"Nickel and Dimed" has been on my "To Read" list for a long time. It details a reporter's firsthand research into the working poor by living that life. In several months, the author works as a waitress, a care assistant, a maid, and a retail worker. All while balancing food, housing, transport, and life.
I expected it to be insightful yet tough to read, and was not disappointed. There are lots of unexpected obstacles faced by the working poor shown in this book. People like me assume they could be overcome with "hard work and determination." But we overlook how much society stacks the game against them and the "American Dream." So I wanted to save those lessons in a blog post.
But first, a disclaimer. I don't claim to have any special understanding or knowledge of the working poor. I've only read a book or wrote a post about it. I've never lived the physical, emotional, and mental burdens the working poor do. I only want to write down the book's most important lessons that I found for myself and others. I recommend reading the book itself too. Until you can, this post covers some highlights.
Being Poor is Expensive #
This may seem like an oxymoron, but there's a lot of ways being poor winds up being more expensive. More expansive than even being middle class like myself.
Short-term over Long-term Spending #
During her experiment, the author had very little savings. Most of it goes towards rent, transport, and other major costs that took most of her paycheck. This prevented her, and likely many other working poor, from making helpful purchases.
For instance, one can save money by making a week of lunches in a single batch. But limited housing options often have much more limited cooking space. Many may not even have refrigerators to store food long-term. They may also not have the extra money needed for an Instant Pot, cooking utensils or seasonings. These save money long-term but cost money now that many don't have. The alternative is often fast food than can people can buy and eat fast. Even with the long-term damage to their finances and health.
Even worse is trying to pay rent.
Rent is Expensive. Motels are Worse. #
For a typical rented apartment, you often need to put down a deposit and two months' rent at the start. For many in the working poor they'll never have that much saved up, and so they rely on motels. Motels charge by the day so don't need as much money upfront. But the long-term cost usually adds up to more. Especially when you consider how motel prices fluctuate according to the tourist season. Or how a motel you're staying at may kick you out to make room for wealthier tourists without notice.
There are even more factors that worsen this.
- Lower-cost rents are often pushed further outside the city as the rents inside it rise. That means longer commutes which cost more time and money to make, whether by car or bus.
- High rent or housing costs are such high priority they can chip away at other important expenses. Buying a better yet pricer medication is pointless if you have to live in your car afterward.
- Many people split smaller living spaces among more people. This can create an endless variety of other problems with roommates and neighbors.
This adds up to the most important part of life, a place to live, pulling too many resources from everything else.
Greater Health Costs #
Of course, I can't neglect the sheer physical drain and demands of many of these jobs.
The author describes the pain she often felt from standing, running, and cleaning all day. It's the kind you'd take a day off to recover from with tea and ice packs. But there's no time off for that. As a maid, she saw coworkers going ailments from arthritis to sore joints to skin rashes. While working relentless hours in the heat with not enough water or food to fuel them. Any attempts to rest are "time theft" and punished by management.
I have some experience here. While working at Panera Bread, the constant standing and running wore on me down fast. The fifteen-minute pauses I got in shifts to sit were a blessing. I can only imagine how harsh I'd have felt working there full-time. And none of this compares to the labor of people working at warehouses.
These increased health issues come with fewer means to pay them. These are jobs with high turnover and mandatory work periods before health insurance. Coverage is unreliable if it even exists. The author saw workers paying for lots of short-term fixes since long-term ones cost more. But then they're more likely to become chronic and costlier later on.
The lack of coverage can even threaten their jobs themselves. The author meets a roofer who cut their foot. But because they couldn't afford the antibiotic, they lost their job from the injury. She saw a maid fall and injure her leg but still work for the day. The maid was afraid to miss a day for fear of her manager replacing her. That pressure to keep going no matter the cost, the author saw, could be what does the most damage in the end.
How Management Keeps Pay down #
As I read, I wondered how management at these businesses pushed to keep pay low. She notes many psychological methods, but two tactics caught my attention most.
