In 1998 Barbara Ehrenreich, a writer with a Ph. D., sets out to see if she can live like so many Americans, working a job for $6.00 to $7.00 an hour. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, first published in 2001, gives the reader a glimpse into low-wage working America.
Ehrenreich undertakes an experiment of sorts. She goes to three different cities, Key West, FL, Portland, ME, and Minneapolis, MN, and attempts to live with the earnings from jobs described as unskilled labor. She will try and discover first hand whether or not it is true that working hard at any job equals a better life. Her goal is simple, “to match income and expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day.” (p. 6) Ehrenreich acknowledges what she suspects the reader is thinking early on. She is different. She has lived so far with good nutrition, health care, and education; she will also allow herself the use of an old car and $1000.00 start-up cash when she goes to a new city. What the reader quickly learns is that these advantages do not guarantee her success. Ehrenreich quickly learns in Key West and informs the reader, “[y]ou might imagine, from a comfortable distance, that people who live, year in and year out on $6 to $10 an hour have discovered some survival stratagems unknown to the middle class. But no.” (p. 25)
Ehrenreich learns that job ads in the papers and help wanted signs do not mean that businesses are hiring, minimum wage is not enough to live on, and affordable safe housing is hard to come by. Ehrenreich often finds herself taking on more than one job just to be able to pay rent and continue working: two waitressing jobs in Florida, as a caretaker at a home for the elderly and as a maid in Maine, and working at a Wal-Mart in Minnesota. In all her positions she learned the lingo, the job, even made friends, but all along she knew she was just a temporary visitor into this world of long drives, low wages, and often demeaning and demoralizing toil.
Throughout each month there would be employees injured on the job, humiliated, accused of theft, and stressed to the point of collapse. Often managers would merely give orders or “advice” that amounted to little more than scorn or disparaging remarks: “I mumble thanks for the advice, feeling like I’ve just been stripped naked by the crazed enforcer of some ancient sumptuary law.” (p. 35) At the end of the month Ehrenreich would return to her “real” life where she would not have to deal with dangerous neighbors, fast food dinners, and insect infested rooms and apartments. But the people Ehrenreich worked with did not have this option. Day after day they would return to their trailers or apartments––even their cars––only to begin again the next day.
The “secret,” if there is one, is that the working poor appear to “make it” because there is usually more than one wage earner in the household (which is often composed of two adults and children). (There are also countless cases of single mothers and the elderly poor). Ehrenreich discovers this herself when she begins calculating her wages and the rent she has to pay. She comes to the conclusion that, “unless I want to start using my car as a residence, I have to find a second or an alternative job.” (p. 28) Often the apartments are rented on a weekly basis since the working poor are not able to afford a deposit. Once there is enough money saved there is an unexpected expense such as a health problem or a vehicle breakdown. Apartments at weekly rates could easily cost more than double what an apartment rented at a monthly rate would cost.
Throughout the book, Ehrenreich returns to the themes of a living wage, the rights of workers, and even––in the case of Wal-Mart––the possibility of workers unionizing. Have things improved in the last decade? Various footnotes reference laws and legislation that do attest to some improvements in break times and working conditions, but overall, I would say, little has changed. Ehrenreich says, “[t]here are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs.” (p. 27) These special costs are often what those who are not working poor take for granted: medical care, child care, housing, and transportation.
At the end of the book Ehrenreich evaluates her three months. While there are many accomplishments, it is an overall failure. In a few situations she made use of her “real” life connections and money, advantages that the working poor do not have. The myth that any job plus hard work is the way out of poverty does not come true for Ehrenreich nor for the other low-wage workers she encounters. If hard work were the key to getting out of poverty, then the term “working poor” would be an oxymoron.
In her glimpse into low-wage America, Ehrenreich is honest in her failures and accomplishments. She does her best to become a part of this unfamiliar world and understand what it is that makes it function. Ehrenreich is repetitious at times conveying the same points in the three different job situations. If in a bind, only one of the chapters could be read and the essence of book still comes across. There are uplifting moments in the book, but many more heartbreaking ones. I recommend this book to anyone who would like a brief glimpse of life as an American making minimum wage, or to someone who wants a short introduction to how the working poor survive in America. I would also recommend this to business owners and managers who employ minimum wage or low-wage workers along with the question, “Does anything in this book look familiar?”