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Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

Автором Barbara Ehrenreich

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Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

Автором Barbara Ehrenreich

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4/5 (177 оценки)
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262 pages
4 hours
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Apr 1, 2010
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9781429926645
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From Scribd: About the Book

From bestselling author of over a dozen books, Barbara Ehrenreich, comes this must-read social commentary on the working poor of US america.

Nickel and Dimed is a modern classic that deftly portrays the plight of America's working-class poor. Ehrenreich attempts to scratch out a comfortable living in blue-collar America. What she discovers is a culture of desperation, where workers often take multiple low-paying jobs just to keep a roof overhead.

In the cult of labor, poverty runs rampant. Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, Ehrenreich discovered that no job is truly "unskilled," that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you want to live indoors.

Written in the 1980s, Nickel and Dimed reveals low-rent America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity—a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate stratagems for survival. Read it for the smoldering clarity of Ehrenreich's perspective and for a rare view of how "prosperity" looks from the bottom.

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Издано:
Apr 1, 2010
ISBN:
9781429926645
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Barbara Ehrenreich is the bestselling author of over a dozen books, including Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch, Bright-sided, This Land Is Their Land, Dancing In The Streets, and Blood Rites. A frequent contributor to Harper's, The Nation, The New York Times and Time magazine, she lives in Virginia.


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Nickel and Dimed - Barbara Ehrenreich

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

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Table of Contents

About the Author

Copyright Page

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foreword to the 20th anniversary edition

Twenty years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich published a book that did not describe the lived realities of working poverty so much as imprint them somewhere deep in your conscience. The daughter of a copper miner turned journalist, Ehrenreich temporarily left her normal, middle-class life to work in the low-wage labor market. The Clinton administration had recently reformed cash welfare, pushing millions of families off public aid and into the workforce. Members of both political parties were preaching work as the solution to poverty. Ehrenreich set out to see if they were right. In his journals, Nietzsche implored us to experience the great problems with one’s body and one’s soul. Well, here was a great problem—unacceptable levels of scarcity and hunger in one of the richest democracies in the history of the world—and Ehrenreich tossed herself into it.

She worked as a waitress in Florida ($2.43 an hour plus tips), then as a maid in Maine ($6.65 an hour), and finally as a Wal-Mart retail associate in Minnesota ($7 an hour). One of the first things Ehrenreich realized was that one job wasn’t enough to live on. She had to take on another job in each place just to afford fast food and the small mobile home or dingy motel room she rented. In Florida, she served in two restaurants, on her feet from 8:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M. In Maine, she clocked in seven days a week, cleaning rich people’s houses on weekdays and serving food to Alzheimer’s patients on weekends. Almost all of Ehrenreich’s waking hours were spent working, but she was never able to pay all her bills, let alone save money or have the time to take night classes at a local community college. By itself, hard work was no ticket out of poverty, just as the unemployment rate by itself was not a reliable signal of how well the economy was working for scores of Americans.

I first read Nickel and Dimed as an undergraduate student working my way through college. By that time, I had had some tough jobs: dropping curly fries at Arby’s, making drinks at Starbucks (morning shift), selling junk as a telemarketer, fighting wildland fires. But I was young, and I knew these jobs were temporary. Ehrenreich wrote about people for whom the jobs were permanent because there were no better options.

I found the book powerful and inspiring, galling and enraging. Most important for me, it brought to the foreground people who are so often told to make themselves small and unseen. Nickel and Dimed models, and so trains, a shift in vision. We enter a restaurant and usually notice what’s on the menu or the conversation at other tables. Ehrenreich keeps her eye on the immigrant dishwasher and the pregnant waitress. We go shopping and are drawn to the sale items and new offerings under bright lights. Ehrenreich sees the stockers reorganizing the shelves and cleaning up the messes we leave behind.

It is Ehrenreich’s fierce witnessing that still gets to me. She looks at poverty in the same way people look at the Grand Canyon or someone they love: nakedly, without retreating to explanation. Susan Sontag was right when she said that we only deplete the world when we try to interpret it. Our rationalizations of poverty allow us to domesticate it, to calm it in the confines of our theories and tropes. It’s safer that way. It allows us to continue ignoring poverty not because it is hidden from view but because when we see it, we blunt our curiosity and empathy with ready-made explanations. Ehrenreich takes the harder path, stepping out of her comfort zone and allowing herself to feel the heat and anguish and complexity of American life at the margins.

I’ve since read and reread, and have taught and retaught, Nickel and Dimed several times over the years. My students regularly list it as one of their favorite books; it stays with them. What continues to haunt me most are all the slights and indignities the workers faced each day. In Maine, for example, Ehrenreich’s company charged clients $25 per person-hour but paid the women who actually did the cleaning only about a quarter of that, women who scrubbed floors on their hands and knees and cleaned so many toilets that they developed a typology of the stains people left behind. Ehrenreich broke out in a rash as a housecleaner, perhaps on account of the chemicals. Her coworkers suffered much more debilitating injuries on the job, like when Holly fell and badly hurt, perhaps even broke, her ankle. Something snapped, she cried. We never learn the extent of the injury because Holly worked through it, as her boss had encouraged his workers to do during a recent staff meeting.

There is an old, self-congratulating idea, still taught in our universities and modeled daily on our television screens and Twitter feeds, that the best way to understand poverty is by looking down on it from above; that objectivity is found at a vantage point sufficiently lofty and remote from people struggling to make ends meet.¹ The professional talking class is plenty lofty and plenty remote from the lives of the poor. What we need is not more distance but the opposite: more intimacy, more proximity to the problem, as Bryan Stevenson has put it.² While think tank consultants gather in air-conditioned rooms to discuss how raising the minimum wage will affect overall employment levels, Ehrenreich describes a coworker who brought a bag of hot dog buns for lunch and a poster hanging in the maid’s office announcing that vacuuming burns seven calories a minute.

