Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
Barbara Ehrenreich, 2001
Henry Holt & Company
Millions of Americans work for poverty-level wages, and one day Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that any job equals a better life. But how can anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 to $7 an hour?
To find out, Ehrenreich moved from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, taking the cheapest lodgings available and accepting work as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing-home aide, and Wal-Mart salesperson. She soon discovered that even the "lowliest" occupations require exhausting mental and physical efforts. And one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors.
Nickel and Dimed reveals low-wage America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity—a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate strategies for survival. Instantly acclaimed for its insight, humor, and passion, this book is changing the way America perceives its working poor. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—August 26, 1941
• Where—Butte, Montana, USA
• Education—B.A., Reed College; Ph.D., Rockefeller University
• Currently—lives in Alexandra, Virginia
Barbara Ehrenreich an American author best known for Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001). She is also the author of Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (2005), This Land Is Their Land: Reports From a Divided Nation (2008), Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything (2014) and numerous other books. A frequent contributer to Time, Harper's, Esquire, The New Republic, Mirabella, Nation, and New York Times Magazine, she lives near Key West, Florida.
Ehrenreich was born Barbara Alexander to Isabelle Oxley and Ben Alexander. Her father was a copper miner who went on to study at Carnegie Mellon University and who eventually became an executive at the Gillette Corporation. Ehrenreich studied physics at Reed College, graduating in 1963. Her senior thesis was entitled Electrochemical oscillations of the silicon anode. In 1968, she received a Ph.D in cellular biology from Rockefeller University.
Citing her interest in social change, she opted for political activism instead of pursuing a scientific career. She met her first husband, John Ehrenreich, during an anti-war activism campaign in New York City.
In 1970, her first child, Rosa (now Rosa Brooks), was born. Her second child, Benjamin, was born in 1972. Barbara and John divorced and in 1983 she married Gary Stevenson, a warehouse employee who later became a union organizer. She divorced Stevenson in the early 1990s.
From 1991 to 1997, Ehrenreich was a regular columnist for Time magazine. Currently, she contributes regularly to The Progressive and has also written for the New York Times, Mother Jones, The Atlantic Monthly, Ms, The New Republic, Z Magazine, In These Times, Salon.com, and other publications.
In 1998, the American Humanist Association named her the Humanist of the Year.
In 1998 and 2000, she taught essay writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.
In 2004, Ehrenreich wrote a month-long guest column for the New York Times while regular columnist Thomas Friedman was on leave and she was invited to stay on as a columnist. She declined, saying that she preferred to spend her time more on long-term activities, such as book-writing.
Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after the release of her book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. In her article "Welcome to Cancerland," published in the November 2001 issue of Harper's Magazine, she describes her breast cancer experience and debates the medical industry's problems with the issue of breast cancer.
In 2006, Ehrenreich founded United Professionals, an organization described as "a nonprofit, non-partisan membership organization for white-collar workers, regardless of profession or employment status. We reach out to all unemployed, underemployed, and anxiously employed workers—people who bought the American dream that education and credentials could lead to a secure middle class life, but now find their lives disrupted by forces beyond their control."
Ehrenreich is currently an honorary co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America. She also serves on the NORML Board of Directors and The Nation's Editorial Board. ("More" from Wikipedia.)
We have Barbara Ehrenreich to thank for bringing us the news of America's working poor so clearly and directly, and conveying with it a deep moral outrage and a finely textured sense of lives as lived. As Michael Harrington was, she is now our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism.
Dorothy Gallagher - The New York Times Book Review
Ehrenreich is passionate, public, hotly lucid, and politically engaged.
Nickel and Dimed is an important book that should be read by anyone who has been lulled into middle-class complacency.
Vivien Labaton - Ms. Magazine
In contrast to recent books by Michael Lewis and Dinesh D'Souza that explore the lives and psyches of the New Economy's millionares, Ehrenreich (Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class) turns her gimlet eye on the view from the workforce's bottom rung. Determined to find out how anyone could make ends meet on $7 an hour, she left behind her middle class life as a journalist—except for $1000 in start-up funds, a car and her laptop computer—to try to sustain herself as a low-skilled worker for a month at a time. In 1999 and 2000, Ehrenreich worked as a waitress in Key West, Fla., as a cleaning woman and a nursing home aide in Portland, Maine, and in a Wal-Mart in Minneapolis, Minn. During the application process, she faced routine drug tests and spurious "personality tests"; once on the job, she endured constant surveillance and numbing harangues over infractions like serving a second roll and butter. Beset by transportation costs and high rents, she learned the tricks of the trade from her co-workers, some of whom sleep in their cars, and many of whom work when they're vexed by arthritis, back pain or worse, yet still manage small gestures of kindness. Despite the advantages of her race, education, good health and lack of children, Ehrenreich's income barely covered her month's expenses in only one instance, when she worked seven days a week at two jobs (one of which provided free meals) during the off-season in a vacation town. Delivering a fast read that's both sobering and sassy, she gives readers pause about those caught in the economy's undertow, even in good times.
