Nickel and dimed

I just finished reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, a scathing indictment of welfare reform and its effect on the lives of the working poor in the U.S. In the book’s conclusion, Ehrenreich writes, “when someone works for less pay than she can live on… she has made a great sacrifice for you…. The ‘working poor’ …are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone (p. 221).”

On the one hand, the book is utterly depressing. On the other, it is a jolt to my middle class comfort. I am angry as hell because this situation exists in the “wealthiest and most powerful” nation on earth. I am angry, too, because I am now more aware of it. I feel a need to find a productive use for my anger.

When I expressed my feelings to a community college colleague whose judgment and experience I respect, she reminded me that the work we do in community colleges makes a difference in the lives of people living on the edge; community colleges provide a path from the abyss of lifelong poverty.

At times it feels like there are not enough hours in the day for faculty, staff, and administrators to accomplish all that needs to done. But when I think about the programs and services offered through California community colleges that benefit students enormously, I am reminded why I love what we do, why I am grateful to be a part of what we do, and why I am grateful to share this effort with all of my colleagues.

0 thoughts on “Nickel and dimed

  1. Janis

    Wow, I just finished “helping me help myself” yet another book that aims toward communications. A silly book in comparison to the one you read, but this woman Beth Lisick went to 10 self help gurus and spent a year writing about her expeiences. I enjoyed the book and am learning a lot about myself and other people. I’m not reading “You can change anybody”. Of this one I’m a bit skepitcal.

    I’m also reading “Random Acts of Kindness”, something I feel like putting in the women’s bathroom up at the college, think it would get read?

  2. Karen

    Right on Dennis. Thank you.

    I’d like to read that book. Do we have it at our library?

    There are some points in what you describe that ring a bell with my own childhood, and I was going to say I always had a roof over my head, but indeed one summer we lived in an old 9 X 9 army tent in a campground from July through September when we moved into a motel room. Strangely, I don’t really think of it as a time when I didn’t have a roof over my head, but the rain did flood the tent from time to time. As a kid, I thought it was great actually in some respects, but looking back, I can’t believe the authorities placed three abandoned foster kids with us in the tent. That is another story; don’t get me started. (They had malnutrition, ring worm, and cigarette burns on them. My parents and I had taken care of foster children in Seattle, and the authorities in Canada though those kids would be more comfortable in a tent… get this, because they were half native, than in the hospital since no one else would take them.)

    We had a very small mini homemade trailer, and a tarp between that and the tent to build a kitchen around our picnic table, featuring a large tupperware tub for the sink. The back wall of our “room” was a shed side, and on the other side of that were the few possesions that my folks chose to take, packed in 99 beer boxes, in a migration from Seattle to Prince George, British Columbia, Canada when we moved north in what I call our “covered wagon”. The train went right past us and it took me quite a while not to feel like it was going to run right over us, night after night, as we were for all intents and purposes, outside. My dad worked where ever he could find construction work and was a roofer at the time. He never finished school past grade nine and my mom finished high school but that was it.

    I lived in 33 places by the time I was 21 and until I made my own way in the world, was completely poor. Though I never earned less than a B average on the whole, I was not considered “college material” back in the 70’s (truly – it was because I didn’t have the money or self-esteem to think otherwise). The counselor recommend I take typing and bookkeeping. Ah what a blessing, as those two courses opened all my doors for me not so much later in life.
    The message I try to pass to my students hasn’t changed… I’m lucky. I didn’t stay so very poor for so many more years, but worked my way to the place where I could not only help myself, but help others — thanks to the community college system.

    I do think we make a difference in the lives of more students on the edge than we could ever imagine. One comment can make a difference. One moment of true sincerity and honesty can give a message that we are human too and that we can help. Having stood on the other side of the luxury of education after high school, I know those fears and those blocks, but I also know a person can overcome them and get on with it. So, poverty does something to us. If you want something better, make it happen. Isn’t that the American way? The thing I haven’t been able to figure out yet, is what makes some of us entreprenurial where others give up. Canada is way less entreprenurial than the states… and Ridgecrest is far more entreprenurial than where I used to live. Still, there are those who give up… I think there are many who just need someone to give them a different perspective. Hope, and some tools to get things going…

    The other night Jim and I were watching Anthony Bourdain in some place… I can’t even remember now, and they showed a clip of an insect I never heard of before. Jim said, “hey, there’s a shit roller”. OMG, sure enough, a tiny beetle/ant type insect rolled a small ball of shit along the ground, not far from the pit where the people were cooking a sheep they had just butchered for the next days meals. (I think to myself, how did I get to be 52 and not know such a thing as a shit roller existed in the world!)

    Everything is relative right? I really identify with the pioneers of this country. You’ve pushed a button that I could take off and write chapters on and on and forget all about my work for the next few days, but of course I won’t. I am finally getting everyone logged into class and they are finally getting their textbooks open. Now the true fun begins.

    You say,

    When I expressed my feelings to a community college colleague whose judgment and experience I respect, she reminded me that the work we do in community colleges makes a difference in the lives of people living on the edge; community colleges provide a path from the abyss of lifelong poverty.

    Of course, it is true. When Dan came back from Afghanistan I said, “there are a lot of different ways to save the world” (thank you for picking one on the home side of oceans again!)

    And it is true, there simply are NOT enough hours in the day to do it all. For our personal well being, the key is to find a healthy balance so we can live long enough to do what we do for more years. For our college, the key is to be effective in the lives of our students and college, without turning into shit rollers. That’s my new image of institutional futility…

    I hope you don’t mind me sharing my message, and thanks for sharing yours. There is so much opportunity for all of us to inspire and be inspired… hooray, we didn’t miss it today.

