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

views updated

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




When one is charged a little bit at a time until the expense grows beyond expectations, that is called being "nickel and dimed." In 2001's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, essayist and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich applies this notion to minimum-wage workers. She argues that their spirit and dignity are chipped away by a culture that allows unjust and unlivable working conditions, which results in their becoming a de facto, or actual without being official, servant class. Spurred on by recent welfare reforms and the growing phenomenon of the working poor in the United States, Ehrenreich poses a hypothetical question of daily concern to many Americans: how difficult is it to live on a minimum-wage job? For the lower class, what does it take to match the income one earns to the expenses one must pay?

Rather than simply listen to other people's accounts, Ehrenreich herself assumes the role of a minimum-wage worker. In different states and in several different jobs, she attempts three times to live for one month at minimum wage, giving up her middle-class comforts to experience the overlooked hardships of a large sector of America. While she freely admits that hers is an unusual situation, she stresses it is also a best-case scenario; others face many more difficulties in their daily lives, such as the lack of available transportation. Due to an accessible style and subject matter, Nickel and Dimed became a bestseller that helped restart dialogue on the current state of American work, American values, and the consequences of letting a national emergency remain unacknowledged for too long.


Though Barbara Ehrenreich is best known for her 2001 investigation of the working poor, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, her career as a journalist and social critic spans three decades.

Barbara Alexander was born August 26, 1941 in Butte, Montana, the daughter of New Deal Democrats. (The New Deal was legislation presented by President Roosevelt in the wake of the Great Depression. It was based on the idea that the government should intervene to help stabilize the economy.) She earned a bachelor's degree in chemical physics from Reed College in 1964 and a Ph.D. in cell biology at Rockefeller University. While at Rockefeller, she met her first husband, John Ehrenreich, and became involved in both the antiwar movement and the cause for improving health care for low-income families. This led to two collaborations between the Ehrenreichs: Long March, Short Spring: The Student Uprising at Home and Abroad (1969) and The American Health Empire: Power, Profits, and Politics, a Report from the Health Policy Advisory Center (1971). With Deirdre English, she wrote two more books on health care and one about advice literature, For Her Own Good: One Hundred Fifty Years of the Experts' Advice on Women (1978). With husband John, she wrote the influential essay "The Professional-Managerial Class," which explored the importance of having left-leaning, or liberal, middle-class intellectuals work with the traditional left of the lower-income working class. She would return to this topic in 1989's Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, examining the professional-managerial class's retreat from liberalism (political ideal that the purpose of government is to ensure individual liberties) and the growing rift between classes.

As the conservative Reagan era ushered in the 1980s, Ehrenreich maintained a vigorous liberal perspective while breaking into mainstream media, contributing to the New York Times since 1983 and writing a regular column for Time from 1991 to 1997. Her concerns about feminism, class, and social injustice were expressed in such books as The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment (1983), and Re-making Love: The Feminization of Sex (1986). In the 1990s, Ehrenreich wrote a fiction novel, Kipper's Game (1994), and published two essay collections: The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed (1990) and The Snarling Citizen (1995). Published in 1997, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War was an ambitious, far-ranging look at violence and its role in society.

Ehrenreich married her second husband, Gary Stevenson, in 1983. She has two children from her first marriage. She has served as vice-chair and honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the United States.


Introduction: Getting Ready

The idea for Nickel and Dimed is hatched when Barbara Ehrenreich lunches with Harper's editor Lewis Lapham. She suggests that somebody should investigate living on minimum wage from the inside: that is, actually living on a minimum wage and reporting the experience. Lapham agrees and says the person should be Ehrenreich herself. The assignment involves working at minimum-wage jobs for one month at a time to see if she can match her earnings to her expenses.

Ehrenreich has misgivings. She is from a working-class background and has no desire to return to her roots. People around her suggest that she can recreate the situation of minimum wage without going through the actual hardships. However, she finally agrees to the assignment by imagining it as a scientific experiment. In this spirit, she sets up ground rules: first, she cannot rely on skills derived from her education or her work as a writer; second, she must take the highest paying job possible and actually work; and third, she must find the cheapest living conditions for herself. In retrospect, she admits these rules were not always observed. Ehrenreich sets up other parameters as well: she will always have a car, will never go homeless, and will not go hungry.

Ehrenreich acknowledges that she is different from many of the people she will be working with. She is financially comfortable and can walk away from her experiment if she wants. She is white and a native English speaker. She has a car. As for whether the people she deals with can tell she is different than they are, Ehrenreich confesses that the opposite was closer to the truth. Her lack of experience means she is less skilled in many situations. She does not merely pose as a minimum-wage worker; for a period of time, she is, in fact, a minimum-wage worker. The nature of every job she takes, each of which involves some form of physical labor, means that doing the job is never pretend. This fact is brought home by the anticlimactic responses from co-workers when she tells them she is really a writer.

Ehrenreich makes no claim for the typicality of her experience; however, she stresses that hers was a best-case scenario and many others live in far worse situations.