When describing herself, Ehrenreich is funny and self-deprecating. But her most moving passages focus our attention on the people she worked alongside, women like Gail, a waitress who dipped into her thin earnings to buy a meal for an out-of-work mechanic, or Joan, a hostess at the same restaurant. Joan, who had fooled me with her numerous and tasteful outfits, Ehrenreich writes, lives in a van parked behind a shopping center at night and showers in Tina’s motel room. When Ehrenreich introduces Joan a few pages earlier, she describes her appearance—Joan was slender and fashionable—and tells us how she stood up for the waitstaff, even telling off the cook when he got in one of his moods.

Notice that Ehrenreich does not bluntly introduce Joan as a homeless woman—as Joan would have been described by many other writers—because, simply enough, that’s not how Ehrenreich first saw her. When Ehrenreich discovered that Joan was homeless, she was somewhat shocked; by admitting this, she invites us to be shocked along with her. Encasing poor people in sterile categories—the homeless, welfare recipients—allows us to hold them at a cool distance. Ehrenreich pulls us closer, and soon we find ourselves wondering how many times we’ve been fooled by the Joans in our lives.

Nickel and Dimed has become a modern classic. For countless readers and students, it served as an introduction to an America they didn’t know existed. For many others, it elevated the experiences of their parents, friends, and loved ones. Low-wage workers read the book too, seeing some of their struggles reflected in its pages and writing to Ehrenreich to share their thoughts. In the years that followed the book’s publication, Ehrenreich founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which supports journalism, filmmaking, and art focused on poverty and inequality, prioritizing reporters and creators who have personal connections to the issues. Alumni of the EHRP fellows program include Lori Yearwood, whose thoughtful journalism on social marginality is informed by her personal experiences with homelessness, and Stephanie Land, whose powerful memoir, Maid, chronicled her life as a young single mother who worked as a housecleaner while living in a homeless shelter.

Have the lives of the working poor gotten better or worse since Nickel and Dimed was published twenty years ago? Judging by the value of wages and the cost of housing, the two issues that consistently dog Ehrenreich and her coworkers throughout the book, the answer is worse. The federal hourly minimum wage was $5.15 in 2001. Today it’s $7.25. If we adjust for inflation, since a dollar in 2021 doesn’t have the same purchasing power as it did two decades ago, we realize that the nominal value of the federal minimum wage is lower today than it was when Ehrenreich was in the field. Nearly a third of the American workforce—41.7 million laborers—earn less than $12 an hour, according to a 2016 study.³

As millions of workers have watched their wages stagnate or even fall, their housing costs have soared. Median rent more than doubled over the past two decades, rising from $483 in 2000 to $1,002 in 2019. This is not just a problem affecting large coastal cities like New York and Seattle. All regions of the country have experienced a surge in rents.⁴ And yet only one in six eligible families receive housing assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the form of public housing, rent-reducing vouchers, or subsidized multifamily units. Today, families spend an average of twenty-six months on waiting lists for rental assistance.⁵ In America’s biggest cities, that time can stretch out for years, even decades. In October 2018, Los Angeles opened its waiting list for housing choice vouchers for the first time in thirteen years.

Black and Hispanic families are disproportionately harmed by these trends. Studies have shown that Black job seekers today face similar levels of employer discrimination as they did thirty years ago and that Black workers are much more likely than white workers to be paid at or below minimum wage. A 2018 study found that nearly one in five Hispanic workers were paid poverty wages—full-time earned income insufficient to lift a family above the federal poverty level—which was more than twice the rate of white workers laboring under such conditions. Owing to the country’s legacy of housing and lending discrimination, most white families own their homes, but most Black and Hispanic families rent them, leaving those families exposed to rent hikes and housing loss. Black renters today are nearly twice as likely to receive an eviction filing as white renters.

In recent decades, the federal government has expanded other forms of aid, like the earned income tax credit, a once-a-year cash boost that many low-wage workers receive. With an annual budget of $73 billion, the credit has become one of the nation’s biggest anti-poverty initiatives, yet the poverty rate today is basically the same as it was two decades ago. When companies keep wages low as the cost of living keeps rising, the government has to spend more just so the poor can remain stuck in place. As for the country’s experiment with welfare reform, the number of Americans living on no more than $2 per person per day has doubled since the late 1990s. Roughly three million children now suffer under these conditions. Most of those children live with an adult who held a job sometime during the year.

Here is a book that made a difference, and yet America refused to change. Until it does, Nickel and Dimed stands as an urgent and searing indictment of the American dream. Against the claim, issued from some lofty and remote perch, that in this country anyone can work their way out of poverty if they simply put in enough effort, Ehrenreich offers a clear and convincing rebuke: Try it sometime.

Matthew Desmond

Introduction: Getting Ready

The idea that led to this book arose in comparatively sumptuous circumstances. Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s, had taken me out for a $30 lunch at some understated French country-style place to discuss future articles I might write for his magazine. I had the salmon and field greens, I think, and was pitching him some ideas having to do with pop culture when the conversation drifted to one of my more familiar themes—poverty. How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? How, in particular, we wondered, were the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour? Then I said something that I have since had many opportunities to regret: Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism—you know, go out there and try it for themselves. I meant someone much younger than myself, some hungry neophyte journalist with time on her hands. But Lapham got this crazy-looking half smile on his face and ended life as I knew it, for long stretches at least, with the single word You.