    … back to my online classes…


  3. Bonita


    Thank you for sending this out. I have been working with many GED students many of whom dropped out in 9th grade! Their skills are woefully inadequate. Yet, they often can’t be hired for decent jobs until they get a GED- which is so counterproductive because so many have great life skills and are hard working. It makes me angry that they were passed over, passed on and never got the skills for today’s HS diploma or my grandfather’s 8th grade education ( another subject). For so many this is a welcome opportunity. I believe in them because my husband made it out of dirt-floor, tent-house poverty to get an education and now work on the base. Giving back becomes a lifestyle, for us, born out of gratitude and religious conviction (not guilt) that all deserve a similar opportunity.

    Issues are so complex we can do our small part.

    My husband returns tonight from a trip to Mexico where a group of US men build houses, schools, orphanages and churches in NAFTA towns. These people pull their children out of school as early as third grade to work in factories so they can to feed their families who often live in cardboard shacks. The companies they work for are often American companies like Sunbeam! Union efforts are often broken with violence. Mexico has many resources but does little to help- no welfare at all. This too makes me angry. The people are lucky to have beans and rice and a direct electrical line with a single bulb. The first trip to Mexico they delivered a four wheeler full of beans; this year a million pounds of beans and rice. Knowing this puts a different slant on the illegal immigration issue, especially when US work permits for them are 1-2 month’s wages! What has not been deflated is the people’s indomitable spirit and gratitude.

    With BSI we cannot hire assistance in the LAC and must relay again on student workers $8.00/hr with no increments in the LAC even when a student has special qualifications and abilities. So, “staff” works overtime to get the job done and faculty work overload. This seems unfair to all but rectifying the situation calls for more than a few work horses can deliver. It call for an all campus/ district effort and quite likely outside funding sources to supplement in specific ways. The needs are great and increasing as we get more Latino populations. What I noticed 30+ years ago about Ridgecrest and now Mammoth is that sadly the bi-modal distribution of educated population to uneducated population has not disappeared.

    Anyway, thanks for the impassioned review,


  4. Julie

    Thanks for the inspiring email, Dennis. I’ve always felt that working for community colleges is a way to exercise some agency in this matter. I’d like to know more about the budget situation for the cal. community colleges. It seems its always being cut!

  5. Kim

    Dennis, I am so glad you read that book! I know we had talked about it a year or so ago as adding it to the library offerings. It really made an impact on my and my decision to be a community college teacher.

    Thanks for reminding me how much of a difference we can make.


  6. Debbie

    Very true. No matter how long or how much I get done there’s always more but I just think that’s how it is in every job. Based on how underpaid some people are paid I feel very blessed to have my job here. The work load and responsibilities I had with people’s lives at College Community Services was, frankly, overwhelming and I was grossly underpaid. We need more money put into the mental health field. Too many mentally ill people slip through the cracks.

    Just my thoughts.


  7. Christine

    Dennis, This past weekend, I visited a friend who works in administration for LA Unified. Lynn shocked and depressed me with her financial complaints (even though she repeatedly tells how she earns $113,000 annually and has many other assets, including her hillside Glendale home). When I tried to move our conversation towards the truly poor in our own communities, Lynn rolled her eyes and became angry (because, of course, as many Republicans will explain, the poor choose to remain poor out of laziness). Thank you for sharing this. Christine

  8. Carolene


    I respect this response from a point of view that is twofold. On the one hand, as single mother who has existed in the working poor realm of stratification for nearly ten years now, and as a college employee who has the opportunity to help students receive the education they need to assist them in bettering their future. You do make a difference Dennis, Thank-You!


  9. Jan


    It sure does! When I started as a student at Cerro Coso, I was married with four children. Our household income was $13,000 annually and our house payment was $580 a month! (Interest rates at that time were 13 – 18 %!). We lived in a home where the stove and range did not work (the gas company found a leak and that the plumbing had not been done properly, we couldn’t afford to fix it). We had one wall heater in the dining room that worked. My children remember, running from their rooms to the heater to dress in the morning. My children remember going to bed hungry. My husband still will buy nothing on credit and saves and scrimps so that we never are that strapped again. (He insists we wash and reuse the plastic disposable cups, and other things that we don’t really have to do any more, but he can’t get over the sense of having not been able to provide enough). When I started at Cerro Coso my goal was certificate in Electronics Technology and go to work on the base. I learned at Cerro Coso that I could hope for more. It has been a tremendous journey with so many unexpected rewards.


  10. Valerie

    Well stated. I completely agree. We have the wonderful opportunity not just to educate, but to change lives.

  11. Tom


    Thank you for sharing this synopsis and your insights. I appreciate your taking the time to save me time, similar to what the working poor are doing for all of us. Hopefully, people in that position (and I have been one) are in transition. As you point out, cc plays a vital role in that process.

    It’s great to have you as a neighbor and friend.


  12. Kathy


    Your words were so thought provoking. I, too, feel sadness for these people. I am just as thankful that our students have opportunities here at Cerro Coso with our DSPS, EOPS and CARE programs. With the EOPS and CARE programs we see students with low income and single parents coming to school wanting to better themselves for their families and themselves. As a staff member in Special Services, we all try to go into the community and recruit prospective students to enter the world of community colleges several times in a semester. It is very rewarding to see these students, who may be disabled or unemployed and on welfare, graduate from our college.

    This semester I have had several students come into our office needing assistance and say, “I want to give my children more than food stamps”. Thanks for your summary.

    Kathy P-C