(Granta, £8.99, 221pp)

Nickel and Dimed: Undercover in low-wage USA, by Barbara Ehrenreich

Jeremy Seabrook follows a fearless reporter into the mucky lower depths of the world's richest society

Class was first defined in Europe, became an obsession in Britain, and has been the object of pathological denial in the United States. Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich's odyssey through the lower depths of the US employment structure, is a useful corrective to the image of America as a class-free sanctuary.

Ehrenreich, a mature and eloquent writer, sets out to impersonate a woman at the end of her resources, desperate for a job, income and the week's rent. She is hired as a waitress, a house-cleaner, a "dietary aide" in an old people's home, a Wal-Mart vendeuse (where customers have been transformed into "guests"). And she chronicles the lives of her co-workers, the lower managers hanging on by the tips of their nail-lengthened fingertips to the jobs of supervising and marshalling troops of women who must cleanse the houses of the rich with nothing more than half a bucket of water, a few chemical aids and air-sweeteners.

In these houses, she notes the frequency with which books on spiritual improvement appear, although this is rarely translated into charity towards those they employ. The workers live in trailers, car-parks and motel rooms, affordable housing having been ousted by three-garage kitchenless constructions that sell for a million dollars to that middle class to which everyone in America is now believed to belong.

There is one appalling moment, where Ehrenreich cannot bear to see one of her colleagues suffer any longer: a pregnant and malnourished waif who falls and breaks her ankle, but insists on carrying on with work, terrified both of losing her income and of her boyfriend's wrath. To the supervisor, Ehrenreich protests that the work is degrading and exploitative. Then she makes her real mistake, for which her co-workers will not forgive her – she says it is junk work anyway. Clearly, the fragile self-esteem of the women depends on holding down jobs for which the heroic fiction is required that their labour has dignity and significance.

She writes that "the poor have disappeared from the culture at large, from its political rhetoric and intellectual endeavours". Indeed. Inequality is the contemporary euphemism for class society. Class suggests living flesh and blood, with possibly antagonistic interests, while there are no actors in the great drama of inequality, a beautiful abstraction which rich and poor are united to combat in their universal dedication to wealth-creation.

Not that the poor create much for themselves. Ehrenreich lingers on the details of living and working in environments unfamiliar to her; she evokes the sheer physical pain of each day; she muses on the ubiquity of pubic hairs in the bathrooms of the rich, and the varying nature of filth in lavatories.

This physical intimacy between poor and rich is belied by their social distance. Employers sometimes install CCTV cameras to discourage their staff from rifling through drawers or stealing the objets d'art. Ehrenreich observes that: "Work is supposed to save you from being an 'outcast', but what we do is an outcast's work, invisible and even disgusting. Janitors, cleaning ladies, ditch-diggers, changers of adult diapers – these are the untouchables of a supposedly caste-free and democratic society."

The book has all the raw energy of the work, performed by those best described in that archaic phrase, "the labouring poor", who work all hours, hold down two or three jobs, and still fail to earn enough to keep themselves and their dependents. Ehrenreich is self-deprecating about her shortcomings as a proletarian; indeed, she has great comic gifts. Much of the narrative reflects the tragi-comic sensibility of the poor, for whom a sardonic humour is one of the few defences against a labour which doesn't ennoble, but effaces, and makes prematurely old the most desperate, the non-voters, the dead souls of America's democracy. Ehrenreich says low-paid workers abandon democracy and human rights when they enter the totalitarian tyranny that is the domain of many employers.

The book is an eerie precursor of the social policies of New Labour: the welfare-to-work rhetoric has meant the compulsory impoverishment of those forced into a labour market which inexplicably fails to respond to the laws of supply and demand. Labour shortages do not raise rates of pay. The crisis of "affordable housing" leads to people spending 50 or 60 per cent of their earnings on rent; with the consequences for health and well-being that must be expected.

But the rich are increasingly insulated from the poor, so that injustice can be managed discreetly, and most beneficiaries of the global economy never confront the secret behind the great conjuring trick of the disappearing poor.

Jeremy Seabrook's latest book, the 'No-Nonsense Guide to Class, Caste and Hierarchies', is published by Verso

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?