The last time anyone had urged me to forsake my normal life for a run-of-the-mill low-paid job had been in the seventies, when dozens, perhaps hundreds, of sixties radicals started going into the factories to proletarianize themselves and organize the working class in the process. Not this girl. I felt sorry for the parents who had paid college tuition for these blue-collar wannabes and sorry, too, for the people they intended to uplift. In my own family, the low-wage way of life had never been many degrees of separation away; it was close enough, in any case, to make me treasure the gloriously autonomous, if not always well-paid, writing life. My sister has been through one low-paid job after another—phone company business rep, factory worker, receptionist—constantly struggling against what she calls the hopelessness of being a wage slave. My husband and companion of seventeen years was a $4.50-an-hour warehouse worker when I fell in with him, escaping eventually and with huge relief to become an organizer for the Teamsters. My father had been a copper miner; uncles and grandfathers worked in the mines or for the Union Pacific. So to me, sitting at a desk all day was not only a privilege but a duty: something I owed to all those people in my life, living and dead, who’d had so much more to say than anyone ever got to hear.

Adding to my misgivings, certain family members kept reminding me unhelpfully that I could do this project, after a fashion, without ever leaving my study. I could just pay myself a typical entry-level wage for eight hours a day, charge myself for room and board plus some plausible expenses like gas, and total up the numbers after a month. With the prevailing wages running at $6–$7 an hour in my town and rents at $400 a month or more, the numbers might, it seemed to me, just barely work out all right. But if the question was whether a single mother leaving welfare could survive without government assistance in the form of food stamps, Medicaid, and housing and child care subsidies, the answer was well known before I ever left the comforts of home. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, in 1998—the year I started this project—it took, on average nationwide, an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one-bedroom apartment, and the Preamble Center for Public Policy was estimating that the odds against a typical welfare recipient’s landing a job at such a living wage were about 97 to 1. Why should I bother to confirm these unpleasant facts? As the time when I could no longer avoid the assignment approached, I began to feel a little like the elderly man I once knew who used a calculator to balance his checkbook and then went back and checked the results by redoing each sum by hand.

In the end, the only way to overcome my hesitation was by thinking of myself as a scientist, which is, in fact, what I was educated to be. I have a Ph.D. in biology, and I didn’t get it by sitting at a desk and fiddling with numbers. In that line of business, you can think all you want, but sooner or later you have to get to the bench and plunge into the everyday chaos of nature, where surprises lurk in the most mundane measurements. Maybe when I got into the project, I would discover some hidden economies in the world of the low-wage worker. After all, if almost 30 percent of the workforce toils for $8 an hour or less, as the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute reported in 1998, they may have found some tricks as yet unknown to me. Maybe I would even be able to detect in myself the bracing psychological effects of getting out of the house, as promised by the wonks who brought us welfare reform. Or, on the other hand, maybe there would be unexpected costs—physical, financial, emotional—to throw off all my calculations. The only way to find out was to get out there and get my hands dirty.

In the spirit of science, I first decided on certain rules and parameters. Rule one, obviously enough, was that I could not, in my search for jobs, fall back on any skills derived from my education or usual work—not that there were a lot of want ads for essayists anyway. Two, I had to take the highest-paying job that was offered me and do my best to hold it; no Marxist rants or sneaking off to read novels in the ladies’ room. Three, I had to take the cheapest accommodations I could find, at least the cheapest that offered an acceptable level of safety and privacy, though my standards in this regard were hazy and, as it turned out, prone to deterioration over time.

I tried to stick to these rules, but in the course of the project, all of them were bent or broken at some time. In Key West, for example, where I began this project in the late spring of 1998, I once promoted myself to an interviewer for a waitressing job by telling her I could greet European tourists with the appropriate Bonjour or Guten Tag, but this was the only case in which I drew on any remnant of my actual education. In Minneapolis, my final destination, where I lived in the early summer of 2000, I broke another rule by failing to take the best-paying job that was offered, and you will have to judge my reasons for doing so yourself. And finally, toward the very end, I did break down and rant—stealthily, though, and never within hearing of management.

There was also the problem of how to present myself to potential employers and, in particular, how to explain my dismal lack of relevant job experience. The truth, or at least a drastically stripped-down version thereof, seemed easiest: I described myself to interviewers as a divorced homemaker reentering the workforce after many years, which is true as far as it goes. Sometimes, though not always, I would throw in a few housecleaning jobs, citing as references former housemates and a friend in Key West whom I have at least helped with after-dinner cleanups now and then. Job application forms also want to know about education, and here I figured the Ph.D. would be no help at all, might even lead employers to suspect that I was an alcoholic washout or worse. So I confined myself to three years of college, listing my real-life alma mater. No one ever questioned my background, as it turned out, and only one employer out of several dozen bothered to check my references. When, on one occasion, an exceptionally chatty interviewer asked about hobbies, I said writing and she seemed to find nothing strange about this, although the job she was offering could have been performed perfectly well by an illiterate.

Finally, I set some reassuring limits to whatever tribulations I might have to endure. First, I would always have a car. In Key West I drove my own; in other cities I used Rent-A-Wrecks, which I paid for with a credit card rather than my earnings. Yes, I could have walked more or limited myself to jobs accessible by public transportation. I just figured that a story about waiting for buses would not be very interesting to read. Second, I ruled out homelessness as an option. The idea was to spend a month in each setting and see whether I could find a job and earn, in that time, the money to pay a second month’s rent. If I was paying rent by the week and ran out of money I would simply declare the project at an end; no shelters or sleeping in cars for me. Furthermore, I had no intention of going hungry. If things ever got to the point where the next meal was in question, I promised myself as the time to begin the experiment approached, I would dig out my ATM card and cheat.

So this is not a story of some death-defying undercover adventure. Almost anyone could do what I did—look for jobs, work those jobs, try to make ends meet. In fact, millions of Americans do it every day, and with a lot less fanfare and dithering.

