Critique of Nickel and Dimed
Barbara Ehrenreich: Nickel and Diming Truth
By Michael Tremoglie | July 22, 2003

The University of North Carolina has a peculiar take on which works comprise the canon of “great books.” Last year, UNC’s incoming freshmen had to read Approaching the Qur'án: The Early Revelations, a portrait of Islam so unquestioning that many believed it constituted indoctrination into the religion.

Once again UNC has selected a controversial book for its incoming freshman to read, according to a report in the July 11, 2003 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE): The book is Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, penned by radical leftist Barbara Ehrenreich. Ironically, UNC administrators thought, as interim Vice Chancellor Dean L. Bresciani said, "it would be a relatively tame selection." However, the move is being criticized by some legislators in North Carolina, who (rightly) describe her work as liberal propaganda infused with religious bigotry.

One critic of Ehrenreich’s book is North Carolina State Senator Austin Allran. The Chronicle quoted him as saying, "I don't like the disparaging remarks made about Jesus.” Those references are of the liberation theology model; to Ehrenreich, Jesus is a Marxist revolutionary.

Allran said the university’s reading list should come from the classics. Bresciani explained that the university does not assign classics because students are expected to read those on their own. (Does he really expect students to thumb through The Iliad on the beach during Spring Break in Miami?)

Ehrenreich’s book, which is purportedly about the plight of the working poor, is replete with references to race, class, religion, and Communism. Ehrenreich’s bona fides in the field of Marxism are evinced throughout her illustrious career as possibly the most respected female “intellectual” in modern academia. When not writing for Harper’s, Time, The Nation and New York Time Magazine, she is the Vice-Chair of the Democratic Socialists of America. Her theoretical Marxism is mentioned in the text itself; she mentions reading Mao before going to sleep. If that’s the case, Nickel and Dimed could be her dream journal.

According to an interview of Ehrenreich in the August 5, 2001, edition of Socialist Worker Online, “Ehrenreich researched her book by taking a series of low-wage jobs.” Eherenreich’s interview with the newspaper of the International Socialist Organization, a group that believes that capitalism produces poverty, racism, famine, environmental catastrophe and war, is just another indication of her communist ideological bias.

The idea for the book developed during an “expensive luncheon,” as one reviewer referred to it. Ehrenreich and an editor wondered how the hoi polloi live in the context of the reform of the welfare system. The editor suggested she pose as an unskilled worker to learn.

Ehrenreich embarked on her minimum wage odyssey for two years beginning in 1998. Ehrenreich, in her late fifties, and a resident of affluent Key West, Florida, went to work as a maid, a nursing home assistant and a Wal-Mart clerk. Her descriptions of trying to live earning seven dollars an hour tell us more about Ehrenreich than they do about the economy. The litany of her complaints and revelations include:

• Ehrenreich being upset about being called a “girl.” At least one
woman I interviewed in her mid-fifties (Ehrenreich’s age) has
expressed gratitude when others have used this term on her.

• Ehrenreich complained about drug use investigations by the
human resources department.

• Ehrenreich did not like Wal-Mart's loss prevention policies of
surveillance of employees.

• Ehrenreich noted that she was unable to provide herself with
food, clothing, and shelter while making $7/hr.

According to the Commerce Department the poverty rate for a single person younger than 65 in 1999 was $8,700 per year. Barbara was earning 170 percent of that. Even the liberal Economics Policy Institute states a living wage is 130 percent of the poverty standard.

Ehrenreich’s dubious claim that government assistance is not available for people in her income bracket strains credulity. In compensation for transitioning welfare recipients to work, the government has gradually increased the number of programs open to the “working poor.” For example, in Portland, Maine, where Ehrenreich worked, a single woman making $7.50 per hour, with two kids would qualify for Section 8 housing. A woman from Maine I spoke to told me that her apartment costs $975 per month and the Section 8 program pays for $600 of that total. A single woman in Pennsylvania earning an average of $1120 per month would qualify for food stamps and Medicaid. Those with children would qualify for “free” or subsidized daycare for their kids. These are significant handouts for those in Ehrenreich’s income bracket. Was Ehrenreich obscuring the facts, or did she fail to research her book adequately? Her book is either shoddy scholarship or leftist propaganda; either way, it is hardly appropriate material for massive academic orientation.

Could Ehrenreich be a journalistic version of Michael Bellesiles, the award-winning professor who authorities later caught fabricating evidence for his anti-gun tome Arming America? Like Ehrenreich, Bellesiles became a celebrated fixture in academia – however briefly – because of his political conclusions, rather than his intellectual abilities.

A consistent thesis of Nickled and Dimed is that the poor deserve to earn more; the rich do not deserve what they earn; and the bourgeoisie are merely robots. (The last conclusion is directly cribbed from Marx’s theory of alienation.) Ironically, Ehrenreich does not explain why she deserves her own wealth, why she does not dispense with her material possessions, nor why she attends “expensive lunches.”

Ehrenreich does condemn the owner of the maid service who pays his workers $6 per hour while charging clients $25 per hour. Perhaps her next investigative report could be about starting a maid service. After she pays for the employees, taxes, insurance. licenses, bonds, marketing, and equipment, she could let us know what her exorbitant profits are. Do they compensate her for the risk and effort of operating a company? Then again, such capitalist concepts are anathema to Ehrenreich.

Ehrehreich also evinces elitism. She peppers her texts with such descriptive adjectives as “trailer trash” and “hillbilly.” Elsewhere, she describes two Peruvian musicians as being from the “ dark-skinned South.” In the chapter titled “Evaluation” Ehrehreich writes,” You might think that unskilled jobs would be a snap for someone who holds a Ph.D. and whose normal line of work requires learning entirely new things every couple of weeks. Not so. The first thing I discovered is that no job, no matter how lowly, is truly unskilled.”

Barbara Ehrenreich is just realizing this now? This statement is a shibboleth indicating her elitist beliefs. Ehrenreich is an acolyte of the academic Left. If Nickel and Dimed possesses any educational value, it is that college freshmen will learn exactly whom Lenin described when he spoke of a vanguard of intellectual elites leading the revolution.