For the most part, this is a really eye-opening read. It describes an experiement by journalist Barbara Ehrenreich where she takes a series of minimum wage jobs (waitress, hotel maid, housekeeper, nursing home aide, and Wal-Mart employee) and tries to survive on the earnings from those jobs. “Surviving,” it turns out, means living in crappy hotels and eating fast food while trying to keep two jobs. Her descriptions of the dirty secrets of the jobs she takes are really interesting – when she cleans houses, she describes how the maids essentially just wipe away dirt without actually bothering to disinfect surfaces – but I’ll be honest, I was a little disappointed by how few explosive behind-the-scenes revelations she gives her readers. Also, she’s really reluctant to tell exactly which restaurant, maid service, hotel chain, and nursing home she was employed by, although she had no trouble name-dropping when it came time to work for Wal-Mart. I wanted to know exactly which restaurant that was “part of a well-known national chain” (called “Jerry’s” in Ehrenreich’s book) makes servers prepare salad with their bare hands and usually doesn’t have soap in the employee bathrooms. As muckrakers go, Ehrenreich is a bit of a wimp.
She also can’t seem to shake the whole “I Am A Fearless And Noble Journalist Who Sacrifices Everything FOR THE PEOPLE” mindset she starts out with. When she quits each minimum-wage job to move on to the next one, she makes sure to tell her fellow employees that she’s (gasp!) NOT actually a divorced woman with no college education, she’s actually a JOURNALIST with a PHD who’s INVESTIGATING THIS ESTABLISHMENT FOR A BOOK!!!
Ehrenreich is clearly expecting her fellow employees to be shocked and awed by her espionage skills and applaud her for pretending to be One Of Them so she can write a best-selling tell-all, but that doesn’t happen. Every single time Ehrenreich reveals her true identity, the response is an overwhelming, “Um…good for you?”
And it is hilarious.
Verdict: Three out of five stars