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August 18, 2008
By Zanny Marsh
A University of Nevada, Reno summer reading project has been inviting University freshmen to consider the experience of life on minimum wage. Members of the incoming Class of 2012, which numbers about 2,200, are reading Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.
Now with dire economic news from a neighboring state hitting the headlines, those students, through Barbara Ehrenreich’s award-winning book, are getting a real-life glimpse of how a financial crisis can affect people’s lives.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered salaries of California’s state employees to be capped at the federal minimum wage of $6.55 per hour July 31. The decision means more than 200,000 more individuals will live below the poverty line, and this has implications for the economic security of another nearly quarter million Americans.
The 2008 book selection for Nevada students, an “Amazon.com Best of 2001,” chronicles a social experiment by author and cultural critic Ehrenreich, who attempted to survive for two years earning minimum wage. She worked two jobs, nearly seven days a week, and still came close to living in a shelter.
Students were asked to complete the reading assignment before the fall term begins. Faculty and staff volunteers will lead more than 90 small discussion groups in talks about the book as part of University Orientation, Aug. 21.
The assignment invites entering freshman to think critically about literature and to develop essential academic and social networks.
“Many Americans are one paycheck away from financial crisis, and in the current economy the plight of the working poor in California and Nevada is becoming increasingly desperate,” said Paul Neill, physics professor, director of the Core Curriculum and Summer Scholar 2008 project director. “We hope that by reading this insightful book, students will be impressed by the importance of civic engagement and reminded of the value of higher education. It’s the best chance that students have to realize greater professional and personal security and fulfillment.”
Susan Chandler, associate professor of social work, would like to see Nickel and Dimed considered required reading for all students.
Chandler developed a social work course based on the book. She challenged student teams to recreate, as a classroom exercise, the experience of surviving on minimum wage without public assistance. In four years, not a single team succeeded.
“Ehrenreich’s book is brilliant. Readers come away understanding low-wage life — and gain empathy, too,” Chandler said. “Many Americans work very hard and are still faced with an empty refrigerator at the end of the month. This book imparts an ‘eyes-wide-open’ experience of that reality.”
“There are misconceptions about the poor,” said Deborah Boehm, assistant professor of anthropology and women’s studies. “They are lazy and won’t work, for example. This is an important book because it shows real-life experiences in a way that research does not. It demonstrates that poverty is all around us, in situations that we don’t expect.”
Nevada’s Intercollegiate Athletics program is sponsoring the Summer Scholars Project this year and in 2009.