One: Serving in Florida

Ehrenreich decides to stay close to home for her first experiment, looking for work in Key West, Florida. She begins by finding a place to live: staying in Key West is too expensive, so she finds an efficiency apartment thirty miles away. Next, she sets out to find work, filling out applications at various hotels and supermarkets. She aces a computerized exam for a Winn-Dixie supermarket but declines to take a drug test, feeling the pay Winn-Dixie offers is not worth the indignity. After three days of searching, she is hired as a waitress at the Hearthside family restaurant.

On the first day of the job, she is trained by another waitress, Gail, who fills her in on the complexities of both the restaurant's policies and her own life. As a waitress, Ehrenreich is driven by her work ethic and a growing attachment to the customers she serves. Unfortunately, her hopes for a steady month of working as a waitress are disrupted by two things.

First, the restaurant's management is perceived by the rest of the staff as serving corporate interests instead of customers. When a mandatory meeting is called, it is so the manager, Phillip, can complain about the messiness of the break room. Four days later, another meeting is called regarding a report of drug activity during the night shift. This necessitates drug tests for all future hires as well as random tests for current employees. The gossip among staff is that assistant manager, Stu, was the one caught with drugs.

Second, Ehrenreich realizes that, despite taking home tip money every night, she will not be able to cover expenses on her current income. Her first and most important concern is housing, and Ehrenreich explains the different problems her fellow Hearthside employees endure in that department. Some live with family or a mate; others live with multiple roommates; and still others live in their cars or rent hotel rooms on a nightly basis. This last choice seems unwise to Ehrenreich and she says this to Gail, who is considering leaving her roommate and moving into a room at the Days Inn. As Gail points out, however, she is not able to get an apartment of her own without a month's rent and deposit in advance—an impossibility on her income, and something Ehrenreich was able to manage only by starting her experiment with $1,300 in her pocket.

Ehrenreich seeks out a second job and ends up working as a waitress at Jerry's, a family restaurant attached to a motel chain. While much busier than the Hearthside, Jerry's is an unclean restaurant that lacks both a staff break room and proper facilities for employees to wash their hands. The one reprieve for employees seems to be smoking, as seen by constantly-lit cigarettes awaiting quick puffs between orders. Ehrenreich is hurt by the coldness of her fellow waitresses on her first day but discovers it is because most people do not last more than one day at this job.

Ehrenreich is determined to work at both the Hearthside and Jerry's but finds herself too exhausted to do so and chooses to stick with Jerry's. Work at Jerry's is tiring in itself, and Ehrenreich decides to handle each day as a onetime, shift-long emergency. Unfortunately, she must also deal with work-related pain, including an old back injury that has returned. When she briefly returns to her regular life, she finds herself increasingly disassociated from the "real" Barbara Ehrenreich and "that" Barbara's relatively lavish lifestyle.

Ehrenreich befriends some of the staff at Jerry's, including a young Czech dishwasher named George, whom she teaches English. Ehrenreich also decides to move to a trailer park closer to Key West in order to save time and gas, making a new second job possible. The situation at Jerry's worsens when George is accused of stealing from the dry-storage room. Ehrenreich does not speak up in his defense—a change in her personality that troubles her deeply.

She gets a second job housekeeping for the hotel attached to Jerry's. She is assigned to train with a woman named Carlie. Ehrenreich discovers the one solace in cleaning hotel rooms is watching television. She leaves her housekeeping job to wait tables at Jerry's, but the night goes badly. The cook, Jesus, is overwhelmed by the rush of orders, as is Ehrenreich when she deals with four tables arriving at once. She leaves the restaurant mid-shift and does not return. Her one regret is not giving George her tips.

Two: Scrubbing in Maine

For her next experiment, Ehrenreich chooses Maine: unlike other places, she can blend in as a minimum-wage worker despite not being a minority. She arrives on a Tuesday and books a room at a Motel 6. After some searching, she secures an apartment at the Blue Haven Motel, where she can move on Sunday.

She applies at various places for a job, including taking personality tests at both Wal-Mart and The Maids, a housecleaning service. Two days later, she gets two job offers: a weekend assignment as dietary aide at the Woodcrest Residential Facility nursing home and a weekday job at The Maids. She accepts both. She starts work at Woodcrest on Saturday and discovers that being a dietary aide involves serving meals and cleaning up afterwards. She befriends Pete, a cook, but decides to keep her distance when he seems romantically inclined toward her.

On Monday morning, Ehrenreich begins work at The Maids by watching a series of videotapes describing how to clean according to company policy. She is struck by the emphasis on creating an orderly appearance over actual cleanliness, as evidenced by the very small amount of water used when cleaning. The next day, she discovers work is much faster than depicted in the videos: a certain time is given per house, based on size and whether or not it is a first-timer needing special attention. Her co-workers do not have the same housing worries as those in Key West, but many are still at the edge of poverty.

On Friday, one of her team's assignments includes the home of Mrs. W, who ends up watching Ehrenreich as she cleans the kitchen floor on her hands and knees. Ehrenreich develops a rash but is not sure where it comes from; further, the aches and pains from her job take their toll. She makes observations on the physically damaging nature of maid work, as well as the ostentatious nature of the houses she must clean.

