Most AP courses in our school district require a summer project that is due on the first day of school. For eleventh grade AP English, students must read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. The purpose of this assignment is to evaluate a work of nonfiction. In the analysis of nonfiction, it is important to first judge the credibility of the author. The good news is that the AP assignment addresses this. The bad news is the AP assignment does not allow for the opinion that the the authority of the author on this topic is questionable. The first question is:
Describe at least three ways in which she [the author] shows herself to be a credible person--someone the reader can trust to present the material in a fair and honest manner.
A less biased and more relevant question would have been:
Describe at least three ways in which she [the author] attempts to show herself to be a credible person--someone the reader can trust to present the material in a fair and honest manner. Was she successful?
The book Nickel and Dimed is an ideologically driven narrative. Barbara Ehrenreich travels to three different locations during the late 1990's and attempts to survive on a minimum wage job. Her goal is to illuminate the plight of the working poor. That is a noble purpose. However, she goes in with the established bias that corporations are evil and the government is not doing enough. Her husband is an organizer for the Teamsters union. She is very quick to paint management/labor relations in strongly adversarial terms. She proposes greater unionization of workers and more government intervention as the solution. She proudly proclaims her atheism and speaks derisively and crudely of religion, especially Christianity. She claims to be a scientist (she has a PhD in biology) but her "study design" for this experiment is very flawed. She sets conditions that make her very likely to fail and thus "prove" her predetermined conclusions.
For example, she plops herself down in a strange town with no friends or family to support her. She complains that she cannot take advantage of the financial advantage of home cooking because she cannot afford thirty dollars worth of new cookware. In the real world, most people can acquire hand-me-down kitchen supplies from family and friends. Local thrift shops can offer kitchen essentials for far less than thirty dollars. And those religious entities that she sneers at are great resources for those in a financial crisis. Ehrenreich also only gives herself a month to establish the financial viability of her life in a new location. There are always start-up costs to setting up a new household. It is not surprising that she is in the red after one month. It will take more than one month to recoup this investment.
When she works for a maid service she is appalled that the company charges clients twenty-five dollars per man-hour but only pays the cleaners $6.50 per hour. How dare they make such a profit! Of course she never openly considers that out of that remaining $18.50 must come the money for income taxes, social security taxes, insurance premiums, cleaning supplies, company fleet vehicles, the company office building, office supplies, phone service, marketing costs, and the wages for administrative personnel. It is surprising that a PhD level scientist would ignore such data.
Her final position is at a Minneapolis area Wal-Mart. Here she continually rants about the oppression of the workers by management. Her account focuses on the lack of a union for Wal-Mart employees. To further emphasize the need for a union she highlights the fact that that Wal-Mart has been sued in four states for not paying overtime wages. She makes no mention of the many union scandals that have occurred across the United States. The first few years I lived here in Northern Virginia the news was full of the ever growing corruption scandal in the Washington D.C. teachers union. Ehrenreich's beloved Teamsters union is hardly a paragon of virtue. To be fair, her final analysis in the final chapter does admit that unionization is not a panacea. She advocates for government support to subsidize what collective bargaining cannot provide.
Finally, the grossest deficiency in her analysis is that she makes no evaluation of the minimum wage workers themselves. I have been in the position of living paycheck to paycheck on a minimum wage job. I lived in a two bedroom apartment with four roommates. I didn't have a car. I took the bus all over Houston. I was an economic vegetarian--I had no qualms about eating meat but I couldn't afford it. However, this was always done with an eye towards continuing my education and making choices that would enable me to eventually achieve financial security. What choices or life circumstances put Ehrenreich's fellow minimum wage workers in their situations? Do they see this as a transient position? How many are using these positions to supplement the family income rather than being the sole support of the family? Her position is that those who are working at minimum wage jobs will always be in minimum wage jobs so there must be some way to sustain them in these positions. The question she does not ask is what must be done to support these workers in a move out of such dire financial straits. Do they need education? Do they need housing support? Do they need training in money management? It is interesting that she makes no comment on the fact that so many of her coworkers struggle with food and housing expenses but by her own account have no trouble affording cigarettes and alcohol. Shouldn't some choices have consequences? I personally see no moral obligation to subsidize the food expenses of a smoker so that he can continue to smoke.
The bottom line is I have no problem with my son reading this book as an example of non-fiction. I do have a problem with it being presented as an unquestioningly fair and credible account of a social economic issue.