Critical Review of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America
Nickel and Dimed is Barbara Ehrenreich’s novel about her experiences as a low-wage worker. She spent a couple of weeks in three different US cities on three separate occasions. Ehrenreich sought to shed light on the crisis of the working poor. Starting with a little money and a car, she supplanted herself to another city and found jobs and housing from scratch.
In Florida Ehrenreich worked as a housekeeping attendant and a waitress. She lived in an “efficiency” apartment thirty miles away from her jobs in Key West. Ehrenreich was a house cleaner and nursing-home aide in Maine. She stayed in a Motel 6 for a week until she could get a room at a residential hotel, the Blue Haven. In Minnesota she worked as an associate at Wal-Mart and lived in a regular hotel. This was her shortest stay as she ran out of money in about two weeks. Ehrenreich struggled with health, working conditions and management. She also had trouble finding affordable and acceptable housing.
Ehrenreich did not approach Nickel and Dimed in an experimental or journalistic standpoint. She makes it clear that her adventures are a story and not a social experiment. Ehrenreich did not have a thesis but wrote from a liberal standpoint. Though she tried to get the best jobs she could, Ehrenreich limited her opportunities by constructing a fictionalized character of herself as a low-skilled employee with no experience. This fit with her character of a divorced mother who returned to the workforce after being on welfare. She tested the conservative view that any job would lead to upward mobility. Ehrenreich also challenged the work-fare notion that people coming off welfare are prepared to join the workforce.
Have you ever wondered how life would be like if mostly everyone was poor? If you only had a few pairs of shirts and pants to wear the whole year? If you never got presents on your birthday, because your family couldn't afford it? Or if you only had a pair of shoe's to wear until your feet grew out of them? I have experienced all of this and much worse, in my life during the Great Depression. My ...
The novel was written for a general audience. It appealed generally to socially conscious people and was reviewed by several liberal magazines. The book sold enough copies to make it to the New York Times bestseller list. The soft cover edition featured discussion questions and had been used in a variety of university level courses about social issues.
Ehrenreich`s novel related to a wide range of social theory. Conflict theory explained the inequality between the rich and poor. Structural functionalism dealt with the structures of society and how they affected the working poor. Symbolic interactionism discussed the socially constructed definition of terms such as ‘working poor.’
Conflict theory is illustrated best when Ehrenreich works as a housecleaner. Her descriptive writing emphasizes the contempt she feels cleaning people’s oversized houses “-boasting to dinner guests … their floors are cleaned with only the purest of fresh human tears.” (p. 89).
Gender inequality was also present in Ehrenreich`s job as a maid. All of the cleaning personnel were women but the manager was a man. She even described how the maids looked for the manager`s approval and a bit of praise would be relished for weeks. In an environment where the inequality between management and employees was so tangible and rewards so few, a little admiration became very important. Economic inequality was also poignant when it came to housing. Affordable housing was often far away from low-skilled job markets. Housing without a deposit was often only available in residential hotels. These hotels consumed as much as 70% of Ehrenreich`s income and she had to take a second job to afford to stay in one. Ehrenreich`s tight budget did not allow her to save for a deposit on a regular apartment.
Structural functionalism defined the type of jobs that made it more difficult for Ehrenreich to save, in her experience. Earning only 6 to 7 dollars an hour Ehrenreich found it difficult to meet simple expenses let alone put money aside. When she was working at Wal-Mart her schedule was inconsistent so she had trouble finding another compatible job. Ehrenreich also had trouble finding housing in Minnesota and was forced to stay in a hotel. Unfortunately the hotel did not have a kitchen so she had to eat fast food which cost her about 9 dollars a day. The lack of affordable housing made it difficult for Ehrenreich to establish a stable base where she would not need to spend a disproportionate amount of her income on housing. Ehrenreich assumed that the structure of welfare state would not prepare a person to enter the workforce with some set of skills. Many states had work welfare programs which were supposed to provide citizens with the skills needed to come off welfare. Welfare also did not give people enough money to save and make deposit for an apartment or save towards school.