By the second week, Ehrenreich works regularly under team leader Holly. One day, when Holly seems ill, she confesses to Ehrenreich that she may be pregnant. Ehrenreich tries to assume more of the work to make things easier for Holly. Holly resists, though she does accept food. At one house, Ehrenreich has an accident while cleaning the kitchen, breaking a fishbowl and spilling water everywhere. Her first week's pay is held back as a matter of policy at The Maids, so she contacts several agencies to secure much-needed free groceries. That weekend, while working at the Woodcrest as a dietary aide, she has to handle the Alzheimer's ward by herself.

During Ehrenreich's third week with The Maids, Holly has an accident and injures her knee. Ehrenreich threatens a work stoppage and talks to her employer Ted about getting help for Holly, but neither Ted nor Holly will allow this. On the car ride back to the office, Ehrenreich loses her temper and embarrasses her co-workers by dismissing the Accutrac personality test's ability to screen out unfit workers. The next morning, Ted sends Holly home to recuperate. Two days later, Ted picks up Ehrenreich for a special assignment. On the drive there, he gives her a raise and talks about Holly's situation. Ehrenreich wonders why the other workers rely so heavily on Ted's praise and realizes he is the only person who will acknowledge their value.

On her last day at The Maids, she reveals to co-workers her real reason for working there. They do not seem to understand completely, but Ehrenreich takes the chance to ask how the women feel about their job and clients. The responses are not angry; they are either resigned to their lot in life or aspiring to the same lifestyle as those clients.

Three: Selling in Minnesota

Ehrenreich chooses Minneapolis for her last experiment, based on news of its robust job and housing markets. She initially stays at the apartment of friends who are away on a trip, in exchange for watching their pet cockatiel Budgie. Deciding to explore factory or retail work and become more aggressive with the application process, Ehrenreich succeeds in getting jobs at a Wal-Mart and a Menards housewares store. Unfortunately, both require a drug test, and Ehrenreich has recently smoked marijuana. She tries to detoxify by drinking a great deal of water and buying products designed to clear one's system.

Although her initial search for housing is discouraging, Ehrenreich takes time out to meet Carolina, a relative of a friend. Carolina has done in real life what Ehrenreich pretends to do with her experiments: relocated from one state to another to start a new life at minimum wage. Ehrenreich and Caroline bond and become friends. On Monday, Ehrenreich goes to her drug tests and, still unsure of the results, goes to a group interview for a company seeking independent sales staff. The search for affordable housing grows more desperate, but she is promised an apartment at the Hopkins Park Plaza when it opens up. Meanwhile, she reserves a room at the Twin Lakes, a residential hotel.

Menards contacts Ehrenreich and tells her to report for orientation on Wednesday morning. When she does, she is told she will be paid ten dollars an hour. Roberta from Wal-Mart contacts Ehrenreich to tell her she passed the drug test and will be paid seven dollars an hour. While Menards is the better choice, Ehrenreich attends Wal-Mart's orientation out of caution and curiosity. She finds the day-long process intimidating: the history and unmatched growth of Wal-Mart is conveyed along with the service-oriented philosophy, anti-union policy, and the importance of preventing time-theft, or doing anything non-work related during a shift.

Ehrenreich goes to her first day of work at Menards; she discovers she must work eleven-hour shifts and that ten dollars may not be her hourly pay rate after all. Ehrenreich refuses these conditions and opts for Wal-Mart, something she will rationalize in the coming weeks. She leaves her friends' apartment, but finds the Twin Lakes has rented her reserved room to someone else. This forces her to stay at the Clearview Inn for a week, which is cheaper than Twin Lakes but also less safe.

The following Monday, Ehrenreich reports for work at Wal-Mart and is assigned to the women's clothing department. Her task is to keep the area orderly, something that requires a familiarity with the department layout as well as the different brands and styles. While the task itself is not difficult, the volume of clothes to sort and order can be overwhelming. Her shift is changed in the second week from 10:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m. to the closing shift of 2:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m., and the shopping takes on a more frenzied pace. Though Ehrenreich resents customers, concentrating on the clothing gives her a sense of focus and dedication. An incident where a co-worker criticizes her performance has Ehrenreich worried that the person she is becoming under these work conditions is not the same person she is in real life.

On the day Ehrenreich believes she can move into the Hopkins Park Plaza, she is told she cannot move in until the following week. Again without a home, she stays at a Comfort Inn for two nights. She seeks housing advice from the Community Emergency Assistance Program, where she is simply told to live in a shelter until she can afford an apartment. The following Saturday at Wal-Mart, Ehrenreich makes a breakthrough and finds herself not needing to think so much in order to accomplish her tasks. This leaves her the time to wonder why people do such work in the first place. Ehrenreich now tries to change the opinions of her co-workers and galvanize them to change the company. She talks about the importance of a union to co-workers individually as well as at a staff meeting. Though Ehrenreich does not truly believe that a union is possible, she is given hope when she hears of a strike being held at several hotels. Ehrenreich commits time-theft to follow up on possible housing, but with no results. She decides to end her experiment prematurely and quit Wal-Mart. She tells her co-worker Melissa of this and of the book she is writing, and Melissa decides to quit as well. On her last break, she watches TV news about the hotel strike, and a co-worker in the break room suggests a union would be good for Wal-Mart as well.


