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Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America is a book that takes a sociological look at the "working poor" in America. Authored by Barbara Ehrenreich, the book peers into the lives of American women who were forced back into the labor market following welfare reform[?]. "Working poor" refers to an economic class within society that is employed, but is hampered in its ability to achieve financial stability, and is said to "live from paycheck to paycheck."


During a lunch conversation with Lewis Laplam, editor of Harper's magazine, Ehrenreich proposes a journalistic approach to the effects of welfare reform, an infiltration of the "unskilled" work market; unbeknownst to her, she would be the one investigating. Securing funds for unexpected expenses, approximately $1000, she leaves her home and her middle-class existence, with a few personal items and her car, for a few months of low wage work.

Starting off in her backyard, Ehrenreich searches for lodging and a job in neighboring Key West, Florida. Securing jobs at two restaurants, "Jerry's" and "Hearthside", fictitiously named, in consonance with other locations and people throughout the book, and a one-day housekeeping[?] stint, she works for two weeks before succumbing to an extremely busy night at Jerry's; after walking out mid-shift, Ehrenreich heads to Portland, Maine, sans automobile, for a fresh start.

Beginning anew, Ehrenreich lands two more jobs after a four day search, one as a dietary aide at a nursing home[?] and another as a maid at a cleaning franchise. Unable to deal with work overload and work-related stress, she heads to her final destination, Minneapolis, Minnesota where she works at Walmart before ultimately ending her investigation. With the odds stacked on her side, a college education culminating with a PhD in biology, a car, only one person to support, and initial funds, Ehrenreich fails to sustain a suitable lifestyle.

Social Issues

Throughout the exposť, Ehrenreich combats the "too lazy to work" and "a job will defeat poverty" ideals held by many middle and upper-class citizens. Highlighting problems with the argument, Ehrenreich reveals many of the difficulties associated with low wage jobs.

She argues "personality" tests, questionnaires designed to weed out "incompatible" potential employees, and urine tests, increasingly common in the low wage market, deter potential applicants and violate liberties while managerial apathy and austereness contribute to class separation and promote an unhealthy, stressful work environment. Constant and repeated movement create or contribute to repetitive stress injury, pain often worked through to hold a job in a market constantly turning over; Ehrenreich reports that "help needed" signs don't necessarily indicate an opening, more often their purpose is to recruit applicants in an effort to sustain a large worker pool. She also argues one low wage job is often not enough to support one person let alone a family; with inflating housing prices and stagnant wages, this practice increasingly becomes difficult to maintain. Many of the workers encountered in the book are forced to live with relatives, strangers in the same position, or in their cars in parking lots.


A New York Times bestseller, Nickel and Dimed has its fair share of critics. Many question some of the decisions she makes while investigating. Among the debated is her decision to live alone instead of amongst other low wage workers, a decision that costs her money each week and contributes to her failure in each of the three cities. Others argue she failed solely to support her notion of the impossibility of her situation and buttress her thesis citing her decision to travel long distances for work, some expensive purchases including many fast food meals, and her failure in taking a higher paying job in Minneapolis. Her decision to smoke pot, not officially stated but discernible by her three day "detox" before two urine tests, a liberal slant, and an anti-corporate attitude, feelings conveyed by her continual demeaning references, round out most other criticism of the book.

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