to survive on minimum wage in America. It's not possible now, and it wasn't possible in the economic upswing of 1998 - 2000 when this book was being written. And it's not just about money; it's about life and its tendency to bitchslap you when you're down.
So finds out this intrepid journalist who makes a calculated decision to find low-skilled jobs in three parts of the country and try to survive completely on the wages of each. She works at a hotel restaurant as a waitress, a cleaning lady with an in-home service, a nursing home cafeteria attendant (briefly, on the weekends), and a Wal Mart associate.
Every job puts physical and mental strain on her that makes it more difficult to better her situation than she'd ever imagined it. All the jobs pay her just enough to buy cheap food that makes her feel even crappier and cheap housing that - oh my god, I never knew the trappings of by-the-week hotel rentings were so bad. They cater to low-wage people who can't get the rent for better apartments, and the pricing is just enough to let them live somewhere without giving them any wiggle room to save or use for emergencies. Yet the conditions pretty much guarantee that there will be emergencies, and usually sooner than later, and basically if you don't have relatives or a car to live in, you are up the creek without a paddle or lifeboat or canoe.
The journalist admits that coming from a place of privilege that she can fall back into whenever her life is seriously threatened takes away most of the real panic she would feel if this was her real life, but she still has a hard time keeping herself afloat and does a good, heartbreaking job of sharing the stories of people who really do this for a living.
I'm coming from the same place she is in reviewing this, so take my compassionate outrage with a healthy dollop of middle-class mobility guilt and know that this wasn't the most rigorously controlled experiment, but it was an eye-opening experience that has only gotten worse in the real world where McDonald's sample budget for its employees includes income from a second job.