Ehrenreich assesses how she did in the three experiments. She concludes that she did well at her jobs, stressing that there is no such thing as unskilled labor, as every job has specific demands and skill sets that must be learned. Her ability at work, however, is distinct from how she did in making ends meet; she believes she came closest in making earnings match expenses in Maine and was least sure of this goal in Minnesota.

Ehrenreich then examines the general social issues underlying her experiences. The constant problem of housing is caused by the rich competing with the poor for living space, with the rich inevitably coming out on top. And though market forces drive rent up, the same cannot be said for wages available to the lower class. While the legal minimum wage and actual wages earned have both risen for the lowest ten percent of workers, Ehrenreich believes it is not nearly enough. Employers will do anything to avoid raising wages, such as providing minor benefits that can be taken away more easily when costs tighten. Further, minimum-wage employees do not have the same resources as other workers to allow independent comparison of wages and job markets. Even if they did, their ability to change work situations is often restricted by outside concerns such as home environment, transportation, and second jobs. An innate desire to please management helps keep low-wage workers compliant; further, common infringement on civil liberties such as drug testing and searches of private property help to psychologically intimidate workers.

In effect, Ehrenreich argues that low-wage workers inhabit a world that is neither free nor democratic, despite the common idea of America as a land of choice and opportunity. In order to lead a secure and comfortable (but by no means extravagant) life, she estimates that a family of one adult and two children requires $30,000 a year. This is twice as much as low-wage workers actually earn. Ehrenreich concludes that the top twenty percent of American earners, which includes the professional-managerial class, exerts an unequal amount of power over America than the rest of the nation. They set the country's agenda, and they have decided to hide the plight of the working poor. In setting aside their own concerns for the concerns of the people they serve, Ehrenreich claims that the working poor "are in fact the major philanthropists of our society" and will someday resist this role. After the turmoil of this predicted revolt, everyone will be better off.


  • Nickel and Dimed was adapted as a theatrical stage play in 2002 by playwright Joan Holden. Originally presented in Seattle by director Bartlett Sher and artistic adviser Anna Deavere Smith, it has since been performed by various companies across the nation.



B.J. is a manager at Jerry's restaurant, where Ehrenreich holds her second waitressing job. She has a blunt, thoughtless demeanor. She advises Ehrenreich that interaction with customers is slowing her down and that customers must be treated as a sort of enemy to getting the job done.


Though its owners gave the bird a different name, Ehrenreich gave the name Budgie to the cockatiel she must watch in return for temporary housing in Minnesota.


Carlie is a housekeeper at the hotel attached to Jerry's restaurant. She trains Ehrenreich to be a housekeeper after the author takes on a second job to make ends meet. An older African American woman, Carlie is resigned to her job and seeks solace in the television shows she watches while cleaning the rooms.


Carolina is the aunt of a friend of Ehrenreich's who had done what Ehrenreich is attempting with her move to Minnesota: Carolina actually moved across the country to start a new life. She boarded a Greyhound bus with her two small children and left New York for Florida, all on a minimum-wage salary. She is the only worker whose home life Ehrenreich describes in detail.


Colleen is a cleaner for The Maids. She states that she is not jealous of her clients' lifestyles but wishes her own life was slightly easier.

Barbara Ehrenreich

The author and narrator, Ehrenreich is also the central character in the book: the journalist conducting experiments on survival through minimum-wage employment. She is the only character to appear in more than one chapter, since each chapter takes place in a different city and work situation. Ehrenreich is a staunch supporter of progressive left, or liberal, values; she believes in fixing inequities in American society that harm groups such as women and the lower class, even if these remedies compromise unregulated capitalism and democracy. While her background in science makes her approach her investigations as experiments, there are other motivations behind her actions worth noting. She is curious about her own ability to survive and also wishes to illustrate how difficult it is to live under minimum-wage conditions. Due to the nature of her experiment and the changes in her personality from the work and living conditions, the character of Barbara Ehrenreich is at times quite different from the narrator in her beliefs and perspective. For example, the Ehrenreich in the experiment is afraid of tunnel vision regarding her work—something the narrator Ehrenreich notes but does not herself suffer.


Gail is a waitress at the Hearthside restaurant whom Ehrenreich befriends. She, along with most of her co-workers, has difficulties finding acceptable housing; this limits her ability to secure a better job. When Ehrenreich leaves Key West, she turns over to Gail her deposit and house key to the trailer she had been renting.


George is a nineteen-year-old Czech dishwasher at Jerry's restaurant whom Ehrenreich befriends and teaches English. When he is accused of stealing from a dry-storage room, Ehrenreich does not come to his defense.


Holly is a team leader for The Maids. She is pregnant and sick but refuses to stop working. Her refusal to give in to illness or weakness comes from several factors: fear of the consequences if she does not work, financial need, pride in the work that she does, and a desire to please her employer, Ted.


An assistant manager at Wal-Mart, Howard is an enforcer of company policies and an example of the way corporations implicitly encourage the intimidation of employees.


