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Nickle and Dimed with Use of Sociological Theories

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    “No one ever said that you could work hard—harder even than you ever thought possible—and still find yourself sinking even deeper into poverty and debt. ” This is a quote by Barbara Ehrenreich who wrote “Nickel and Dimed,” she is a journalist with a PHD in biology and writes about her own story as she chooses to change her entire lifestyle, face the hardships of being a part of the working poor class just to see if she can survive. Throughout the book she illustrated the different jobs she endured and the struggles that came along with the jobs.

    Her story highlights the social inequality she experienced based on her status, working poor class, routine lifestyle, her experience living on the edge and the stagnant pay she received. There was a lot of social inequality in her journey that many Americans seem to overlook on the poor working class. Ehrenreich worked at a restaurant as a housekeeper/ server and experienced what it was like working paycheck to paycheck. She constantly struggled on making her rent payments on time and finding cheap motels or apartments that she could pay for monthly. She found it very difficult to keep extra money for food or emergencies.

    Under these circumstances many sociologist would classify her as the working poor which is defined as, “poor to the extent that their economic status is extremely precarious. They literally live from paycheck to paycheck… Their wages are usually low, if they do work regularly, they have difficulty making financial ends meet”(Marger,152). One of the times Ehrenreich experienced this struggle was when she was living in Minneapolis and was looking for a good place to live in and she realized that the vacancy rent was less than 1 percent but she could not afford it unless it was one tenth of that.

    It became really difficult for her to balance her wages with her living expenses. Ehreireich illustrated, “you don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high” (Ehreireich,199). One of the ways that she would survive and find something that was affordable was by getting free food at local organizations or use some of her emergency she had saved up prior to changing to this lifestyle. However she still seemed to fall into a category of poverty because she was barely making it and if it was not for her own help she would not have made it as a working poor.

    Ehreireich was experiencing living on the edge which is another sociological term that is correlated with the poor working class. “It’s a common feature of the working poor that are constantly struggling to make ends meet on bottom-level wages. Workers can never be certain that they can be paid from one month or week to the next that other life needs can be afforded (Marger,153). Ehrenreich aimed to see if she could match up the income to expenses as the poor intended on every day. She worked many different minimum wage jobs such as a waitress, a cleaning person, nursing home aide and sales associate at Wal-Mart.

    She discussed how at her Key West job she earned 1,039 in one month and spent 517 on food, gas, toiletries, laundry and her phone. But rent was the “deal breaker” and if she remained in her 500$ she would pay rent and only have about 20 dollars left over. It was difficult for her to get by and she said the only time she felt that she was a little more stable with her earnings was when she had 2 jobs, and she saw it as a necessity. She even relates to how in Portland, Maine her jobs as a cleaning lady and a nursing aid, she became closest to balancing earnings with her expenses but only because she worked seven days a week.

    She was experiencing the social inequality of low earnings and high spending’s that many of the poor working class go through today. Although much of society would qualify her as a working poor because, “their income although low, may be adequate enough to push them about the official poverty line (Marger, 152) Ehrenreichs situation and hardships make it seem that she indeed is in poverty and the definition of poverty should be adjusted to include people that are working hard as she was and were barely making it by.

    Ehreinch also articulated how her employers were focused more on growing their business than helping the workers; the employers were constantly looking for escape routes but never intending to change the wages of the workers. Ehreich discussed about a conversation she had with her employer where he stated that he could double his business overnight if he just found reliable workers. And she offered her suggestions which is to raise the pay for the workers but he did not acknowledge her idea and said that the workers were already well off.

    Marger analyses this situation describing that for big businesses, “the cost of labor is a critical factor in production. By seeking out the cheapest cost of labor, firms will move towards finding low-wage area” (Marger, 132). At the Wal-Mart where Ehrenreich worked at the employers were only focused on how much money they were making not really involved in the life of the workers. In general many businesses seek to find lower cost of wages by searching overseas to different countries than offer much lower wages for the same labor force. Companies located abroad consist of cheaper wages than corporations at home.

    This also relates to Marx’s theory on Labor Theory of Value in which he states that to make a profit, capitalist will extract more money from workers by cutting their wages. Ehreinch analyzes the topic even further by stating that these businesses are not trying to make their employers more comfortable but maximizing how many people they can still get in the bottom line. In Ehreinch’s job as a maid she encountered first-hand the experience of this lack of comfort for the employers when one of her fellow workers Holly gets severely injured in her job as a maid.

