Barbara Ehrenreich’s presents a clear and concise account of the methods that millions of American uses to survive the economic struggles in American. In addition, the 2001 book, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America” analyzes how individuals survive on minimum paying jobs. Ehrenreich postulates that even though these individuals work under poor economic conditions, there is a strong “work ethic” present. But, this work ethic does not help to provide the basic necessities of transportation, food, and shelter. For those individuals who work in hotels, restaurants, retail stores, and a number of other service jobs the wages are not enough to elevate these individuals up the economic ladder of success. When one multiplies the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour by the usual forty-hour work week, one realizes that there is a basic total of $824 per month or less than $10,000 per year. How can this even touch the basic needs for survival in the society? Still, Ehrenreich shows that it takes “on average nationwide, an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one bedroom apartment, ” (Ehrenreich, p. 8. Despite these conditions, Ehrenreich shows that individuals with limited skills to offer for higher paying jobs, the only option is to work additional minimum waged jobs to meet their basic needs.
The fact is that most of the low-waged jobs have little or no room for promotion or progression in the field of work. Conversely, Ehrenreich establishes one main purpose for her book: “income [and] expenses, [are] truly [a] poor attempt to do every day” (Ehrenreich, p. 11). While working in different low-income jobs, Ehrenreich arrives at the truth. The common truth is that her jobs in a hotel, a restaurant, a cleaning service, a nursing home, a major retailer, shows that it was almost impracticable to match expenses and income with minimum wages. In fact, the cost of food, housing, and transportation are much higher that the wage that businesses pay to wage workers. One recognizes that it is not a surprise that Ehrenreich realizes that these conditions show the natural injustice of capitalism in America. Ehrenreich opines that if one works hard, then one should be able to provide a respectable home, take care of health costs, and provide food with ease.
In addition to the issues associated with the economic struggles of the average American, “Nickel and Dimed” draws the reader’s attention to issues associated with the daily lives of the working poor in America. The problems of safety, personal health, personal dignity, and friendships take a toll on the health of workers who work for ten or more hours per day. The problem becomes even more challenging when one come an affordable, but unsafe home. The author evokes sympathy in the readers as she shows that it is a serious challenge to compete with others for the most meager job. In addition, the reader sees that this fierce competition impacts on the depth and quality of social relationships. Furthermore, the limitations to one’s freedom in the work place, the never-ending drug and personality tests, and the unkind superiors eventually takes its toll on the average worker’s personal dignity and pride. The harsh realities of the social and economic inequalities of low-income earners become a reality in Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed.”
Ehrenreich writes that wage earners often get unconstructive messages from others in the society about the value and importance of their jobs. These negative messages undoubtedly have an impact on the personal dignity of the workers as they eventually believe that they are not making a worthwhile contribution to the society. Interestingly, it is easy to transform these negative messages into low self worth in these workers. The harsh reality is that wage jobs often stifle one’s creativity, and leads to an increased level of boredom in the workplace and lowers one ’s self-worth. Ehrenreich notes that based on the fact that the environment impact the way individual’s feel about themselves, it is imperative that employers take care in the way they deal with their female employees. Ehrenreich shows that females occupy most of the wage jobs. Interestingly, when one looks at the history of gender discrimination and sexism in the United States, Ehrenreich’s belief that there is a notable connection between unfair pay and gender, is a reality. Most importantly, consumers must recognize that the worker behind at the counter in the supermarket is a real human being with real emotions and responsibilities. In addition, these wage earners deserve to be treated with respect as this small gesture allows them to appreciate their worth as they seek better employment packages.
General Analysis of Book
Ehrenreich investigates the low-income issues in Maine, Florida, and Minnesota. She starts the research in Florida as it was close to her home town. Eventually, she goes to Maine because there is an almost all-white low-wage workforce in the communities. In addition, Ehrenreich randomly chooses Minnesota because she believes that there are a large number of homes and jobs there. Ehrenreich writes the idea for the book stems from a “comparatively sumptuous circumstance,” (Ehrenreich, p.1). Later, the author goes on to describe the scene at the French restaurant. The thirty dollars lunch with Lewis Lapham, the then editor of Harper’s, led Ehrenreich to state casually that someone should examine the significance of this reform.