I am, of course, very different from the people who normally fill America’s least attractive jobs, and in ways that both helped and limited me. Most obviously, I was only visiting a world that others inhabit full-time, often for most of their lives. With all the real-life assets I’ve built up in middle age—bank account, IRA, health insurance, multiroom home—waiting indulgently in the background, there was no way I was going to experience poverty or find out how it really feels to be a long-term low-wage worker. My aim here was much more straightforward and objective—just to

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  • Gain more context for the Fight for $15 with this influential exposé about how hard it is to live on the minimum wage from one of America's greatest muckrakers. A sobering look at living on low wages that puts many myths into perspective.

    Scribd Editors
  • An influential exposé about how hard it is to live on the minimum wage from one of America's greatest muckrakers. A sobering look at living on low wages that puts many myths into perspective.

    Scribd Editors

Отзывы читателей

  • (5/5)
    Way back in 1998, author Ehrenreich decided to go and try and live like the lower class did. Allowing herself a car and a $1000 in startup money, she went out to land a working class job- waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing home aide, Walmart associate- and survive on the wages. She discovered how wages didn’t cover rents, or much food, or any way to relax. Most people were working two or even three jobs just to survive. Most often, there was no affordable housing near any source of employment, and there was no affordable transportation. If a worker got ill or injured, they had no option other than to just keep on working. The working class can’t afford to miss work, even if the doctor visit was covered by insurance- and it usually wasn’t back then. Affordable child care simply didn’t exist. Of course, she wasn’t stuck in this situation. She could tap out at any time and go back to her normal existence. She didn’t live with the knowledge that she would have to live this existence for the rest of her life, with no vacation, no retirement. So she didn’t develop the despair and depression that plagues so many working class people. But she noticed it and reported it. Many people have torn down the author for ‘slumming’, because she could leave, but I feel she wrote an important book because many people were unaware of the situation the working class faced. One person could scarcely cover the entire problem. I did find some things irritating- her fear that she wouldn’t be able to ‘pass’ as a working class person, that her education would out her. Guess what- not every working class person speaks poorly, and there are such things as libraries that allow even the poor to read. One thing that I feel is important about this book is that it showed to the upper classes (if they choose to read it- hah) that even one of their own, a hard working educated woman, couldn’t make it in the system. So much for calling the working class ‘lazy’!These days, there is a lot more awareness of the problems of the working poor- but I’m not sure there is any more being done about it. Rents are higher, gasoline costs are higher, but wages are the same as they were 20 years ago. There are still huge numbers of people without health insurance. Perhaps it’s time for a reissue of this book, with an update? Five stars.
  • (2/5)
    not a great book. very hypocritical. easy read and interesting insights into being a house cleaner, server, and walmart employee (this part i thought was the most interesting). but she goes off about drug users/addicts and then later on goes off about how she can't find work because she can't pass a drug test. she goes into minute details of food/homeware costs, yet never mentions spending $50 for a bag of weed!

    interesting figure - "In 1990, the federal government spent $11.7 million to test 29,000 federal employees. Since only 153 tested positive, the cost of detecting a single drug user was $77,000."
  • (1/5)
    I find this book to be incredibly offensive. It's written by the upper middle class for the upper middle class and comes off as condescending, in my opinion. (This, of course, makes me wonder how our studies of "third world" women would appear to them. We are dabblers in their world, can we really understand?)

    Ehrenreich's refusal to give up her entitlements (and indeed her endowments) makes it so she doesn't have to truly experience poverty. She discusses the poverty line in the Evaluation but she only complains that it measures something arbitrary; she doesn't note that what it does not measure are exactly those things that enabled her to walk out of a job when she was upset. She doesn't need the salary, she has other things to fall back on.

    From personal experience I have to say that she got quite a bit wrong. In the Introduction she wonders why when she comes out to some of her coworkers they are neither surprised nor upset, instead only ask her if this means she won't be returning for her next shift. She thinks this is because (a) writing is thought of as a hobby, not a job and (b) that she wasn't successful at fooling them. What she does not ever realize is that they ask that question because that is their primary concern. Someone is going to have to cover that shift and it could be them. It could be a godsend because they need the extra money or it could be a disaster because switched shifts means switched transportation/childcare/and a host of other issues Ehrenreich doesn't seem to acknowledge until the Evaluation.

    I've worked some of those jobs. I've been told that bathroom breaks take me away from my desk and therefore interfere with the work of the business. I've stood on my feet for 11 hour shifts snatching a dinner break on my feet in a corner of the crowded back room. I know that single mother who supports herself and three children on what she makes from working at a convenience store and a gas station and who faces financial ruin if she has to take time off because her middle son is sick. I've had my purse searched every day at the end of every shift despite my years of good work. I've been "honey" and "sweetie" and paid more than I could afford in order to meet a frequently changing dress code.

