In her work Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich writes about a very interesting experiment she conducted. Welfare reform was a hot topic at the time, and Ehrenreich wondered if single mothers would be able to take care of themselves and their children while working low-wage jobs. Thus, Ehrenreich herself decides to see if she can live this way. She does set up some parameters, however—she will not go hungry or be homeless, and she could not use her skills from her everyday, usual work. Although difficult, she learned some valuable lessons from this experience.
The author chooses three cities in the United States to be her experimental locations. She first goes to Key West, Florida. She ends up waitressing at a restaurant that was also part of a hotel. Hearthside, as it was called, required lots of work (2:00 to 10:00 pm) and after only a few days of working, problems arose. Management was terrible and the job did not pay enough for her to cover her expenses. Ehrenreich soon leaves to another waitressing job at a place called Jerry’s. This was no better—the work was exhausting and she soon quit. In the midst of all this, she moves into a trailer closer to her work to cut down on driving expenses. She also gets a job as a housekeeper, but finds it even more hectic than being a waitress—she had to clean 19 rooms in one day (p. 29).
Eventually, Ehrenreich moves to Portland, Maine. After much searching, she eventually gets a job at the Blue Haven Motel. Even though it was not as bad as waitressing, she soon gets another job that she can make more money in. She becomes a dietary aide at Woodcrest Residential Facility, where she gets paid $7 an hour. She also works for The Maids—a housecleaning service so she can increase her wages even more. Unfortunately, Ehrenreich learns that for her—the working poor—there is little assistance. She met many rude, unhelpful people who were unwilling to provide her with much support.
The last place Ehrenreich moves to is Minneapolis, Minnesota. She lands a job at Wal-Mart as well as a houseware store called Menards. However, due to an exhausting 8-hour orientation at Wal-Mart, she soon bails on Menards and sticks solely to Wal-Mart. The author is also experiencing a hard time finding proper housing. She eventually stays at a hotel, but it is too expensive for her budget—a whopping $295 a week—however, she did not have any other choice. To end this journey, she helps organize a union at her job at Wal-Mart, but due to financial problems, she lets the experiment come to a close.
Even though this was not easy task, Ehrenreich learned a lot from her experiment. She stated that even though her work was hard and tiring, she did not think she did a bad job. “I didn’t do half-bad at the work itself, but my track record in the survival department is far less admirable” (Ehrenreich, 2001, p. 108). She also states that even though these are considered “unskilled” forms of labor, no job is truly unskilled. It is a shame that low-wage workers do such hard effort but rarely get appreciated for the work they do. On top of that, they work incredibly hard but barely have enough money to get by.
As stated above, there are certain parameters that Ehrenreich set for herself in order to conduct this experiment. She had to spend one month in Key West, Portland, and Minneapolis. She wanted to see if she could last the month with enough money to pay for rent the next month. When searching for a job, she was not allowed to fall back on her skills she learned from her usual work. She was also required to take the highest paying job that was offered to her, and she had to try her best to keep it. When it came to living arrangements, Ehrenreich had to try to find someplace safe and private, but for the cheapest amount possible (p. 9-10).
There was a privilege, however, of being merely an “observer.” If Ehrenreich could not pay for the next month’s rent, she could quit and go to the next place. Also, she could not be homeless, go hungry, and she could have a car. As readers can see, things did not always go as planned. There are certain instances where the author bent the rules for herself. For one, she used the skills from her actual education to promote herself to an interviewer at a waitressing job, saying she could, “greet European tourists with the appropriate Bonjour or Guten Tag” (p. 10). Another time, when she was in Minneapolis, she broke the rules by not taking the best paying job that was offered to her. Finally, Ehrenreich actually had to end the experiment early because she did not have enough funds left to pay for her expensive hotel.
In each new city, Ehrenreich manages to survive as a single woman. For example, at the beginning of the book, we see that Ehrenreich really wanted a housekeeping job in a hotel (p.11). However, she cannot find one and settles for a job as a waitress. Although this was not her ideal, she picks a job she can find in order to pay the bills. Also, if it turned out that she was not able to make ends meet, she would take on another job to make more money. For example, as stated earlier in the paper, even while working at the hotel, Ehrenreich takes on another job—working as a housekeeper, like she had been planning from the start.
When her month would come to an end, and she would have to move again, and Ehrenreich had to find new jobs each time. While working at Woodcrest Residential Facility in Maine, Ehrenreich manages to survive in another way—using her skills of connecting with other people. For example, a man named Pete was the ward’s cook. He exercised his power over all the dietary aides, including Ehrenreich. Rather than dealing with Pete’s power-hungry attitude, Ehrenreich decides to try to befriend him and make him like her; she even tells him that she is single (p. 39-40). This job was easier to Ehrenreich than her other job at Jerry’s. It seems that using people skills helped make life a bit easier for her in this environment.
I believe Ehrenreich’s survival would have been different if she was a single mother with children. First, she would have more mouths to feed, not just her own. She would also need to have money to clothe and clean her children. If she wanted them to get an education, she could send them to public school so she would not have to pay a tuition; however, she may still need to buy school supplies for her kids. Having kids as a single mother ultimately means that Ehrenreich would have to budget out more money for necessities. However, if she had difficulty surviving on her own with the jobs she was doing, it would be so much harder with others to care for. She may need to go to a food pantry or soup kitchen in order to save money on food. Thrift shops or Goodwill would probably be where she would get clothes for herself and her children. Housing would be tough too; perhaps she could find a good friend to stay with and pay rent, since it was already difficult for her to pay rent on her own with her other jobs. Whatever the case, having children with her would make things exponentially tougher.
As one can see from the book, Ehrenreich is a single female trying to make it on her own. As a woman, she is expected to have “domestic” roles such as cleaning her home and cooking. However, she also needs to work in order to provide for herself. This parallels what we have learned in class about the postmodern family. In class, we have learned that postmodern families are different than the idealized modern family. In an ideal world, the father was the breadwinner and the mother was at home cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children. However, postmodern parents both worked. The father even took on more domestic work such as helping his wife around the home. Many children also lived at home, even as adults.
In class, we also learned that the Great Recession caused certain trends in poor and working class families. For example, people started marrying later and postponing having kids. This makes sense because it saves money. Again, we can relate this to the book. Ehrenreich is surviving her experiment on her own. She is not doing it with a husband, and definitely not with any kids tailing after her. It is hard enough to take care of oneself, let alone, an entire family. This is why it makes sense that she is flying solo.
This book was a really interesting read. It was fascinating to see how Barbara Ehrenreich decides to conduct this experiment and see if she can survive month to month on such low-waged jobs. The most inspiring thing I learned can be summed up by this quote: “Something is wrong, very wrong… when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow” (p. 109). This is so heartbreaking to me. So many people work so hard, doing exhausting, backbreaking work, but they can never seem to make ends meet. Something is wrong, and I hope, one day, things will change for the better. I hope there is a day where everyone, no matter the job they have, will be able to have enough money to live comfortably by themselves, or with a family.