read: 29 August 2002
This book really split my friends. Some thought it was a really effective social critique from a known and talented writer. Others thought it was an insulting pseudo-realist look into the world of the underclass by someone whose only approach to such a lifestyle is to whine and complain her way through it.
As I was reading this book, I was itemizing all of my particular issues with it, reasons it made me insanely mad. By the time I finished with it, I was merely tired of Ehrehreich and wanted her to go home to her middle-class existence and boyfriend and house, probably even more than she did. Ehrenreich, who I generally respect as a writer, sets heself up as a fake poor person, gives herself a seemingly arbitrary set of rules, and goes out to live as she envisions a poor person would. She takes low wage jobs in a number of cities and tries to both keep the job and make a living while paying for rent, food, expenses, etc. Oh, except she rents herself a car, off the books. Oh, and she won’t share a living situation with anyone, forcing herself into more expensive lodgings with no personal posessions. Oh, and she quits jobs that are too hard and complains her way through the rest of them
Ehrenreich’s points -- made frequently through footnotes and a summary chapter at the end -- are valid and worthwhile. She explains how people living at subsistence level have an entirely different set of concerns than the next class of people above them. She explains how attaining and keeping housing and food become survival activities and how the current economic system makes this even more so. She stresses how lousy it is working in a lousy job and living in a lousy apartment, but she does a pisspoor job at getting inside the heads of the people she works with -- who can’t rent cars, or return to a boyfriend and a house at the end of their tenure. Ehrenreich seems to roll her eyes a lot and wonder aloud just how anyone can live like she has forced herself to temporarily live and all this does is further patronize people who are too busy working two jobs, raising kids and figuring out where the next meal is coming from, to give a shit about Ehrenreich’s undercover journalism. Subculture tourism at its finest.
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