First, employees get pushed right from the application to orientation. This skips over any stage for bargaining or discussing compensation. It pushes them to accept their terms of work before even knowing what they are.
Second, management relies more on free perks like meals, office toys, or discounts. These cost less and are easy to take back later. This is often due to changing budgets or once workers seem placated. They can also appear as "gifts" to be thankful for, not a measure of increased worker value.
These are more direct and easier to observe from the outside. But it's tougher to see the psychological elements pushing the working poor down. The author only saw them through her direct experience.
Being Poor is a Psychological Gauntlet #
The author sums up the psychological obstacles the working poor face as a "management dictatorship." These managers only represented corporate interests of squeezing productivity from coworkers. Their main goal was keeping workers in their place and accepting what they got without fuss. There are many ways the author experienced how they did this.
Invading Privacy #
In almost all her jobs, the author's managers can search through her purse whenever they want. This also holds for uniforms and body checks for stolen contraband or drugs. A worker has many of their civil rights checked at the door. This sends a powerful message of consistent anxiety and being "in their place."
This surveillance can translate into petty retribution too. The author mentions pausing her cleaning to read a leftover newspaper. A manager saw this and punished her with cleaning with a broken vacuum.
Personality Tests #
Most applications required personality tests. They focus on obedience, drug use, conformity, and any personal behavior management dislikes. The author guesses it sends a message that the worker will have no secrets from the employer. The main goal is to likely degrade their sense of self and make them more compliant. Weeding out rebels and pro-union folks is a bonus.
Drug Tests #
The official line on drug tests is stopping drug use that lowers productivity. The author's experience found them more about exposure and humiliation. Some tests even make workers strip and pee in front of someone else. In all cases, it sends a message of the employee being below the employer. As opposed to two equals making a work contract.
No Gossip #
In these workplaces, gossip is usually defined as any talk between other employees. Walmart referred to it as "time theft," since it's stealing time where they could be working. It makes the mere act of talking with others seem like a crime. The author guesses it's to keep employees from discussing what's bothering them. This could give them a clearer view of how they're all treated, which risks unionizing. Sometimes workers get fired for no reason. The author notes this often happens to workers that had been "gossiping."
Salaried workers like me do all kinds of things that would be "time theft." I and many coworkers often take breaks to browse other sites or stare out a window. I've taken such trust and leeway in my job for granted.
A Mini Autocracy #
All these psych tactics add up to the labor market not being lifted by the "free market" as many claims it should. Workers are stuck in a small autocracy within a democracy. The usual free market rules don't apply. Those rules apply even less due to the limited information these workers have. That's why management bans "gossip" among employees. It leads to most workers, if not all, getting pushed down far and just trying to take what little they can get.
At least, that's how the author and myself interpret it all.
The Greater Cost of Poverty #
All these hidden costs and obstacles make being poverty more than a condition. It's an entirely separate job. A job that makes escaping poverty so tough it borders on impossible for many.
Imagine balancing all the following:
- Scarce money
- Long commutes
- Bad health
- Heavy work stress
- Limited means for storing and making food
- Juggling home issues of rent prices and motels
All while working a job that will pull as much time and energy from you for as little pay as possible. You may feel you have the special "spirit of hard work and determination" to escape poverty. But not when enough factors get stacked against you. All that effort almost certainly gets used up keeping your head above water.
All that stress, and even ways for coping with that stress, add up to higher mortality for the working poor.
Again, I can't claim to understand this all myself. But reading about these experiences is one of the best ways we have to learn. Short of trying my own experiment of living the working poor lifestyle myself. I'm not nearly tough enough for that. So I want to remember these lessons to try and build more empathy and understanding. I hope others will too.
I'll end this post with one quote that summarizes this quite well. It's about the true cost many in the working poor seem to pay under all this.
What you don't necessarily realize is when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you're actually selling is your life.