Skip to main content
book review

What is life like when you’re poor? Over the past hundred years, that question has been the starting point for several now-classic books. Two that particularly stand out – George Orwell’s 1933 Down and Out in Paris and London and Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 Nickel and Dimed – were reissued in 2021 (see below). The authors of both were not themselves poor; they “lived poor” for periods of time in order to find out (as Ehrenreich put it) how anyone lives “on the wages available to the unskilled. Now, with Lori Fox’s This Has Always Been a War, we have the book-length testimony of someone who has been poor not as part of a journalistic project, but for life.

These works are both memoir and societal analysis; and deserve the widest possible readership. That’s particularly so, it might be argued, at a time when hourly wages are no longer keeping up with inflation while, at the other end of the spectrum, (as reported by The Globe recently), compensation paid the CEOs of 100 of the largest Canadian companies listed on the TSE went up 23 per cent in 2021, to an average of $9.13-million.

All three books prompt fundamental questions about poverty and inequality not by citing statistics but through an accumulation of personal detail as to what life is like for those who can barely scrape by.

This Has Always Been a War: The Radicalization of a Working-Class Queer
BY LORI FOX (ARSENAL PULP PRESS; 320 PAGES)

Handout

Fox recounts their experiences working as a server in countless restaurants and bars, from Belleville, Ont., to Whitehorse, as well as at various jobs in forestry and in agriculture, mostly in western and northern Canada. They display a fine eye, a fine ear and a flair for pungent language in describing those experiences in searing detail.

Fox’s book is not all about work; it has raw and often wrenching stories of love gone wrong as a queer, non-binary person. But what makes this a truly important book are the stories Fox tells of how so much of our economy functions – driven by greed, status-seeking and unthinking cruelty on the part of those with wealth and power towards those who work at some of the toughest jobs for the lowest pay. Fox brings it all viscerally to life, making us feel something of what it’s like to be constantly worrying if you can make the rent, or living out of your vehicle as you move from one crappy job to another.

Fox is very good at analysis too. Here, for example, is part of a section on the practice of tipping in restaurants: “By fostering income inequality, tips create an artificial class division; both front and back of house are underpaid working-class groups, but neither feels much solidarity with the other because the tip system allows servers to feel superior to back of house, while at the same time giving the back of house a genuine grievance that is, rather conveniently, not directed at the business itself.”

After reading Fox’s account of what life is really like for low-income workers, I find it hard to disagree with the book’s conclusions concerning the oppression of those workers by those with money and power, that even many who treat their workers relatively well contribute to the massive inequality. Four chapters in particular (on the economics of life as a server, on the sexist pressuring of servers by management, on how impossibly difficult ever-increasing rents have made it for low-income people to get by, and on how low-income workers are treated in the upscale community of Naramata in B.C.’s wine district) make for utterly compelling reading. Those four chapters, at least, deserve to be read by all workers, all employers – indeed, by all Canadians.

I have only one caveat about the book’s main argument. It is that Fox repeatedly suggests that the oppression of workers at the lower end of the scale is a practice peculiar to capitalism. The sad fact is that workers at the lower end of the scale have been horrifically treated under a very wide range of economic systems, including feudalism, mercantilism, a wide variety of oligarchies, today’s Chinese-style “communism” – the list is a long one. But this is in essence a mere quibble. If for every time Fox attacks “capitalism” we substitute “an economic system in which a small minority have a hugely disproportionate share of the wealth and the power,” what Fox writes makes perfect sense.

Down and Out in Paris and London
BY GEORGE ORWELL (OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS; 224 PAGES)

Down and Out in Paris and London, by George OrwellHandout

Orwell’s classic account describes what it’s like to live in poverty working in restaurants in 1930s Paris and to live as a “tramp” in 1930s England. John Brannigan’s introduction to the new Oxford World’s Classics edition provides an astute commentary on Orwell’s style, a penetrating analysis of his failings (most notably, the degree to which anti-Semitism corrodes portions of the book), and an appreciation of the ways in which the book “goes beyond describing poverty and homelessness to offer damning critiques of the conditions that brought them about.”

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
BY BARBARA EHRENREICH (PICADOR; 256 PAGES)

Handout

Ehrenreich describes with evocative clarity what it’s like to work as a waitress, a hotel housekeeper, a house cleaner, a nursing home aide and a Wal-Mart “associate” in turn-of-the century America. Matthew Desmond’s new introduction recounts the impact Ehrenreich’s book has had, explores the reasons for its appeal, and assesses the degree to which things have changed for low-income workers in the twenty years since the book was first published; the evidence indicates that conditions have gotten even worse. As Desmond puts it, Nickel and Dimed continues to stand “as a searing indictment of the American dream.” But – as Lori Fox’s book shows – Canadians have no cause to feel smugly superior.

Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.