Ehrenreich took the initiative and explained that the idea seemed absurd because she had come a long way from her days of deep-seated journalism. In addition, her extended family had suffered at the hands of poverty and made her realize that sitting at her desk, and writing was a duty and not a privilege. In fact, she felt she “owed to all those people  who’d had so much more to say than anyone ever got to hear.” Ehrenreich believes that if she carried out the research for her book, she would ascertain a concealed economy in the society of the low-wage worker. In fact, she notes “sitting at a desk all day was not only a privilege but a duty: something I owed to all those people in my life,” (Ehrenreich, p.9). Similarly, the author feels that she owes it to the “living and dead, who'd had so much more to say than anyone ever got to hear,” (Ehrenreich, p.9). She notes that the she had misgivings, but found that she could pay herself even after working an eight hour day. Nevertheless, Ehrenreich notes that a single mother working and receiving food stamps, housing, Medicaid, and child care subsidies, could barely survive.
In order to gain a better understanding of the economic issues affecting these working class individuals. In chapter one, the writer assumes the role of a low-waged income earner. She starts with a disclaimer that distinguished her attempt from some form of method actor’s exercise. She connects herself to the different scientists, and not performers, as she notes that she has a Ph.D. in biology, but seeks to undertake this experiment. Ehrenreich “plunge[s] into the everyday chaos of nature, where surprises lurk in the most mundane measurements,” (Ehrenreich, p.10), and shows that people find issues with the economic conditions in the society. Ehrenreich notes that the results of her research would lack validity because of the prior advantages that she has with health benefits, a modest bank-account, and multi-room home. As such she believes that there is no way to truly "experience poverty" unless one is truly in the situation. However, her main aim was to apply an objective and straightforward approach to understanding the impact of the economic crisis.
Chapter one shares the author’s personal feelings about how she measures up as an actor in her research “play.”She looks at the way Lily Tomlin takes her job lightly as she “skates through it.” But Ehrenreich’s background does not allow her to take her job carelessly. In fact, the author reminds herself of Booker T. Washington’s belief that one must do their job well. The contrasting views forms the foundation for the author’s actions throughout the entire book as she knows that she cannot carry out both acts. Ehrenreich chooses to obey the Platonic ideal as she draws on her personal desires of a philosophical abstraction. Furthermore, Ehrenreich implies that there is a mockery of the conventional American work ethic as it is similar to a psychological handicap. She writes that it is absurd as her father taught her to embrace the American Dream which she does not find in the “real” working world. In addition, Ehrenreich notes that the American dream conflicts with the reality of the low-wage earners in the noisy workplaces of Jimmy’s and Hearthside.
Ehrenreich looks at the themes of poverty, acting, welfare reform, solidarity and democracy in “Nickel and Dimed.” One could argue that the topic of poverty was easy for Ehrenreich to write on as she had written about poverty in the United States in previous works. Consequently, the findings of her work are not surprising as “Nickel and Dimed” confirms her suspicions that poverty did not benefit from the economic surge in the latter part of the nineties. In fact, Ehrenreich notes that it worsened; hence she writes about the poverty that spurred the low wage issue in America. In essence, the book highlights the scarceness of social programs and the lack of concern for those individuals in the poorer minority groups. This lower economic group formed the home base for the setting of the book.
A close analysis of the book shows that poverty is not merely a consequence of unemployment. Instead, Ehrenreich suggests that individuals who are fully employed slide into the deepest level of poverty because the wages are low and there are limited funds to cover the increase in the cost of rent. In addition, the low-wage work is quite challenging and opens the door to early aging, pains, and other serious medical conditions that are inhumane. A job at Wal-Mart leaves the author with the conclusion that the company treats their employees in a childlike manner. In addition, The Maids demands that the sick employees continue to work during their sickness. Towards the end of the book, Ehrenreich pleads for the poor working conditions of the citizens as she describes the conditions as “a state of emergency.