A young, inexperienced cook at Jerry's restaurant, Jesus' failure to keep up with incoming orders reinforces Ehrenreich's decision to leave her job mid-shift.


Joy is a manager at Jerry's restaurant whose abrasive treatment of employees contributes to Ehrenreich leaving the job in the middle of a shift.

Lewis Lapham

Lapham is Ehrenreich's editor at Harper's magazine. He is the one who takes her idea for a story about somebody trying to live on minimum wage and suggests that person should be Ehrenreich herself.


Linda is Ehrenreich's supervisor at the Woodcrest Residential Facility. She is approximately thirty years old and works with Ehrenreich on her first day as they serve breakfast to the residents in the locked Alzheimer's ward.


Lori is a cleaner for The Maids who befriends Ehrenreich and aspires to live a life as good as her clients.


Another cleaner for The Maids who befriends Ehrenreich, Marge is resigned to her work situation and refuses to assist Ehrenreich's attempt to help Holly after she is injured and needs time off.


A Wal-Mart employee assigned to the ladies' wear department, Melissa befriends Ehrenreich and leaves the company at the same time Ehrenreich does.


Paul is the listless manager in the personnel office of Menards who interviews and hires Ehrenreich. She turns the job down when she learns that she will have to work eleven-hour shifts for less money than she was originally told.


Pete is a cook at the Woodcrest Residential Facility who befriends Ehrenreich and initially has romantic inclinations toward her.


Phillip is the West Indian manager of the Hearthside restaurant who hires Ehrenreich. His lack of concern for or connection with Ehrenreich is emblematic of the disregard management often holds for low-wage employees.


A manager at a Wal-Mart in Minneapolis, Roberta hires and helps train Ehrenreich. She is an example of a true believer in Wal-Mart and its philosophy, which she says is the same as her own.


Stu is an assistant manager at the Hearthside restaurant who is rumored by the staff to be taking drugs at work. She later learns that he has been fired.


Tammy is the office manager of The Maids; she is the person who deals with clients and their requests. In Ehrenreich's view, she keeps the clients from having to deal with the harsher, more intimate realities of employing people to clean one's homes.


Ted is the owner of The Maids franchise for which Ehrenreich works. He believes himself to be a fair employer and his workers seek his approval, yet the policies he enforces are not as fair to his employees as he thinks. Ehrenreich suspects that he is trying to use her to get information on troublesome employees.

Mrs. W

Mrs. W is a client of The Maids who is present when Ehrenreich's team comes to clean her house. For Ehrenreich, she is a symbol of the worst impulses of the upper and middle class—unconcerned with the suffering of minimum-wage workers as long as they make her own life easier.


Employment and Economics

Nickel and Dimed focuses squarely on the workplace of the lower class: minimum-wage jobs that often involve providing service for others. All the other themes in the book spring from concerns about employment—work conditions, management styles of those in charge of low-wage workers, and the problem of minimum-wage work and whether it is possible to survive in modern America at that level of earning. The book also explores the humane side of economics, asking the question, how does one survive on a minimum-wage job in America? The very title of the work suggests that even the smallest changes in finances can have a debilitating effect for the lower class, whether it is the pay one earns or the cost of everyday living expenses. This is often illustrated in the dollars-and-cents accountings Ehrenreich gives of how much she earns, how much she spends on necessities such as rent and food, and the minor extra expenses she cannot help, such as medicine and painkillers for work-related injuries.

Ehrenreich believes that some basic human needs are not met for lower-class workers, even if they have full-time jobs. The amount earned does not match the actual expenses incurred, most notably in housing. Minimum-wage work makes it difficult to gather the funds for a lease on an apartment, and compromises of various sorts are often made. Throughout Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich scrambles to find the right balance in her housing: affordable, close to work, and safe. Often, at least one of these criterion ends up being forfeited, as she depends on trailer parks and resident hotels to provide reasonable housing. Further, the extreme measures of screening and surveillance often imposed on workers make just keeping a job a stressful affair and encourage a more compliant workforce. Workers are, thus, not only unsure if their jobs can truly support them, they are also unsure if their jobs will always be there.

Culture Clash

Ehrenreich perceives cultural differences between classes, enough that her forays into lower-class life feel like a different world to her. Within the experiences that encompass lower-class life, she is further concerned about fitting into every workplace of which she is a part, and every workplace is a unique microcosm to which she must adapt. If anything, Ehrenreich's true life as a middle-class writer has made her fit into minimum wage even more alienating, calling up a different set of behaviors and assumptions that she comments upon throughout the book. She understands that being accepted by her co-workers is essential in order to survive, and that a support system within the workplace is one of the tools that make minimum-wage jobs tolerable, if not desirable.

Pain and Suffering

Ehrenreich stresses the physical difficulties in the kind of labor she performs for these experiments. Her health is often in jeopardy, and yet she cannot do everything in her power to heal and become well. She is limited to what she can afford and what she can access after work hours. She often relates how a minor injury that could be nurtured into recovery in her middle-class life can become a major crisis for the lower class, who have fewer options in health care and are more reliant on hourly wages that can be lost if they take time out to recover. This particular point is brought home by Holly of The Maids, whose sickness and injury demand better care than she allows for herself—partly because she cannot afford decent health care, but also because her commitment to her job, misguided as it may be, does not allow her to stop working.


