'Nickel and Dimed' Revisited

Barbara Ehrenreich was following in the footsteps of Upton Sinclair, who wrote 'The Jungle.'

In 1904, writer Upton Sinclair spent several weeks living and working with immigrants in the meatpacking industry in Chicago. His observations of the misery and squalor there became the basis for his novel, “The Jungle,” which spurred widespread public revulsion over the unsanitary conditions in the plants.

At the time, President Teddy Roosevelt called Sinclair, who was a socialist, “a crackpot” and sent emissaries to inspect the stockyards and plants. They reported back that conditions in the meatpacking plants were, in fact, revolting. Eventually, public pressure moved Congress to enact the Meat Inspection Act and the law that established the agency that later became the Food and Drug Administration. If you’ve never had E. coli from tainted food, thank Upton Sinclair.

The author, who had sought to galvanize the country about the workers’ plight, later lamented: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

A century later, Barbara Ehrenreich sought to hit where Sinclair had missed by chronicling her efforts to survive as a low-wage worker in Maine, Minnesota and Florida. The result was “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” which I wrote about in on a local effort to have the book removed from a high school curriculum.

Eric Adams of Lower Saucon Township had urged the Easton Area School District to stop teaching the book as part of an 11th grade advanced placement class. Adams sent me a copy of his arguments against “Nickel and Dimed” and I’ve attached it to this article. He tells me he submitted the same statement to Southern Lehigh, Nazareth and Easton school districts.  

A couple of quick points in response:

  • Adams argues that the book belittles Christians – and he’s right. But the Christians Ehrenreich criticizes are a church group that runs her ragged as a waitress and then leaves a $1 tip on a $92 bill. She also attends a revival one night and complains that the preachers say nothing about Christ’s “socialist” teachings about feeding the hungry and caring for the poor. 
  • Adams is correct that Ehrenreich makes it clear she used marijuana and tries to pass a drug test to get a job. I have mixed feelings about whether marijuana should be decriminalized but for now I’ll defer here to that wild-eyed liberal Pat Robertson, founder of “The 700 Club,” who announced the other day that pot should be legalized.

Adams’ strongest argument is that a school’s curriculum is essentially prime real estate – and educators can only teach a limited number of books each year. On his list of accomplished writers he’d presumably like to see taught more often, he lists Shakespeare.

So let’s take “Hamlet.” Running through this masterpiece are themes of suicide, madness and incest in a plot that ends in a familial bloodbath of stabbings and poisonings with Hamlet’s mother, stepfather/uncle and Hamlet among the dead. Talk about a dysfunctional family.

It’s pure genius – everyone should read it – but let’s be clear: Next to that, pot smoking looks like jaywalking. That’s one of the beauties of books – we can read about something without feeling compelled to do it.

Finally, last week’s column drew a fair bit of comment and my favorite came from Easton High senior Brett Bonfanti who said his advanced placement English class read “Nickel and Dimed” last year and “there are a lot of misconceptions about the way it was taught.” 

A self-described conservative, Bonfanti said he refuted Ehrenreich’s claims in class discussions. He added that “it is an insult to us students, who work very hard, to have others think that we could be so easily indoctrinated.”

Pamela Porter March 25, 2012 at 11:20 AM
OK - that's it. I'm going to re-read N&D. I'm clearly suffering from early dementia, because I could have sworn the book was about the difficulties of trying live on a minimum wage salary, and all the attendant issues and problems. Apparently, though, it was only about the wholesale use of drugs, stuffing socialism down the necks of impressionable youth and mocking the tenets and beliefs of Christians. I'm going to clear this up ... for *myself*.
srodham69 March 25, 2012 at 12:08 PM
Pam, I think you're correct. My children haven't read the book in school, but I've read it. My children read about the effects of racism (To Kill a Mockingbird), teen suicide (Romeo and Juliet) and other less controversial issues. But I've read N&D and I have no idea what she's talking about.
for real March 25, 2012 at 01:44 PM
Ronnie your deep fear of socialism/communism really shows. If a book in the curriculum happens to be about poor people or drug issues it is not part of some kind of left wing conspiracy. Put down the Lehigh Valley Commentator and stop listening to Fox News every night. This country will always be run mostly by big business anyway. They are the ones with the financial resources to structure the debate and control most of what we get to hear. Whatever socialists are still around in this country could probably never even win a local election. You are safe from the red menace no matter what Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh might try to tell you. What those people have to say is a political diversion meant to prey on weak minded fools.
Rosemary B March 25, 2012 at 02:39 PM
For real, I thought Ronnie's response was very fair. Don't remove the book from the library, but is it really literature? I think your fear of people who are more conservative then you is what is showing here. Maybe you should listen a bit to something more conservative on occasion to get a taste of what else might be happening, beyond what the liberal media want you to know.
Cheryl Barron March 29, 2012 at 04:01 PM
I was a low pay worker and nothing in her book is wrong. Your worked like a dog for long hours and chump change pay. I usually made 5 thousand a year,the most I ever made in a year is 11 thousand.And no I was never exempted from income tax,I paid out every year. Let the kids read it,it is the best argument for (affordable)college education


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