On Poetry and Culture Shock

Nickel and dimed

I bought Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America thinking that it would resemble essays such as Fast Food Nation or No Logo, but it turns out to be a personal account: the writer, Barbara Ehrenreich, took a succession of bad-paying jobs to see if it is possible to survive on them in the US. Surprise, surprise: it’s not. You can either buy food or pay rent, but not both.

My first reaction was that she was almost a century too late: George Orwell wrote a similar book, Down and Out in Paris and London, about his experiences when he was accidentally out of a job teaching English private lessons in Paris. So he worked as a cleaner in a fancy hotel’s restaurant kitchen, and then he had to live as a tramp in London for a few weeks. Highly recommended reading.

I have mixed feelings about the situation Nickel and Dimed describes, because at times I relate to it. I remember my summer as a counter assistant at a chip shop in Glasgow, on the minimum wage, my first attempt at being economically independent. I could afford rent in a shared flat, groceries and some luxuries like books, but I could not have afforded my own flat, paying a mortgage, or a baby, had I wanted to have them. At Cornell I lived on the local living wage; the difference between the living wage and the minimum wage is that minimum wage is arbitrarily fixed by the government and the living wage is an estimate of how much it costs to afford food, rent, health care, transportation and other necessities. Again, if I was in this country for more than a year I would resent the fact that I cannot afford luxuries like buying clothes without making a careful budget or buying a house, but the statistics that pepper the book suggest that Cornell University did quite a lot of math to ensure that I was at a very precise level of austere comfort.

I cannot stop comparing the situation on the book with the Spanish one. We are better off in Spain because in Europe, minimum wages are a little bit closer to a living wage. Public transport is generally better. Child care is more affordable. There are national health systems, which is more than you can say about the parody of a democracy Americans have. Now the problems: rents in Spain are insanely high because the only people really willing to live in a rented place are students, so landlords are used to charge by the room. That means that you can forget about renting a house or flat for one person or family. Buying a house? For a couple of young professionals, paying the mortgage can easily swallow up one complete salary, and I’m taking long-term mortgages, of about 25 years. Babies? Until about five years ago when immigrants started to come in masse, Spain had the lowest natality rate in the world. The way Spaniards deal with low salaries and overpriced housing is by living with their parents until they find a job that pays enough to leave. It’s not the best solution but it’s the only one we’ve found.

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