Ehrenreich believes that the way to address the issue of the working poor and lower-class survival is to look at the people, not the demographics and statistics. Many minimum-wage jobs are of a service nature, and Ehrenreich implies that lower-class citizens have become a de facto servant class in a nation that claims to treat all its members equally. The purpose behind Nickel and Dimed is to illustrate, in vividly human terms, the difficulties and suffering of this overlooked group. However, Ehrenreich's empathy often wears thin as she grows tired of the apparent complacency of her co-workers, even in the face of unjust employment practices. Ehrenreich is alarmed at how basic human dignity is taken away by the working conditions of the lower class. The search of personal possessions, scrutiny through personality tests, and especially drug testing are, in Ehrenreich's mind, all violations of civil rights. She finds a deep, troubling irony that a nation that prides itself on freedom encourages such strong-arm authoritarian tactics on a majority of its citizens. This tension between empathy and exasperation is, arguably, emblematic of the progressive left's relationship with the working class.

Identity and Self

Ehrenreich is troubled by the changes that occur during her experiences leading a working-class life. A middle-class woman who came from a working-class background, she believes that the person she is now is quite different from the person she would have become if her family had remained working class. While working at Wal-Mart, however, she believes that she meets the "original Barb" in herself, "the one who might have ended up working at Wal-Mart for real" if her life had gone differently. Barb, Ehrenreich thinks, is not like the "real" her: "she's meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I'd hoped."

Limitations and Opportunities

Ehrenreich argues that minimum-wage work is the best that many lower-class citizens can hope to achieve in their lives. As a result, there is a clear limit to the lifestyle they can lead and the opportunities that are open to them. Ehrenreich consciously deprives herself of many of the comforts in her life, but she does this only temporarily and out of choice. The people she encounters in the book are not as lucky, often working and living in conditions that have not improved for years and may never improve.


  • Compare Nickel and Dimed as a work of investigative journalism to another well-known work where the author goes underground to experience the truth of a disenfranchised group, such as Jack London's The People of the Abyss or John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me. How does Ehrenreich compare as an investigator in the commitment to getting to the truth? What does each investigator do to become a part of the group? How does assuming this new role change the way each author understands society? In what way does this new role change the understanding of self and identity? Write a three-page report comparing and contrasting these two books.
  • Research the history of welfare in the United States from President Roosevelt's Social Security Act of 1935 to the 1996 reform and the present. What are the major landmarks in this history? What changes have occurred, and what brought about those changes? What assumptions seem to underlie welfare in each stage of its history? Based on your research, what future do you see for welfare in America? What role can welfare play in our nation? What role should it play? Create a detailed timeline that not only measures the landmarks in welfare, but notes possible social assumptions and political concerns that informed them.
  • How are minimum-wage workers portrayed today? Consider as wide a range of depictions as you can, from news to movies to music to video games. Are there any patterns in terms of race, gender, or work situation? Are there any specific character traits given to minimum-wage workers that set them apart from other people? What communities or settings are they found in and, if a particular example has a plot, what is their role in the story? Create a five-minute presentation of two specific depictions that includes visual aids and, when helpful, plot synopses.
  • Pick a group that you would like to investigate by immersing yourself into its world, as Ehrenreich did with minimum-wage workers. How would you go about performing a similar investigation? What would you need to change—or hide—about yourself to be able to immerse into the group? What methods would you employ to get the information? Write a one-page investigation plan that lays out your investigative preparations in detail, along with what you hope to accomplish through your investigation.


Episodic Chapters

The structure of Nickel and Dimed is straightforward: each of her month-long experiments takes up a single chapter, making each chapter an episode in an extended quest. This helps reinforce the idea that each month-long experience is a distinct world of its own and that all these worlds are separate from the reality of Ehrenreich's normal life. These three main chapters are bookended by two considerably shorter chapters. "Introduction: Getting Ready" explains the genesis, or origin, of the experiment, as well as the rules Ehrenreich applies to her project. In the final chapter, "Analysis," Ehrenreich presents what she learned from all three experiments and proposes changes that could help make life at minimum wage more manageable and humane. The two bookend chapters take place within Ehrenreich's real life as a writer and social critic. "Introduction" involves a meeting with an editor, while "Analysis" describes briefly her return to that life and the sense of dislocation at how her experimental lives have vanished. In this way, the structure of the book is similar to a quest: the action begins with the assumption of a goal (an answer to the question of matching minimum-wage earnings to a minimum-wage lifestyle); the main character—Ehrenreich herself—makes three excursions to alternate worlds as the goal is sought; and the book ends with a return to normalcy as the goal is completed.

Investigative Journalism

Investigative journalists expose injustice through extensive investigation and then propose a remedy to eradicate it. In Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich sets her sights on the plight of the working poor. Though investigative journalism does not always call for the writer to fully immerse himself or herself into the situation or event he or she is covering, Ehrenreich's first-person experiences bring verisimilitude, or a quality of truth, to the book. She does not pay much heed to journalistic objectivity, in part because she is immersed in her situation, but also because she has clear political beliefs that are at the heart of her career as a social critic and essayist.