The theme of acting is also common throughout the author’s journey as a low-wage worker. Ehrenreich analyzes the idea of the theater and act that obscure her journalistic position. She constantly remembers the security net that she has and enjoys even though she is living as a low-wage worker. This comfort comes from the fact that she already has money in an account and health insurance should the need arise. Nevertheless, Ehrenreich cannot help but wonder at the challenges that the “real” low-wage worker has if there is a health emergency. Critics argue that Ehrenreich is not a true low-wage earner as she slips out of character when she has to visit a doctor for a rash. Her previous health insurance and her sound financial background allow her to afford such luxuries, but the true low-wage earner would not be able to afford such luxuries under these said conditions. She acts as a waitress and she further acts an unemployed woman as she goes on different interviews. While her role is one of an actor in the research, Ehrenreich still experiences some of the hardships that a “true” low-wage earner experiences.
In regards to the theme of solidarity, Ehrenreich is not surprised to see that many of the poor in America are physically and mentally strong. Ehrenreich chooses Portland, Maine, in August because of its “whiteness” and she would not be easy to identify as a Caucasian in low-wage jobs. She searches the job advertisements as an ordinary low-wage earner. She eventually lands employment, but the experience creates economic and psychological challenges for the author. She is alarmed at the attitudes of the low-wage workers she faces in the research. In Chapter two, Holly surrenders to Ted as she goes to work even though she is not well. She apologizes profusely to him because she broke her foot. Similarly Colleen, who is a single mother, works as a maid. She does not heed the abuses she faces in the workplace and says “I don’t mind, really, because I guess I’m a simple person, and I don’t want what they have. I mean, it’s nothing to me. But what I would like is to be able to take a day off now and thenif I had toand, still be able to buy groceries the next day,” (Ehrecreich, p.68). Interestingly, there is no anger or rebellious nature because both women have accepted their status.
One cannot help but wonder at the ideas of revolution because of the unfair treatment that these women face. In fact, one can conclude that there is a lack of proletarian solidarity that history embraced over time. Instead, one realizes that the issues of low-income societies are deeper than face value because individuals learnt to accept the defeat of trying to survive under poor economic conditions. In the end, the author resorts to encouraging the hotel workers to strike or lash out against the poor conditions. Nonetheless, the defeat in these low-wage workers cannot be removed because they accept their conditions. Arguably, the low-wage workplace is demeaning, yet there is no solidarity among the workers and the constant reminder of the power of hierarchy strips these employees of their need to fight for equality and equal wages. This form of governance in the workplace highlights Ehrenreich view that the low-wage workplace falls under a totalitarian state of governance as the system remove from any form of democracy.
Work Ethic and the American Dream is another important theme in the book “Nickel and Dimed.” Ehrenreich writes: “I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that ‘hard work’ was the secret of success. But, the author grew up in the shadows of her father, who rose to financial success through his work at the mines. Her memories of her youthful days reflect the ideas of hard work and a visualization of the American Dream. She recalls Horatio Alger working hard to achieve his dreams as he goes through life. However, Ehrenreich finds that the reality of the “real” low-wage workplace is a total mockery of these ideas.
In fact, as she works among these individuals, Ehrenreich’s realizes that low-wage employees do not get rewards for their hard work. The expected upward movement is absent. But she realizes that this is the only solution to the low-wage earners. The expenditure for transportation, the negative treatment from the employees and management, and the need to change jobs often, do not allow for promotions or upward mobility in the low-income earners climb to a better life. The harsh reality is that the Puritan’s belief and work ethic principles do nothing for the poor. Ehrenreich’s book suggests that the stereotype of the lazy poor is not true because low-wage earners work extremely hard, but they cannot improve their living conditions on the amount they earn.