    One thing that particularly bothered me was when Ehrenreich did not stand up for George, the dishwasher who was accused of theft. She compares working at this restaurant to being in a POW camp and uses that to excuse her lack of courage. She's wrong. The fault was hers, not the job. Plenty of us have seen our coworkers falsely accused and plenty of us have stood up. Don't blame the poor and the oppressed for your own failings.
  • (1/5)
    A journalist tries to live off of poverty-low wage jobs. She creates the identity that her kids are grown and she's just entering the work force after being a stay at home mom.
    She didn't use resume's, but she did start out with cash savings and moved to 3 states to do this experiment.
    Part of the book was mundane and there aren't any ground shattering discoveries if any discoveries at all. What did she prove?
    I think the author believes everyone should be paid the same wage. What the woman may not know, understand or care about is, some people are quite satisfied to "settle" and never aspire to anything more than low wage jobs.
    They may gripe and complain or play the victim, (some don't), but they don't aspire or attempt to do more to do better.
  • (5/5)
    Well written, smart, and brings the stark reality of the working poor to the surface. It addresses the common misconception of the poor, welfare recipients, and immigrants. It brings in the history of how the US dealt with the poor and offers insight into the discussion.
  • (3/5)
    Good book. The author's agenda shows through like a spotlight behind tissue paper.
  • (3/5)
    In 1998, writer Barbara Ehrenreich was looking for a new story to write for Harper's and was having lunch with the editor when the conversation turned to the topic of people going off welfare and going into the workforce and having trouble making it. She said someone should go undercover and investigate this and he said why don't you. So soon she is spending about a month in different locations trying to live off of $6 to $7 dollars. From Florida to Maine to Minnesota, she worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a house cleaner, a nursing home aide, and a Wal-Mart salesperson.In Florida, she went to Key West and tried to get a job working as a hotel worker but that backfired and she instead got a job waiting tables instead of at a hotel chain's restaurant. Her first place was a small rented efficiency that went for $500 which was cheaper and nicer than the trailer she looked at, but it was also a forty-five-minute drive to the eventual job she would get. She learned quickly that the want ads are a bad way to find a job in that employers place them and take applications constantly because there is a high turnover rate. So there may be no opening right then, but there may be one soon. She had waited tables in her youth, but it was hard getting back into the swing of things. She has to learn how to use a computerized screen for ordering food.And she learns a lot about her co-workers, such as Gail who is living in a flop house and paying $250 a month with a male friend who is now hitting on her and driving her crazy but with the rent so cheap how can she go elsewhere? And Claude the Haitian cook who is desperate to get out of the two-room apartment he shares with his girlfriend and two other people. Or Tina who is living with her husband at the Days Inn and paying $60 a night and Joan who lives in her van. Some of these people end up having to rent a hotel room to live in because they can't pay first and last month's rent at an apartment or trailer. Barbara was able to because she budgeted for it in each city she goes to stay.She ends up taking a second waitressing job at Jerry's and tries at first to hold both jobs but just can't do it, so she keeps the job at Jerry's which is paying more at an average of $7.50 an hour in tips. She also gives up her nice efficiency because the drive is eating up too much in gas money and takes a cheap cramped trailer. The other women she works with either work a second job or has a boyfriend or husband to help make it work. But she still needs a second job herself and takes a housekeeping job at a hotel, which is when things begin to fall apart.In Portland, Maine, she puts out many applications and at Merry Maids (Like at Winn-Dixie in Florida and another job she applied for in Maine) she is asked to take a test. This one is the Accutrac personality test. All these tests are designed to find out whether or not you will steal from the company or do drugs, or turn in someone else who has stolen something. The Accutrac also tries to determine your mental health as well. These tests are a joke and can be easily faked. While waiting to get into her new place the Blue Haven Motel that has a kitchen, she also applies to be a dietary aide at a nursing home on the weekends. This involves feeding the elderly and often those with Alzheimer's their meals. If they do not like what is being served she can make them something else they might like such as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It's a nice job, until one day when things go wrong. At Merry Maids she learns the truth behind the lives of these women and how they will work with a twisted ankle or operate a vacuum cleaner on their back even if they have arthritis or back problems because they need the job and the money, even if it isn't all that much.In Minnesota, she has an impossible time finding a place to stay. The economy is supposed to be good there and jobs are supposed to be plentiful there and she does find a job at Wal-Mart, which she ends up finding out was a mistake and that she should have taken the other job selling plumbing at a hardware store. At first, she stays in the apartment of a friend of a friend until she can find a place, but that place just won't open up and soon she finds herself living in a run down motel with no kitchen much less a fridge and no screen on the window or a fan for the room. There is a massive shortage in Minnesota of housing for a reasonable price. Everyone is living in motels and there is a shortage in places to stay in motels. Working at Wal-Mart changes her into a person that she does not recognize. A very mean, bitch of a woman. And she recognizes this and wonders if it does this to everyone. She's only making $6 and change and she really needs to take a second job, which is made difficult with Wal-Mart changing her schedule. It is here that you really see her dark side. I like to think that it isn't who she really is, but just a facet of her personality put under a microscope and blown up a million times.One thing that bothers me about her is that she is against drug testing, which the ACLU has always been against them. And back when this book was published they were just starting to require it at various jobs. She tries to make it an invasion of privacy and a "the man" is trying to put you in your place and degrade you. I have found that most people who have problems with drug test use drugs. And that is certainly the case here. To work at either Wal-Mart or the hardware store she has to do a drug test and she isn't sure she can pass it because she had smoked a joint in the recent past and marijuana stays in the system a long while. Of course, there are ways to cleanse it out of your system, which she does and passes the test. She also says that she is worried that her Claritin-D would show up as Chrystal Meth. When you go to get a drug test you tell the technician what drugs you are taking and they will know what is in your system. Besides, I took a drug test in 1997 to get my job as a librarian and I was taking Claritin and the woman told me none of my allergy medicines would have any effect on the test. So she really had nothing to worry about on that front.What else bothered me was some of her racist remarks. She refers to those who live in the Southwest as Chicanos. And she bitches about not being able to go to certain California towns because the Hispanics have hogged all the low wage jobs and all the cheap places to live. It's not a pretty side to her.That being said, she made some very valid points about how we measure poverty. Poverty has always been measured according to how much food costs, but these days half of your pay can go toward your home, apartment, or another dwelling place. They are constantly in danger of being homeless or ending up in a motel if they are lucky. And some of these places know that they can get someone else to replace you easily and they let you know it, so you feel compelled to do whatever they ask and put up with bad working conditions in order to keep the job you so desperately need. While this book was written over fifteen years ago, nothing has really changed. Lots of Wal-Mart workers are on Medicaid and food stamps. People are working more than one job just to barely get by and are not always succeeding. Something needs to change. Maybe that would involve starting with raising the minimum wage. And trying to do something about affordable housing. While Ehrenreich felt as though she did this experiment as a lark and was never in any danger of going hungry (She kept her ATM card for emergencies such as that and anything else.) and she didn't have to worry about feeding anyone else like so many other women do, she does shine a light on an important problem in America today.
  • (4/5)
    Ehrenreich posed as a waitress in order to discover how the working poor in America cope financially. I expected to find an examination of the cost of living, but instead found the flip-side: the difficulty of making a living, earning an income.As with any such journalism of this type, it’s hard to truly capture the desperation of not having the luxury of back-up, knowing that, at any time, you can return to another life, job, and bank account. Ehrenreich does acknowledge these limitations.A fine effort.3½ stars
  • (3/5)
    I had mixed feelings about this book.I enjoyed reading the experiences.She annoyed me when she talked about the advantages for the Client of dealing with an agency for maids, but not getting the advantages for the maid of working through an agency. Let me explain it when you work through an agency the agency takes care of taxes, insurance, getting the clients, billing the clients, and collecting from the clients. On your own you have to find the clients, get them to pay you and if you break something the client can come after you to replace it. I remember someone being self employed and having a terrible time getting people to pay on time or at all. He found it very hard to be the tough, mean bill collector he sometimes needed to be.I ended up skimming through the Evaluation. She did go into the difficulties of trying to find another job. But I was annoyed when she was talking about why workers don't stand up and fight for better pay. For her it was a lark to try to bring up the Union idea at Wal-Mart. She didn't have to worry, she was leaving anyway. But when you are barely getting by the fear of making waves and getting fired is very real. If she got fired she could just go back to her old live, but the others could end up homeless or unable to feed their children. She had a safety net, the working poor do not.
  • (4/5)
    Excellent essay on some of the problems facing our country. As relevant now (if not more so) than a decade ago when it was written.
  • (3/5)
    On the heels of the welfare reform of the 1990s, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich sets out to live the life of a minimum wage earner. Her book details the experiences and challenges she faces as she tries to survive on minimum wage in three different areas of the country. While I wasn't surprised by her experiences, I enjoyed reading her a-ha moments. Some of the other reviewers felt she was condescending regarding the lower socio-economic class, but I felt that her writing was genuine and that she really did not have any prior knowledge regarding the struggles of the working poor. I wish this book was more up-to-date as it would have been a great pick for an American social studies classroom.
  • (4/5)
    I have been meaning to read this book since I heard about it on NPR when it first came out but there are so many books to read, and so little time. It is a wonderful, fast read and very informative if you have never dropped in to one of these neighborhood gulags or known anyone who has been stuck there. As I read, I kept thinking that of course she can face it every day, she has the extra comfort of knowing she can always leave when it is too much or she has enough information, whichever happens first. She has never had to deal with the panic that comes with a sick child and knowing that your job is on the line if you consider for a moment not choosing your employment over your child's well-being. She has never known the gut-wrenching fear that a new noise in your old car quickly delivers to the core of your being. I would compare it to watching a movie of a roller coaster and thinking you have the whole experience. That said though, it takes a gutsy lady to take on a subject that almost no one wants to talk about, and I see that she has updated editions. I will have to read those and see if she revisited any job sites or employees and certainly the latest government figures should be interesting to look at no matter how positively they might be skewed. Thanks and gratitude to Barbara Ehrenreich for taking the time out to suffer a little and write about it.
  • (4/5)
    I enjoyed this, even though journalistic undercover stories like this are inherently a bit fluffy. It was an engaging and honestly pretty (darkly) humorous read about low wage life.

