In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich set out to explore the effects of welfare reform on the poor and working classes of the United Stats. She went undercover, working a series of low wage jobs across the United States, and wrote a scorching indictment of the way this country treats its labour classes, and the way people talk about labour, class, and welfare. The book was not without flaws, some of which Ehrenreich herself identified, as an effective tourist in a world where people live for their whole lives, but it was an important entry in the canon about class and work in the United States.
Unsurprisingly, some schools have chosen to add it to their curricula in economics, social science, and other courses. High schools and institutions of higher education alike assign the book and create a variety of discussions about it. For some of the students, the things described in Nickel and Dimed are very familiar, while for others, they are very alien, and the book is an eye-opening glimpse into a shadowy underworld. The service class in the United States is everywhere, but often invisible, and maligned when it dares to exist in the public eye. Exploding ideas about the service class is important, especially in the case of college students who may, at some point, be making policies that will impact people working in the service industry, in meatpacking plants, in other low paying positions with few opportunities for advancement.
In 2010, it was one of the most frequently challenged books in the United States. What could be objectionable about it? The official story:
…some readers found her account of her experiences to be objectionable because it includes mention of “drugs” and “offensive language.” Other readers protested that the book is “inaccurate,” while some disliked its “political viewpoint” and its “religious viewpoint.”
Responding to a challenge to the book at Bedford High School, an instructor said:
Mayes reasoned, “It’s understandable how some people may not like or support the opinions in the book, but Ehrenreich’s experience is not inaccurate. One position towards this situation may be that adults have to make decisions for kids, but it is important to understand how the country has gotten to this point (financially and) how working-class wages are limiting.”
People protest the inclusion of this book in school curricula on the basis that the content of conversations and scenes is offensive. It’s sort of intended to be; Ehrenreich wanted to provide an unflinching glimpse of the world she was in, and some of that includes things like strong language and drug use, which I would argue are contextually appropriate for classroom discussions in a high school setting. The book isn’t sensationalised or overly explicit, and the scenes are definitely contextually appropriate.
Some of the other protests surround the political messaging of the book, the ‘Marxist perspective.’ Nickel and Dimed is most definitely a political book, and it had a very political premise. I’m not necessarily sure this is a bad thing, in the context of a classroom where students can discuss the politics, talk about the slant that Ehrenreich takes on the issues she reports, and have an opportunity to possibly explore other texts alongside it. There’s nothing limiting instructors to just this book, and in fact some very interesting classroom conversations might come out of a compare/contrast session looking at other approaches to low wage work, to class and poverty in the US. Exploring other political slants can be important for students who are going to encounter them in real life, not just the classroom, and in environments where they may not have an opportunity to explore, challenge, and confront those attitudes.
The real story behind challenges to Nickel and Dimed is probably more sinister. This is a book that confronts numerous social attitudes in the United States. It sneers at bootstrapping, and illustrates the myriad ways in which members of the lower classes are firmly kept there. Ehrenreich talks about all the techniques used as tools of power and control to keep people submissive, afraid for their jobs. She discusses the fact that wages are not pacing inflation and are in many areas artificially low. She brings up issues like the lack of opportunities for advancement, development, and growth in low-paying jobs, and the fact that many people are trapped in the service classes, unable to move forward.
These are scary things, to some people. Many people in the United States have very set, specific ideas about poverty and what it is like to be poor. This book turns those ideas on their head and forces people to confront some of their own attitudes about poverty. Parents who want their children to believe that people deserve to be poor because they’re lazy and unmotivated, who want their children to believe that anyone can succeed by trying, who want children to believe that those people working in low wage jobs aren’t anybody their children need to worry about, certainly don’t want their kids reading Nickel and Dimed.
And those parents are challenging the book, with plenty of content to latch onto as a solid reason for requesting a ban. There is a lot of controversial content in the book because it covers controversial topics, and it doesn’t pretend to be neutral. That provides plenty of opportunities to find something to point at to be offended by with the goal of keeping the book out of the classroom. And, of course, the children of people who want to ban the book would probably be among those who might benefit the most by reading it, because it would provide an opportunity to see a different perspective, a different kind of life, a different approach to poverty.