The Transparency of Bias: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Privileged, Compassionate Perspective
In Barbara Ehrenreich’s investigative memoir Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, Ehrenreich herself attempts to investigate whether minimum wage is truly a livable wage by taking up low-paying work in three different locations across America. Her answer, unsurprisingly, is no. Satirizing the often-corrupt employers she works under and developing humility through self-deprecation, Ehrenreich recounts her experiences with a sense of levity, largely free from a romanticized or pitiful portrayal of the poor. She does not, however, allow humor to overshadow the awfulness of poverty, honestly recounting her sense of fear, misery, and futility. This works to create a nuanced and human portrayal of the poor, which gives gravity to her argument for socioeconomic reform. Ehrenreich compounds this by echoing Marxist language and liberal sentiment throughout, rallying liberal support for change while also drawing connections between real poor experience and political agenda. By making her bias clear from the beginning and using Marxist language to build her narrative into an argument, Ehrenreich narrows her audience to those who already support a raise in the minimum wage as a policy. This allows Ehrenreich’s narrative to stand as the main component of her argument, adding urgency to her agenda by humanizing the poor and revealing the harsh economic realities of poverty.
Ehrenreich enters her project and begins her novel with a clear bias: that a minimum wage is not a livable wage. This preconceived thesis narrows her audience to the liberal upper class, allowing her to specify her style of argumentation such that it is more effective. While Ehrenreich approaches her project with some scientific curiosity, she does so with a tone of clear skepticism, asking, “How can anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled?”(1). Furthermore, though she attempts to moderate the disbelief by acknowledging the possibility of some “hidden economies” of the poor, she also describes “the hopelessness of being a wage slave” before even beginning her project (5). She also acknowledges her predilection for “Marxist rants,” likely alienating conservative readers, but garnering support from educated liberals (9). By doing this, Ehrenreich clarifies her own liberal position, without clearly addressing the more-conservative counterarguments, narrowing her intended audience to liberals. Speaking to an audience who already supports her agenda, Ehrenreich’s objective then becomes adding a sense of humanity to her political cause, which she accomplishes by using metonymy, synecdoche, and body metaphors to demonstrate how poverty degrades her upper-middle class selfhood. The first thing Ehrenreich describes of her jump into the “parallel universe” of poverty is the reduction of the self; as a waitress, she is not Barbara the person, but, instead, “baby,’ ‘honey,’ ‘blondie,’ or, most commonly, ‘girl’” (13). This exemplification of both metonymy and synecdoche shows how service work reduces people to parts and, while this is actually dehumanizing, the fact that it is happening to Ehrenreich (whose humanity, as a member of the upper class, seems implicit) forces her liberal upper class readers to identify their own humanity with that of the poor. By acknowledging these stereotypes while also narrating her own human experience as a poor person, Ehrenreich forces her audience to unite the liberal idea of the “noble poor” with the real wage workers who are treated as mere fragments. This gives a face to the socioeconomic crisis Ehrenreich describes, adding urgency to the need for reform.
To capitalize upon this human urgency derived from her narrative, Ehrenreich imbues her economic discussion with a Marxist pathos to rally a sense of rebellious support from liberal reformists, while also using second person to maintain relatability. In one of her most quoted revelations — “There are no secret economics that nourish the poor” — Ehrenreich breaks down her point using second-person exemplification by saying, “If you can’t put up the two months’ rent you need to secure an apartment, you end up paying through the nose for a room by the week. If you have only a room, with a hot plate at best…You eat fast food” (21). By portraying the futility and inescapable nature the of low-wage economy in an accessible way based on the experiences of real people, Ehrenreich engages pathos in an otherwise logical argument, garnering a marxist-anger anger and drive to stick up for the oppressed-proletariat. Having made effective socioeconomic analysis throughout, Ehrenreich brings her Marxist-rage to the narrative in the last two chapters, arguing to her low-wage working peers the need for a pseudo-revolution.
Near the end of her time in Maine, Ehrenreich breaks her rule against “Marxist rants” and “shaking with anger…blows up” at Ted, telling him “him he can’t keep putting money above his employees’ health” (64) Finally converting her analysis of the situation and desperation for a solution into legitimate action, Ehrenreich encourages a desire to take action within the reader as well, especially because, as members of the upper class, they have a higher capacity to create change. Moving to Minnesota, Ehrenreich’s desire to act as a voice of a movement continues to grow, as she “makes it her mission” to get Walmart “employees unionized” (100). While earlier in the novel, Ehrenreich’s agenda always seems investigative, containing her bias to the reflection, now she becomes active, raging against corrupt corporate practices. This helps to illustrate an important point that often gets lost in the earlier parts of book: it is not enough to understand how the poor get oppressed. You have to do something about it. Ehrenreich reiterates this point at the end of her evaluation when she claims “[the working-poor] go hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently” (120). The upper-middle class who want a raise in the minimum wage are not “philanthropists” bestowing their support on the poor (120). Rather, they owe their support.
Using pathos-driven exemplification and economic analysis, Ehrenreich gives a face to America’s mass of low-wage workers who drive the American economy without ever being named. However, “actually” a highly-educated member of the upper middle class, she also effectively engages this group, using Marxist rhetoric and the humanization of poverty to add urgency to the need for socio-economic reform. While the novel has been heralded for its honesty by some and criticised heavily for its bias by others, it succeeds in its ultimate goal: to get people talking about the issues of the poor at all.
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