Scientific Experiment

Ehrenreich repeatedly frames her investigation as a scientific experiment and, less often, herself as the test subject. This not only emphasizes Ehrenreich's training as a biologist but also provides a necessary distance between herself and her experiences. The distance allows her to write more objectively, but it is also an unstated admission that her experiences are artificially constructed. She acknowledges that she is unable to mimic completely the realities of minimum-wage life, in part by refusing, even for the sake of the experiment, to go without food, a home, or a car. And because it is an experiment, her experiences as a low-wage worker are not a lifestyle, like so many people she encounters, but a research trial with a defined end-date.

At times throughout the book, she carefully categorizes aspects of her lower-class lifestyle or minimum-wage job—often to humorous effect, but also to convey the complexity of her situation and her work assignments. For example, Ehrenreich explains how being a waitress is not simply about serving meals; it is about all the different tasks involved in keeping a restaurant orderly and prepared. If these tasks are not taken care of in a timely manner, serving meals becomes much more difficult when the dinner rush arrives. In this way, she shows that life for the working poor is not a haphazard situation but a set of definable factors that influence one another, often with unforeseen consequences.


Ehrenreich is not only the narrator but, in a sense, the protagonist, or main character, of the book. Thus, Nickel and Dimed also works as a kind of memoir, an account of a very specific phase in her life. Indeed, Ehrenreich spends the three different months conducting experiments as belonging to the life of another Barbara—the one who would have existed if her parents had never made the transition from lower class to middle class. This Barbara, eventually dubbed Barb after her Wal-Mart name tag, develops concerns and behaviors different from the "real" Barbara she left behind. While it is the "real" Barbara who narrates the novel, we are given many insights into how Barb thinks and feels, often in an embarrassing and self-revelatory manner.

Humor as Criticism

An accomplished essayist, Ehrenreich often makes her best and most accessible points about the difficulties and injustices of her minimum-wage experiences by describing them in a humorous fashion. Often, she uses self-deprecation to describe her difficulties at learning a new job and to deflate her middle-class assumptions. Since she is intent on discovering the larger meaning of her situation, she often employs hyperbole, or exaggeration, and reductio ad absurdum (reducing a statement or belief into a logical absurdity) to expose the injustices committed in the workplace. For example, she makes fun of personality tests to highlight how they are phrased to elicit contradictory impulses that best suit a compliant workforce (e.g., having enough initiative to not be lazy but not so much initiative as to be a threat). By focusing on the more amusing aspects of her experiments, Ehrenreich is able to provide respite from the grim truths about lower-class life, making her account of those truths more palatable to a wide audience.


Prosperity in America

Nickel and Dimed was written during a time of great economic prosperity for the United States. This is best exemplified by the Internet boom that resulted in young entrepreneurs becoming overnight millionaires. Whether one is an Internet wizard, rap recording artist, stockbroker, or entrepreneur, the notion of self-initiative leading to unbridled success has never been more evident than in recent decades. Technology has created a wider range of comforts and productivity tools for those who can afford them, while changes in social mores, or attitudes, have made individual independence a more important value than the needs of the community.

This notion of rising through the classes, from lower-class origins to upper-class success, was first made popular in the books of Horatio Alger. These dozens of books, with titles like Struggling Upward and Risen from the Ranks, published from 1867 through the dawn of the twentieth century, all share the same theme: a poor young man, through virtue and hard work, can become a rich man. Although Alger himself never became a rich man, his books were found in a large number of Victorian homes. He has also been noted as an early influence for many entrepreneurs of the early twentieth century. In addition, the main theme of his books—that through hard work, anyone can succeed in America—has been adopted as a distinctly American ideal.

Welfare Reform Legislation

A national welfare program was instituted as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's Social Security Act in 1935 and has helped support the American poor in the decades since. Ehrenreich was partially inspired to write Nickel and Dimed by changes in welfare laws that were passed in 1996. The Personal Responsibility Act more than halved the number of people receiving welfare: in 1996, there were 12.2 million recipients, while in 2001, when the book was published, there were 5.3 million. This would seem to indicate a success in making lower-class workers more self-sufficient, but that is not how critics interpret the results. As Sharon Hays argues in Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform

While 84 percent of desperately poor (welfare-eligible) families had received benefits prior to the passage of the Personal Responsibility Act, by 2001 less than half of them did. This means that millions of parents and children in America were living on incomes lower than half the poverty level and not receiving the benefits for which they were technically eligible.

Further, the number of working poor, meaning people who have full-time jobs but still live at or near the poverty line, has grown in recent years as the support of welfare is no longer readily available to assist them.

Corporate Dominance

After an 1886 Supreme Court decision granted corporations many of the rights previously held only by individual citizens, corporations have flourished in the United States. This corporate personhood can provide many business advantages, though critics have long argued that it gives too many rights to corporations. This, as recent corporate scandals attest, can lead to great profit without anyone being personally responsible for how the profit is generated.