    Two things baffle my mind - that anything in this book was news to anyone, and that once upon a time you could move to a new place and get a job in less than a week. Okay, this has technically happened to me once in the past few years, but right now in many places people would kill to get the jobs Ehrenreich describes. I hope that the recession has made "the working poor" much less invisible to people, but I'm just not sure.
  • (1/5)
    When this book came out, I was working in a busy bookstore in a fairly small town. We had a stack of them at the counter, and I read bits on my breaks. While I was glad to see a popular book addressing the problems of the working poor, I couldn't help but feel like she'd taken a vacation in my life and then made a bunch of money writing a book about it, something she could only have achieved because she had already been in a position of privilege. Your average house cleaner, lacking an advanced degree and a publishing advance to live on while writing, couldn't have written it. And while it's unarguably a Good Thing to have anyone speak up for the voiceless masses, did the low-paid workers of America get anything tangible out of it?

    At any rate, I was standing at the counter one night when a well-dressed couple came in. The woman pointed at the book with excitement. "Look, honey, that's the book!" she said. "The one where she took all those terrible jobs! I heard she even worked as a WAITRESS!" Her tone expressed incredulous horror. Then, in unison, they both froze and ever so slowly looked up at me. I had on my best customer-service poker face, but they looked mortified and fled without buying anything.

