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Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

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    Barbara Ehrenreich was a middle aged, single, liberal, white woman without young children during her investigation which led to Nickel and Dimed. In what ways did these characteristics help to shape her experiences? Using your knowledge of US history and culture; how would specific instances in Nickel and Dimed have been altered if someone with different characteristics been involved?

    In Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich decides to investigate how possible it is to survive solely by working at a minimum (or near minimum) wage job. Inspired by so-called “welfare reform” which claims that former welfare recipients will be able to rise out of poverty by working low-wage jobs, she sets to work. Ehrenreich spends a month in three different locales – Key West, Florida; Portland, Maine; and Minneapolis, Minnesota – finding a job (or jobs) and attempting to earn enough money to pay the next months’ rent (2001). In addition to several self-imposed limits which ensured she would have access to a car, $1250 in cash for the first month of living expenses, and an “emergency” credit card (which she never used), Ehrenreich freely admits to having certain characteristics which helped her during her investigation. She is “a person with every advantage that ethnicity and education, health and motivation can confer” (Ehrenreich, 2001, p. 10), with no other mouths to feed, money in her pocket and an able body.

    As Ehrenreich (2001) points out in the introduction to Nickel and Dimed, one of the most prominent effects her demographic and socioeconomic status had on her experience were the types of jobs she was offered (pp. 6-7). Instead of being offered the housekeeping jobs she had applied for at hotels in Key West, she was “steered instead into waitressing, no doubt because of my ethnicity and my English skills” (Ehrenreich, 2001, p. 7). It is only when she arrives in Portland, Maine, with an almost entirely white population, that she receives offers for cleaning jobs. One of her reasons for choosing this second location was in order to apply for jobs that were difficult for her to find in Key West (Ehrenreich, 2001, p. 51). In addition to being white and English-speaking, her age and gender led to jobs in stereotypically female professions – largely the service industry, specifically waitressing, housekeeping, retail, and caretaking.

    Towards the end of her experiment she imagines looking for a job in a factory in Minneapolis, but that plan seems to fall by the wayside as she is offered jobs at a series of retail stores (Ehrenreich, 2001, pp. 121-150). Whether through her own preference (she rules out telemarketing and outside sales almost immediately), a lack of interest from a given job sector (Ehrenreich, 2001, p. 13), or a complex combination of learned cultural behaviors, she is perpetually stuck in those parts of the job market that are the least well-paying. While Ehrenreich (2001) points out that even $9 or $10 an hour would not be enough to live on, at least not long-term, most of her female co-workers talk about finding work in a better-paying factory position.

                Had Ehrenreich been able to find a job in the upper echelon of low-wage work, she may have been able to support herself for a more extended period of time, but adding a child or children would have made such a feat herculean. As she quickly finds out, “there are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs” (Ehrenreich, 2001, p. 27). Clearly, having no small children in tow is helpful both in economic and psychological terms – Ehrenreich rarely has the energy necessary at the end of a long day or week to take care of children (2001, p. 157).

                Ehrenreich consistently acknowledges that one of the main points in her favor is her lifetime of access to quality healthcare (2001). While working as a maid in Portland, she experiences back pain, headaches, extreme fatigue, and various other aches and pains too numerous to expand upon. Even so, she recognizes that “My very ability to work tirelessly hour after hour is a product of decades of better-than-average medical care … If I am now a productive fake member of the working class, it’s because I haven’t been working, in any hard physical sense, long enough to have ruined my body” (2001, p. 90).

    In a later incident at the same maid service, a co-worker trips in a hole in the ground in front of one of the houses they have cleaned, appearing to break or sprain her ankle. Even so, the co-worker insists on continuing to work, both because she cannot afford to miss a day of pay and because their boss proves to be entirely unsympathetic to her plight (Ehrenreich, 2001, pp. 109-113). We are left to imagine what kind of condition a body would be left in after years, decades, of backbreaking work combined with a litany of accidents and illnesses left to heal on their own due to a lack of medical insurance and sick pay.

                One of the less obvious differences between Ehrenreich, with a middle class background, and most of her co-workers, who have a lifetime of low-wage work behind them, are subtle variations in attitude. Ehrenreich (2001) objects to management at the restaurant she is waitressing at in Key West informing employees that they will be subjected to random drug testing from that point on. She huffily declares that she “hadn’t been treated this way – lined up in the corridor, threatened with locker searches, peppered with carelessly aimed accusations – since at least junior high school” (p. 24).

    In a separate incident farther upstate, in Tampa Bay, a local Wal-Mart delayed an African-American male for over two hours when he tried to (legally) purchase gift cards with his company’s check. This followed on the heels of several lawsuits alleging that Wal-Mart engages in racial profiling to prevent shoplifting (Albright, 2005). One of the reasons Ehrenreich may feel more outrage at being treated like a criminal is that, as a middle class white woman, she has not been treated like that during her adult lifetime. One can imagine that a minority in the same situation, instead of feeling indignant, would not think it unusual. If you are treated like a criminal your entire life, whether because you are black, young, or simply poor, why would it surprise you that your boss treats you the same way? Ehrenreich (2001) recognizes the psychic toll these attacks are taking on herself – and, she imagines, on many of her co-workers – in discussing the reasons individual workers may get stuck in the lowest-paying jobs: “If you are constantly reminded of your lowly position in the social hierarchy, whether by individual managers or by a plethora of impersonal rules, you begin to accept that unfortunate status” (p. 210).

    In Beth Shulman’s wide-ranging study of low-wage jobs in the United States, she notes these methods as being one of the chief methods employers use to keep workers docile and prevent them from becoming pro-active in seeking higher pay and benefits (Shulman, 2005, pp. 87-132). This psychological warfare creates an environment where employees are so grateful for free doughnuts or steady hours they resist any suggestion that they could do better (Ehrenreich, 2001, 207-212). Additionally, these emotionally degrading tactics instill a powerful sense of fear in those stuck in low-wage jobs. Had Ehrenreich truly needed the paycheck from these jobs in order to feed herself and her family, and did not have an emergency credit card to fall back on, her anger might be subsumed by more pressing needs.

                In the end, though, Nickel and Dimed is not about Barbara Ehrenreich and her experiences in the low-wage workforce. It was Ehrenreich’s goal to see what would happen when a person with all of her advantages tried to “match income to expenses” (2001, p. 6). She found herself barely able to meet daily expenses, much less save for a home or emergencies. Without those advantages, without a familial safety net, without the time limit of one month, she may have found herself much worse off than that.


    Albright, Mark. (2005, December 2). Racial profiling feared at Wal-Mart. St. Petersburg Times.             Retrieved April 17, 2008, from

    Ehrenreich, Barbara. (2001). Nickel and dimed: On not getting by in America. New York : Henry                      Holt.

    Shulman, Beth. (2005). The betrayal of work: How low-wage jobs fail 30 million Americans.      New York : New Press.


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