Life Changing Nickels and Dimes

Monday, December 18, 2017
by Kristen Levins, Civil Justice Attorney, Texas Access to Justice Commission 

Reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” had a profound effect on the trajectory of my legal career. I initially read it in the early 2000s, during my first year of law school, and was deeply struck by it. I was only a generation removed from poverty. My registered nurse mother and factory worker father did a phenomenal job sheltering my sister and me far from the harsh realities they faced growing up. Ehrenreich’s account of the indignities she suffered at work and in finding housing opened my eyes to what my parents’ sacrifices meant to my upbringing. It made me aware of my privilege and helped shape my worldview, the one that led me to work on behalf of the underserved for the entirety of my legal career.

“Nickel and Dimed” is an interesting book with a flawed protagonist who didn’t seem to have any prior experience with the world in which she chose to live. To learn how the working poor survive, Ehrenreich lived in three different U.S. cities for a month at a time, working low-paying jobs, at or near minimum wage, and living in housing she could afford on her wages.   Spoiler alert – the subtitle reveals what she learned – people whose work pays at or near minimum wage have a hard time finding safe housing and eating healthy, nutritious meals. 

After more than a decade of working on behalf of the underserved, re-reading the book was surreal. I read several criticisms on Goodreads and struggled to reconcile a book that was life-changing to me at 23 with the negative comments in those reviews. But by page five, I noted how the “limits” Ehrenreich put on her experiment placed her far outside of the realities of most working poor: having a reliable car, ruling out homelessness or going hungry, having around $1,200 seed money.

Regardless, the book gave me perspective about my sheltered life and made me determined to help people who were at their most vulnerable, who had a legal need, and little hope for help. I have dedicated my career to being a voice for the disadvantaged, by maintaining rights of children involved in the justice system, obtaining child support for families, or striving to achieve access to justice for all low-income Texans. I’m not sure my journey would have led me down this path had it not been for reading “Nickel and Dimed” as a law student.