March book review: Nickel and Dimed: On (not) getting by in America.

Mar 13, 2018 · Eric Schares

Ehrenreich, B. (2001). Nickel and Dimed: On (not) getting by in America. New York, N.Y.: Henry Holt and Company.

In 1999, writer Barbara Ehrenreich went undercover as a low-wage worker to investigate how anyone could survive on $7 an hour.  Scanning the Help Wanted ads in newspapers and store windows, she worked as a waitress and hotel maid in Florida, a housecleaner and nursing home aide in Maine, and a WalMart “associate” in Minnesota.

At each stop, she puts up with a never-ending stream of applications, drug tests, personality surveys, and face-to-face interviews but quickly discovers housing to be the biggest obstacle, both in terms of budget and logistics.  Ehrenreich lives in motels while she looks for affordable places, which are rare, geographically spread out, and slow to respond to inquiries.  She does eventually move into a furnished trailer at one point, but realizes this is only made possible by the fund she allowed herself for start-up costs.  It’s nearly impossible to save up a month’s rent and month’s deposit for an apartment when you have less than $50 at the end of the month. “In poverty, as in physics, starting conditions are everything.”

Other problems Ehrenreich must deal with include the smells, customers, chemicals, and supervisors of her various jobs, the physical toll it takes on her body, and the long, grinding effort of working 7 days a week for very low wages and no health insurance.

Ehrenreich freely admits hers is an imperfect simulation. Striking out on this adventure alone, she didn’t have to chase a toddler, coordinate schedules, or clean up after anyone when she gets home.  However, her embedded experience still provides an eye-opening look into the true human cost of an $8 t-shirt or manager’s breakfast special.

Three copies of Nickel and Dimed can be found on the 3rd Floor of Parks Library at call number HD4918 E375 2001