The theme of democracy plays an important role in the findings of the research. Ehrenreich gives a negative representation of America at the end of the twentieth century. Her findings show that the society rewards the wealthiest citizens, but show indifference to those who are poorest. In the meantime, the low-wage workplace does not to function based on the American value system. Ehrenreich writes “When you enter the low-wage workplace—and many of the medium-wage workplaces as well, you check your civil liberties at the door.” Interestingly, Ehrenreich continues and says that a worker “leaves America and all it supposedly stands for behind, and learn to zip your lips for the duration of the shift.” One could say that experience at the Wal-Mart orientation meeting can be compared to a cult or a fascist meeting, where Sam Walton is similar to the latter-day prophet. In addition, Ted of The Maids breaks the law when he demands that his employees work even though they are sick or in physical pain. Ehrenreich mentions other cases where the employers dismiss the employees because they share information about their wages with other employees. These individuals do not account for their actions as they are accountable for any of their actions.
Interestingly, they function in a fizz because they are free from the restrictions of a democratic system. One could say they act in a manner that depicts the social and employment hierarchy where workers face negative treatment. These inhumane actions expand as the employers hide the wage packages from the potential employees until the final moment. Employers also meddle in the private lives of the employees during the interview sessions and “personality testing.” Democracy is a far cry from these workplaces as employees demand that the workers remain busy even if there is no work. Without Ehrenreich view of the “real” world, the harsh and forbidding treatment of the low-wage earners would be left in the dark. The truth is, the life of the low-wage earner is demeaning to say the least, and Ehrenreich creates a vivid picture of this tyrannical world riddled with its fear and lost from democracy.
As a writer, Ehrenreich records the incidents of each day. Her desire to understand the life of the low-wage workers is a complex task, but she writes from a pretentious perspective so that the reader understands the conditions of these low-wage workers. Although the book reflected the period of the period of the Welfare Reform movement, nothing much was done for the “welfare” of these workers. They continued to work under poor conditions, and they accepted the conditions because they had no choice. During this time, individuals were forced to work instead of benefitting from the government assisted welfare programs. Nevertheless, the available jobs offered little by way of monetary gains and the high cost of housing, food and health care presented a dismal future for these low-wage earners. In the final chapter “Evaluation” Ehrenreich refers to poverty as a common theme. She deals with the topic in most of the book. One can argue that that poverty is a crucial part of the events as it is an integral part of journalism in America. Nonetheless, most commentators steer clear of the topic that affects the population in the most profound ways. The American Dream offers self-reliance and equal opportunity for everyone.
In concluding, the reality is that the typical American middle-class makes up the “mainstream” work force in the country, and they must overcome the social and economic barriers in their daily lives. Nevertheless, the major difference is that these “mainstream” individuals work hard to succeed in supplying their personal needs. The unwanted reality is that America is unfair in the way they compensate low wage citizens for their hard labor. Ehrenreich reiterates that a number of barriers often hinder the success of individuals, and therefore they are less likely to improve the barriers of minimum wage in their lives. However, once the barriers are no longer present, individuals will undoubtedly have a productive life.
In the book, there are no is no escape from the vicious cycle of poverty. In fact, Ehrenreich finds escape in the empty feelings she acquires. She drifts through the hard work in a ghostlike manner. Furthermore, it is clear that there are no secret economies that help to uplift the poor; in its stead there are only a number of special costs that low-wage workers face. She finds that the working-class eventually adopt an emptiness that helps them to become the emotionally and socially detached from the grueling conditions. The harsh realities are that any other coping mechanism only leads to unemployment as the employers drive the work force with a hard hand. The reader concludes that the inhumane conditions lead to exhaustion that destroys the spirit and eliminates any hope of rebellion against the harsh conditions. Eventually, the low wage earners become a group of ghosts, which float beneath the rigors of these poor conditions.
Ehrenreich, Barbara, (2001) “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not Getting By in America” Henry Holt &
Company. New York, Print.