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Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

Wow, what a haunting read this one was, even if it’s a bit outdated at this point. The author goes undercover working as an unskilled worker in the minimum-wage sector of the American economy, providing excruciating detail of the near impossibility of surviving on what amount to poverty wages. It left me wondering whether an economy that depends on such compensation is one we should be proud of, let alone build a society around.

Society subsidizes low-wage employers

When a minimum-wage employee can’t afford healthcare and has to go to the ER, someone has to pay. When they can’t afford enough food for their family, it has to come from somewhere. By supporting those who are working but unable to afford necessities, we are enabling employers to pay such low wages. The most shocking statistic: 1 in 5 homeless people work full time.

The philanthropy of low-wage work

Low-wage work often results in a zero or negative-sum outcome for employees. Ride-sharing drivers earn less in wages than the gas, maintenance, and depreciation on their vehicles. That means that customers are effectively getting the driver’s time for free.

All jobs are not created equal

The main exercise of the book is proving how ridiculous the assumption is that any job is better than welfare. It’s challenging to make it, let alone get ahead, on low wages. In the afterward, Ehrenreich wonders if there will come the point where people say enough is enough and refuse low-wage work. Twenty-some years after publishing, we see such a situation play out before our eyes. What will we do in response?