    I've had a lingering dislike for the book ever since.
  • (4/5)
    The author went undercover as a waitress, maid, and retail clerk and attempted to support herself on her wages, which she could not. A very interesting read which may result in your empathy towards such minimum wage employees or help you decide that college is good idea after all.
  • (5/5)
    In a simple experiment, the author takes on a number of minimum wage / no benefits jobs to show that one cannot get ahead on hard work alone. Her experiment adds to the evidence that the working poor are kept in a disadvantaged state with no hope for advancement. Something good to read if you're one of those people who think the poor are poor because they're lazy.
  • (3/5)
    Barbara Ehrenreich, a social critic, stepped away from her life to find out the truth about living at the bottom and what that means for American prosperity. She moved to a couple different states where she was an “undercover” maid, waitress, nursing-home aide, cleaning lady, and a sales clerk at Walmart. She soon found out that even these jobs, claimed as unskilled, were exhausting mentally, and physically. She also learned that two jobs was needed if living under a roof was an essential. Diving into this book, although written in 1998, as a reader, you realize that even 15 years later this is still an issue.
  • (4/5)
    Nickel and Dimed is a work of investigative journalism in which author Ehrenreich travels to a few different American locales under contrived circumstances to discover what it's like to live on the almost poverty-level wages many American workers earn at their occupations. During stints as a waitress in Key West, a maid in Maine, and a Wal-Mart "associate" in Minnesota, Ehrenreich discovers that even given an edge of a lump sum of cash to start with and a car, living on the poverty-level wages millions of Americans are expected to subsist on is no easy feat. Lodged in pay-by-the-week motels, suffering from the prodigious aches and pains that accompany low-wage labor, sometimes with hardly enough food to get by, and often even in fear for her safety, Ehrenreich offers a very enlightening look into the lives of the working poor.The book itself is compelling. Ehrenreich's writing style is extremely engaging and has such a great flow to it that it's actually hard to put down, a quality I'm always looking for in non-fiction and rarely finding. The book is also peppered with footnotes elaborating on Ehrenreich's experience in the low-wage world with hard data related to low wage workers both in the locales in which she works and across the United States.As for the content, some of it is truly eye-opening while some of it is borderline offensive to anybody who is working or ever has worked a low-wage job. Ehrenreich exposes the pitfalls that come with having to take a job that is nearby even if it pays peanuts because you don't have a car (and likely never will at the wage you're making). She reveals that many low-wage workers, because they don't have a month's rent and security deposit can't ever get a real apartment and are forced to rely on flea-bag pay-by-the-week motels, sometimes cramming whole families into a motel room or even a car if funds for the motel run out. She shows how hourly employees are subject to the whims of mostly useless middle managers who demand a level of work that is practically slavish. She delves into the demeaning world where drug tests are required, there is constant (often unwarranted) suspicion of worker drug use and theft, and worker belongings are subject to search when they are on the premises all for a paltry $7.00/hour, if that. Ehrenreich discovers that low-wage workers are virtually invisible to the people they're serving as waitresses or maids and almost hopelessly trapped in a hamster-wheel of never having enough to get by, much less any savings to rely on in times of crisis.On the other hand, PhD-holding Ehrenreich seems to need her book as much as any of the rest of us privileged folks. If you've ever had to take a job as a waitress or a maid or a big-box store employee in your life, you might find yourself more than a little offended by Ehrenreich's surprise at the fact that "even" low-wage workers are smart, capable, and take pride in their work. While it's easy to relate to Ehrenreich's bewilderment that a co-worker is continuing to work despite injury, she's obviously looking at it from the perspective of someone who has a cushion to fall back on rather than a worker who faces the very real possibility of being out on the street if she can't recover enough to keep her job. Especially irritating to me, however, is Ehrenreich's account of her time working at Wal-Mart, where she flounces in, attempts to stir up some pro-union sentiment, suggests that low-income women all have the same sad haircut, engages in some vaguely patronizing speculation about the lives of the customers who frequent her department, and then seems to more or less glibly return to her life of privilege. Despite its flaws, though, Nickel and Dimed is a very compelling book and one that everybody in a America whose income allows them some measure of comfort and safety needs to read. If nothing else, it will make you think twice about leaving that bigger tip, not taking the maid that cleans your hotel room for granted, and maybe not wreaking thoughtless havoc on the shelves of the store where you're shopping. More than that, Ehrenreich's book helps us to become re-acquainted with the people our incomes allow and encourage us to ignore and is the kind of book that can and should drive change in a "prosperous" country that is leaving a huge segment of its population behind.
  • (3/5)
    I read this about 10 years ago, and then saw the play based on her work. At the time, I thought her work was brilliant. Of course, I was fresh out of college, full to the brim with ideas about life, none of which had any touch with reality. Now, with ten years of real world experience in my brain, I realize Ehrenreich's work is highly flawed and lopsided. The main thing that bothered me, was while congratulating herself on "living like the poor" she refused to live like them! She had to have a car and bought herself wine and $30 khaki pants. She refused jobs because she was "tired" or didn't want to do them. She constantly complained about not having TV or AC or books. She also seemed to think all supervisors were evil, as if they sat around calculating ways to dehumanize their workers. It never occurred to her the supervisors were in a similar position or to offer any kindness to them. She also complained ALL the time about drug tests. This shows a complete naivety when it comes to human nature. In the end, I think Ehrenreich's idea was a good one, but she executed it all wrong and spent to much time complaining about her lack of comforts and how hard things were, instead of trying to actually understand what poverty is.
  • (4/5)
    Easy to read, easy to discuss. Ehrenreich sets herself up to see if a person really can survive on the minimum wage. From "Merry Maids" to WalMart (and more), her experiences should shock us all out of our complacencey.
  • (4/5)
    Anyone who has ever worked a low-paying job where the tasks performed are constant and never finished (no 'cool' projects to boost your ego), where--almost always--those tasks are physically demanding, will relate to the final chapter "Selling in Minnesota" about the job at Wal-Mart. Anyone who has never worked a job like this needs to read that final chapter - better still, everyone should read this book. You will think twice about 'looking through' the employee on the other side of the counter in those low-paying jobs. In fact, this book will make you think about a lot of things. Ehrenreich asks in the second chapter, after working seven days (two jobs): If you hump away at menial jobs 360-plus days a year, does some kind of repetitive injury of the spirit set in? Absolutely YES! And there are millions of workers out there like this.