    Ehreinch realizes her fellow worker is in no position to keep working. Her coworker however takes it hard on herself and refused to stop working because she has already taken off too many days. Her manager however tells her that she just needs to calm down and can “work through it. ” This is just one of the many examples where the employers put money above their employees’ health. In societies the working poor class are usually the ones with the greatest health problems as well because they work really hard just to make enough money to live.

    The lifestyles of the poor working class a constant struggle of social inequality battling the stagnant pay they received from this big businesses that are only working for their own gain. Ehrenreich also discussed how she felt so inferior compared to others in her society especially when she was working as a maid. This relates to the sociological term of how the poor working class is always seen as inferior. She discussed how she kept getting looks from people at the local grocery story she would shop at. Her maid brilliant green and yellow uniform made her noticeable to everyone. Maybe it occurs to me I’m getting a tiny glimpse of what it would be like to be black …We are nothing to these people… we’re just maids”(100,Ehrenreich). This represents the injustices and stereotypes that come with the working poor class. Marx one of the founding father of social science even stated that there is a different depending on the occupation you do which determines your rank or worth in a society. Marx states there’s a difference between peoples status who work in different fields even though they earn the same wages as others.

    Weber another founding theorist explains how a truck driver and a school teacher earn the same economic amount, but they aren’t categorized in the same social class due to their different occupations. . They also live very different lifestyles from one another and have different cultural and societal lifestyles in which Weber states that differences in how they live and spend their income should not be considered part of the same social class despite their similar economic earnings.

    Ehreinch experiences this same situation when she begins to say how when she was a waitress in Key West her polo shirt always started conversations with different people but with her maid uniform it was a totally opposite effect. Her inferiority based on the type of occupation she worked in in an example of social inequality as a poor working class member. It was also stated that people who are not poor tend to lose sight of their presence or simply choose to ignore them. “It becomes a social condition for the poor which created a psychological state which separates them from the rest of the population (Marger, 176)”.

    For this very reason the poor continue to be overlooked and experience the constant feeling of inferiority and experience social inequality compared to others. Ehreinch also faced the constant battles with herself and other coworkers on why they did not choose higher paying jobs or form unions. The problem here was the decline of American labor unions. “A combination of high unemployment, automation, overseas production and an unsympathetic federal administration reduced the threat of strikes…The workers are too focused on keeping their job rather than fighting for higher wages” (Merger, 131).

    Ehreinch constantly asked her coworkers to fight for higher wages and she kept getting negative responses or no response at all. There’s a scene in the book where she calls a meeting with all the coworkers about forming a union and fighting for their wages, but the people who worked at Wal-Mart kept saying constantly that “Wal-Mart would rather just keep hiring new people than treating the ones it has decently…they can always get someone else if you complain (Ehrenreich,184). But Ehrenreich cannot seem to change the opinions of her coworkers and they neglect to feel that a union will change their wages.

    Ehreich realizes that her fellow coworkers lacked the strength to get up and move to a different job because of the lifestyle they were accustomed too. Many of her workers were not able to just move because they were constrained due to not having luxuries such as a car. The working class also lacks resources to inform them about other potential jobs that can benefit them economically because they have no way gathering this information. They lack technology it is nearly impossible for them to realize that they can move to a different job and be well off unlike other people which is also an example of social inequality.

    Marger analyses that due to the lack and decline of American unions there continues to be a wage decline. Many of the jobs that Ehrenreich faced under Reich’s Model can be categorized as routine personal service workers because her job was a constant simple and repetitive task. She faced an hourly basis and her skills and task were fairly low. A few of the jobs that Ehrenreich faced such as waitressing, maid work and housekeeping fall under this category. The wages of these workers are mainly sluggish and their occupations are not prestigious at all.

    Ehrenreich stated herself that she realized a truth about low wage workers which is that nothing really happens or everything that happens is the same with a routine day after day, whereas the people who are in charge of the business and make up the upper middle class consist of jobs such as doctors, lawyers and engineers are usually more prosperous. There is a great difference between these two classes and Barbara Ehnreich discusses the huge gap between the upper middle class and the low working class.

