“A Cavalier Evaluation”

81xSb00BWtLBooks on Tap read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich at Champion Brewery on April 4. We chose this 2001 title because of Ehrenreich’s scheduled appearance at the 2019 Virginia Festival of the Book, although she ultimately had to cancel. Her experimental examination of the working poor in American drew mixed reviews but engendered lively conversation. We all agreed that it was a shallow experiment: Ehrenreich was only in each job a short time, rented a car and had no children to support. She also relied on her social safety net, calling her dermatologist when she developed a rash cleaning houses but not understanding that a co-worker could not access health care for a more serious problem. Ehrenreich seems to be writing to a narrow audience, an assumed reader who looks a lot like her. She has an insulated, condescending attitude, claiming  “the Latinos might be hogging all the crap jobs and substandard housing for themselves as they often do.” Instead, she lives and works in primarily white areas, even ignoring large Hmong and Somali populations when living in Minneapolis. Her recent tweet about Marie Kondo doesn’t give much hope for improvement.

Despite these flaws, the book does spotlight the structural inequities that create generational poverty. We discussed housing costs that can eat up 50% of a family budget, exacerbated by the global economic collapse of 2008 and the hollowing out of large cities by investors buying real estate and leaving apartments empty. Ehrenreich certainly demonstrates how difficult it is to access benefits while working and we discussed how Jim Crow and other racist laws criminalized poverty. The American Dream is dependant on the labor or the working poor and in this instance, the book served as a window, since none of this month’s participants qualified. Ehrenreich’s own isolation serves as a good reminder that America is divided by class and it can be hard to get out of your own bubble. To that end, much like the old Tavern on 29, JMRL is a place where “students, tourists, and townpeople meet,” for free, seven days a week.

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Recommended Reading :
A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Payne
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land
Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus by Douglas Rushkoff

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Librarians in the reference department at the Central Library of JMRL.

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