  • (2/5)
    Most irritating of this book is that the author knew that other employees have to pick up the slack when an employee is absent. Knowing this, she quit each one of her six jobs without giving notice, even proudly walking off the floor in the middle of a waitress shift because they were getting hit really hard. She claimed to really feel for the people she worked with, but she always screwed them in the end by leaving without notice.She obviously saw the low-paying jobs to be beneath her. In her summary she actually says, "I was amazed and sometimes saddened by the pride people took in jobs that rewarded them so meagerly." I have worked all the jobs she did, with the exception of Walmart, and I firmly believe that a person should take pride in whatever work she is doing, and do the best she possibly can. The author belittled people for doing these menial jobs, telling the maid Hollie (who was proud of her job) that anyone could get that job . . . anyone could pass that stupid test. She was offended at having to clean poop off people's toilet seats and felt she had to educate the readers in the three kinds of poop on toilets. I could educate HER on poop in tubs, poop on nightgowns, poop on floors and walls. What part of "cleaning lady" did she not understand when she took the job? Are we supposed to do away with all the elderly and sick because they create poop that needs to be cleaned up?She also had a poor work ethic. She only made it one day as a hotel maid, even though she admitted taking 4.5 minutes per bed when it could have been done in 3 minutes, and watching t.v. all day as she worked.Then to top it off, she wishes there were no big houses because then there wouldn't be any maid jobs. I would like her to tell all the maids in America that she would like to do away with their jobs. (Not everyone can go back to a writing job.) She said she wouldn't hire a maid, even though she could afford it and her husband wanted her to, because she "didn't want that kind of relationship with another human being." In other words, she would deny someone a job because it would make HER feel bad; doesn't matter that there are people who would love to have that job (and no one would force her to pay poorly or be a bitch with her maid).The idea for the book was fine, but the task shouldn't have been taken on by someone who felt she was too good for it.
  • (2/5)
    I have conflicted responses to this book. First, I do believe that the US's minimum wage is not a liveable wage. I would like the author to have given a little more backstory, regarding the history of the minimum wage, and what was its original purpose? How long did it take for the original legislation, from its initial concept to law (in 1938, I think). So I need to find that out on my own, I guess. I do believe that our country needs to have a liveable wage. That if these rich companies like Wal-Mart would really pay employees what they're worth, our economy, our quality of life, would improve enormously. At the very least, it was an enjoyable "listen" and provides much food for thought.
  • (4/5)
    Eye-opening! Everyone in America should read this book. The only complaint I have is that I wish it had contained more detail.
  • (4/5)
    It is hard to say anything new or insightful about this book after reading the many excellent reviews. I found it vastly amusing and laughed at many of her experiences but that does not in any way diminish the very serious message contained in this book. I could laugh because I knew that the author would not remain in these circumstances. For the millions who have to stay in that world there is nothing but heartbreak . I was struck by the lack of human dignity afforded to these people though I know that even that is an upper class notion. They need more money and it ends there. They would find their own human dignity if paid a living wage. I have read numerous books by Ms Ehrenreich and I am a big fan. If you are interested in reading about the Canadian experience try Linda McQuaig of Toronto. She is a prominent Canadian political science writer who is very focussed on poverty issues. Try "Shooting the Hippo" or "The Wealthy Bankers Wife" or look in my library. If you would like any of her books that I have I would be happy to send them to you. Some of these books are a little dated in that unemployment rates in Canada now are very low particularly in the west. Here in Alberta, the job market is so hot that there are literally no minimum wage jobs. Even fast food restaurants pay at least twice the minimum wage and workers earn as much as $19 per hour at Tim Hortons. Employers also have to treat their employees well or they will simply find another job. In Canada we have virtually no access to cheap illegal labour ( I am not suggesting that many Canadian employers wouldn't take advantage if they could but it is a matter of geography). The point is that workers can benefit from a booming economy even without unions because they have something that is valuable (so long as they don't have unfair competition) and working with your hands and the sweat on your brow doesn't have to be demeaning.
  • (4/5)
    Nickel and Dimed is a memoir of a woman who challenges herself to support herself in menial labor, to see how the underprivileged lower class lives. She lives in three different cities and works six different jobs, and they all culminate in a unanimous verdict: "minimum wage" is by no means a living wage, and too often employees are being financially and spiritually sucked dry for their employers' benefit. It's a powerful and eye-opening look at the lower class, and makes the reader consider that poverty (or near-poverty) is much more prevalent than we usually think of it as. It's very well-researched in terms of statistics and back-up articles - although dated now since they all reflect the economy of 2000 - and overall just a very powerful and engaging piece of investigative reporting
  • (3/5)
    This was a really interesting read. I did learn a lot, although much of the time I found the author's overall attitude highly annoying. Regardless, I will never look at the people in these low wage jobs the same way as I did before. And I will NEVER, EVER hire a cleaning service to clean my home! (yuck!)
  • (4/5)
    What is it like to live on wages earned at Wal-Mart? How would it feel to work two full time jobs with no breaks and live in a single room with no air conditioning and no way to prepare food? Ehrenreich learns these hard lessons by choosing to work at the lowest paying jobs. This is an excellent book to give readers sympathy for the very poor and homeless. Twenty percent of homeless people have full time jobs but can’t afford a place to live.
  • (5/5)
    Short of working at Wal Mart, I've done every job that Ehrenreich did for this book, and my experiences were pretty much the same. She manages to convey the tragedy of life in the riches country in the world while being part of the working poor. Everyone would benefit from reading this book, specially those in power in the work place!
  • (3/5)
    Giving up a comfortable life to research on the job, her only income her wages, sampling motel living with kitchen facilities comprising the local 7-11 microwave. Barbara Ehrenreich turns her hand to Fast Food, Maid Service and WalMart. Revealing the true horror that is the existence of the low wage worker: No health insurance /No union/No dignity. Another great expose of those wicked multinational corporations and their exploitation of the masses in general, both workers and customers.