    She pointed out that when the rich and poor compete for market housing,” the rich are always the one who comes out on top. The rich an outbid them (the poor), buy up their tenements or trailer parks, and replace them with condos (Ehrenreich, 199). This reason is because the rich are becoming richer and the salaries of the low class workers are stagnant and no change has been made, “of all the workers the poorest have made the least progress back to their 1973 wage level” (Ehreich, 203).

    It’s evident that Ehrenreich experience as well as her fellow workers that being a routine personal service worker kept them in the poor working class rank. Social inequality was constantly a reminder to them as they faced their low paid wages by completing the same repetitive labor work every day and not being able to move up economically. Many people believe that poverty is caused by one self and the “prevailing public view of poverty is that it is a largely self-imposed” ( Marger,165). Many Americans believe that in order to move up you must work hard and that there are many opportunities out there for people.

    In Margers book many Americans agree with this premise that if you simply make an effort you can better yourself. Most of society believes that people get what they deserve which leads to the topic of the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. The deserving poor are those who are poor for no reason and those who work steady but do not earn enough. However Ehrenreich contrast this idea because she was a victim of working hard and harder and found herself sinking even deeper into poverty and debt.

    The functional theory by Durkhein even states that, “few individuals in society have the ability to acquire specialized knowledge required to hold important functional positions in society,(notes)” which makes it difficult for people to ever move up especially if they lack the resources. And when these hard working people seek out help from the government through welfare they were accused of being lazy and depended too much on the government. People accused the poor and believed they needed to work harder and not live off of government handouts and instead be self-sufficient.

    Throughout Ehrenreich’s struggle she realized first-hand the lifestyle one faced as a working class. And for this reason she understands the real struggles people face and how welfare is a beneficial thing for those working class people that cannot survive without this help. Although some people do seek help from welfare there are, “single mothers for example have nothing but their own wages to live on, no matter how many mouths there are to feed (Ehrenreich, 213). Ehrenreich discusses how many nonpoor people think of the poor as a “sustainable condition” because people get by.

    But there are many hidden realities that people do not see which is, people living in their cars, eating unhealthy meals, injuries that they work through and just barely sustaining enough money to survive. This puts the poor working class in dangerous situations and people from higher classes do not see that because it is left behind closed doors or people just automatically assume things are well. When one is restricted into their class they do not really focus on what is really going on with the other classes because that’s not their lifestyle and the people they are surrounded by are different.

    This is why social inequality is alive today because there are different classifications of people. People in low working classes are used to a different cultural lifestyle. “The culture of poverty is a representation of a set or norms values and a culture that characterizes the poor. That is because these norms are very different from that of the social dominant culture”(Marger,160). There are behaviors that come with being poor and there is a different lifestyle and different culture.

    Some people do not choose to be poor but their personal efforts lead them towards this path. This goes back to how society believes that the poor themselves should be blamed for being poor and that they choose to not adapt the middle class norms according to Marger. But although the poor could change their ideals to live up to a middle class way of life that it would not affect their future poverty much. Even the media only shows the life of the people that are making more than minimum wage. The poor have disappeared from the culture at large, from its political rhetoric and intellectual endeavors as well as from daily entertainment ( Ehreinch, 118). Not many people from the first class or upper middle class experience what the people from the low class face. Many challenges such as going to get food at local shelters, and sleeping in their cars because that is all they can afford. One worker that worked with Barbara at Wal-Mart even had a difficult time purchasing a button down shirt that she needed to wear to work.

    It was a struggle because they use every last cent to pay for their necessities. Barbara Ehreinch says that “there seems to be a vicious cycle at work here, making ours not just an economy but a culture of extreme inequality” (Ehrenreich, 212). The culture that people face from being in poverty makes them feel belittled and unequal to other people. Nickel and Dimed shined a light on what society seems to overlook which is the reality of the differences in the classes.

    The working poor class struggles to overcome many obstacles and Barbara Ehreich experiences this first hand in the many low paying jobs and many low income places she stayed in. It was a real struggle for her to try to advance herself when it was nearly impossible many times. Looking at her experiences many sociologist can agree that living life in poverty is a struggle every day. Ehrenreich says that her spending and earnings hardly ever matched up which made her realize the chances of making it through are slim to none. And the lower working class will always endure these hardships due to social inequality.

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