... worker. Ehrenreich's primary reason for seriptiously getting low paying jobs is to see if she can "match income to expenses as the truly poor ... to match income to expenses for one month. Ehrenreich chose cities ... disposition. During Ehrenreich's experiment she relocated to a city, would find a low-wage job and cheap housing, while attempting ...
The stigmatization of the poor was best viewed in the context of symbolic interactionism. In the United States welfare recipients were marginalized. They had difficulty getting new jobs and often fell in to the pattern of low-skilled jobs because it is what was expected of them. Ehrenreich felt depressed and subservient in the positions that she worked. She often had to go through humiliating processes to get a job, like drug tests. Management treated the workers as untrustworthy. This made Ehrenreich feel even more downtrodden and unworthy. “…there’s something about the prospect of a purse search that makes a woman feel a few buttons short of fully dressed.” (p. 208).
The working poor had a misplaced ray of hope in the American dream, another symbol. Ehrenreich’s co-workers took pride in their work and tried to do the best job they could. Unfortunately financial rewards were not forthcoming and the myth that the poor could help themselves just served to make their situation worse.
Ehrenreich’s journey in to a low-wage lifestyle was entertaining but flawed. She came from a perspective of being better than low-wage earners. Writing in a first person perspective made for a good read but not a great journalistic piece. Ehrenreich’s novel revolved around her, understandably: it was about her experience in the low-wage world. She went to a bit of an extreme and almost totally neglected the real life of her co-workers. They became background in her story. Ehrenreich expressed sympathy for her fellow low-wage workers but did little about it. Even when she had a plan to help her co-workers, Ehrenreich did not follow through. Whether this was through apathy or fear is unclear, but as she was only on “vacation” in low-wage life, Ehrenreich had nothing to lose. She claimed journalistic integrity to justify her disconnection from her co-workers. But in very low-income jobs, most workers depended heavily on each other. Ehrenreich alluded to this when she mentioned that a Czech cook lived in a room with several other people. Privacy and space are simply a luxury the working poor could not afford.
With cost of living being different from state to state and minimum wage being so low why do we wonder there are so many individuals working multiple jobs, or the crime rate raising or the unemployment being at its highest it has been. How do we expect to be putting money back into the market and getting this country out of debt if we cannot even get ourselves out of debt. Someone once said, “More ...
Ehrenreich also did not spend enough time working poor to justify her conclusions. The Sphere Institute found up to 40 percent of workers in the lowest income group increased their means by up to 83 percent after a year. Starting from scratch in a new city was obviously hard for Ehrenreich but she did not give herself enough time to improve her lot. Her friend’s aunt Caroline provided the perfect example of a long term outcome. After leaving Florida with her children Caroline went through some hard times but eventually landed a good enough job and a decent house.
By the end of the novel the author comes up with few alternatives to the current system. In her experiences she did little to try to improve her lot. Ehrenreich rarely went out too look for social assistance. Though she was tired from working the best way to improve financially was to cooperate with fellow employees, relatives, or friends. Since she distanced herself so effectively from others; she never developed a social security net. Ehrenreich made a case for a living wage at the end of her novel. She did not offer any advice or evidence on how this could be brought about or specific benefits of a living wage. The novel was well written and brought the plight of the working poor to a mass audience but the reader was left without options. As a follow up: interviews with her co-workers and would be helpful in gathering a more realistic and holistic perspective of the life of the working poor in America.
They both apply in different sphere; the first determination refers to work related aspects e.g. professional codes of conduct, employer policies and all relevant procedures according to which ”we needs to perform our daily duties”, as the second one applies to private life. In our ‘working relationship’ we are friendly to other colleagues, individual service users or ...
Poverty consists in feeling poor.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ehrenreich, B. (2001).
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
Kristiansen, C. “Psychology 3101: Social Problems.” Carleton University, Class Lecture. Ottawa, ON. 11 Sep. – 13 Nov., 2007.
Mancuso, D.C., Lindler, V.L. (2001).
Examining the circumstances of welfare leavers and sanctioned families in Sonoma county. The Sphere Institute.