A close observer and astute analyzer of American life (The Worst Years of Our Life and The Fear of Falling), Ehrenreich turns her attention to what it is like trying to subsist while working in low-paying jobs. Inspired to see what boom times looked like from the bottom, she hides her real identity and attempts to make a life on a salary of just over $300 per week after taxes. She is often forced to work at two jobs, leaving her time and energy for little else than sleeping and working. Ehrenreich vividly describes her experiences living in isolated trailers and dilapidated motels while working as a nursing-home aide, a Wal-Mart "sales associate," a cleaning woman, a waitress, and a hotel maid in three states: Florida, Maine, and Minnesota. Her narrative is candid, often moving, and very revealing. Looking back on her experiences, Ehrenreich claims that the hardest thing for her to accept is the "invisibility of the poor"; one sees them daily in restaurants, hotels, discount stores, and fast-food chains but one doesn't recognize them as "poor" because, after all, they have jobs. No real answers to the problem but a compelling sketch of its reality and pervasiveness. —Jack Forman, San Diego Mesa Coll. Lib.
1. In the wake of recent welfare reform measures, millions of women entering the workforce can expect to face struggles like the ones Ehrenreich confronted in Nickel and Dimed.
Have you ever been homeless, unemployed, without health insurance, or held down two jobs? What is the lowest-paying job you ever held and what kind of help—if any—did you need to improve your situation?
2. Were your perceptions of blue-collar Americans transformed or reinforced by Nickel and Dimed? Have your notions of poverty and prosperity changed since reading the book? What about your own treatment of waiters, maids, and sales-people?
3. How do booming national and international chains—restaurants, hotels, retail outlets, cleaning services, and elder-care facilities—affect the treatment and aspirations of low-wage workers? Consider how market competition and the push for profits drive the nickel-and-diming of America's lowest-paid.
4. Housing costs pose the greatest obstacle for low-wage workers. Why does our society seem to resist rectifying this situation? Do you believe that there are realistic solutions to the lack of affordable housing?
5. While working for The Maids, Ehrenreich hears Ted claim that he's "not a bad guy...and cares a lot about his girls." How do the assumptions of supervisors such as Ted affect their employees? How does Ted compare to Ehrenreich's other bosses? To yours?
6. Ehrenreich is white and middle class. She asserts that her experience would have been radically different had she been a person of color or a single parent. Do you think discrimination shaped Ehrenreich's story? In what ways?
7. Ehrenreich found that she could not survive on $7.00 per hour—not if she wanted to live indoors. Consider how her experiment would have played out in your community: limiting yourself to $7.00 per hour earnings, create a hypothetical monthly budget for your part of the country.
8. Ehrenreich experienced remarkable goodwill, generosity, and solidarity among her colleagues. Does this surprise you? How do you think your own colleagues measure up?
9. Why do you think low-wage workers are reluctant to form labor organizations as Ehrenreich discovered at Wal-Mart? How do you think employees should lobby to improve working conditions?
10. Many campus and advocacy groups are currently involved in struggles for a "living wage." How do you think a living wage should be calculated?
11. Were you surprised by the casual reactions of Ehrenreich's coworkers when she revealed herself as an undercover writer? Were you surprised that she wasn't suspected of being "different" or out-of-place despite her graduate-level education and usually comfortable lifestyle?
12. How does managers' scrutiny—"time theft" crackdowns and drug testing—affect workers' morale? How can American companies make the workplace environment safe and efficient without treating employees like suspected criminals?
13. Ehrenreich concluded that had her working life been spent in a Wal-Mart—like environment, she would have emerged a different person— meaner, pettier, "Barb" instead of "Barbara." How would your personality change if you were placed in working conditions very different from the ones you are in now?
14. The workers in Nickel and Dimed receive almost no benefits—no overtime pay, no retirement funds, and no health insurance. Is this fair? Do you think an increase in salary would redress the lack of benefits, or is this a completely separate problem?
15. Many of Ehrenreich's colleagues relied heavily on family—for housing and help with child-care, by sharing appliances and dividing up the cooking, shopping, and cleaning. Do you think Americans make excessive demands on the family unit rather than calling for the government to help those in need?
16. Nickel and Dimed takes place in 1998-2000, a time of unprecedented prosperity in America. Do you think Ehrenreich's experience would be different in today's economy? How so?
17. After reading Nickel and Dimed, do you think that having a job—any job—is better than no job at all? Did this book make you feel angry? Better informed? Relieved that someone has finally described your experience? Galvanized to do something?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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