As corporations began to dominate American industry, smaller businesses had a difficult time competing in an aggressive marketplace. As more and more small businesses vanished, corporations became ever-present to fill consumer needs. Wal-Mart, the largest retailer and employer in the United States, is a perfect example of this corporate dominance. Indeed, this phenomenon has even been referred to as the Wal-Marting of America. Corporate advocates argue that big companies like Wal-Mart provide a consistent, affordable consumer experience that just cannot be matched by small businesses. Critics argue that corporations, driven solely by profit, sacrifice employee well-being for increased earnings. Through their decision-making executives, these same corporations actively resist the federal increase of the minimum wage and explicitly discourage the formation of employee labor unions.

Some communities, including several in California and Illinois, have successfully rallied to bar the opening of Wal-Marts in their area. Wal-Mart has also faced numerous charges of unfair business practices, including the largest class action suit in U.S. history for sexual discrimination of its female workers.


Nickel and Dimed fits clearly in a tradition of investigative journalism where the writer infiltrates a marginalized group, posing as one of them to find out what life is truly like. The best-known examples of such works are Jack London's People of the Abyss, George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, and John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me. All are mentioned by various critics when assessing Ehrenreich's book.

Many critics praise Ehrenreich for writing about the plight of the working poor, calling attention to a facet of America that is often overlooked and underrepresented. Joni Scott from the Humanist considers the book an "important literary contribution and call to action that I hope is answered." Scott also states that the book "should be required reading for corporate executives and politicians." In Off Our Backs, Kya Ogyn notes that the author "succeeds beautifully" in demonstrating that "the problem lies in the system of low-paid work, not in the workers."

Moreover, Ehrenreich does this with an approach and style that make her topic engaging. As Steve Early notes in the Nation, "Ehrenreich has long been a rarity on the left—a radical writer with great wit and a highly accessible style." Scott Sherman, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, is among those who see Nickel and Dimed as an evolution in Ehrenreich's abilities as a writer:

For Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed is something of a literary triumph. Her essays, while frequently incisive and hilarious, seem one-dimensional when read in large doses. And while her books are absorbing and original, the writing isn't always stylish. Nickel and Dimed, however, shows us a veteran journalist at the very top of her game. The book has a sturdy architecture: four tight, compact chapters in which the prose achieves a perfect balance between wit, anger, melancholy, and rage.

However, some have questioned whether Ehrenreich's work does anything more than state the obvious. As Julia M. Klein writes in the American Prospect:

In the end, what has she accomplished? It's no shock that the dollars don't add up; that affordable housing is hard, if not impossible, to find; and that taking a second job is a virtual necessity for many of the working poor. Ehrenreich is too busy scrubbing floors to give us more than a passing glimpse of the people in that world.

Jane Yager, writing in Dollars & Sense, raises another issue. Although the book is an effective portrayal of low-wage living, Yager states, "It's hard to figure out what the book aims to accomplish." Beyond making wealthy readers feel bad, "the book offers no specific directives for what the now-properly-chastised affluent reader should do."

Several other criticisms have also been raised. Yager notes that the idea of a well-off woman pretending to be poor "could easily seem self-indulgent and offensive" in much the same way that Black Like Me has been criticized. In addition, Yager points out that readers may leave the book with the misguided notion that "if American low-wage workers are worse off now than they were 30 years ago, this must just be because bosses have become nastier individuals." Also, despite her recognition of Ehrenreich's accomplishments, Ogyn states that "the book contains numerous disdainful comments" about overweight people.


Ray Mescallado

Mescallado has studied literature and pop culture, writing extensively on these topics for academic and popular venues. In this essay, Mescallado considers Ehrenreich's book in terms of bridging the gap between the middle and lower class. What looks on the surface to be an attempt to erase class differences actually reinforces them.

For all the compelling claims Barbara Ehrenreich makes in Nickel and Dimed about the working poor of America, there is one issue she is oddly quiet about: what can be done to bridge the gap between classes. The book seems to address this with its very premise; deciding to work and live as one of the lower class, Ehrenreich made more of an effort than most middle-class people would even consider. Upon close reading, however, Nickel and Dimed often reinforces class tensions instead of erasing them. Class is not only about different degrees of wealth, but also different perspectives and experiences. For all her success as a worker and survivor, Ehrenreich is still a middle-class woman in a lower-class world, and that influences how she tells her story as well as how we read her book.

Nickel and Dimed is a personal book about a public problem; that is a key part of its appeal. Time and again, Ehrenreich mentions the physical pain she suffers as a result of her work. All of us can sympathize when bodies are forced beyond their limits. She writes to great effect about human dignity, something robbed too often by the draconian, or extremely harsh, measures imposed on such workers. We all want to keep our self-respect and have others respect us as well. Unfortunately, even these aspects of life are not understood the same way by different classes. One of her clients at The Maids, a physical trainer, tries to be friendly and suggests that cleaning house is a good workout. Ehrenreich laments that she "can't explain that this form of exercise is totally asymmetrical, brutally repetitive, and as likely to destroy the musculoskeletal structure as to strengthen it."

This encounter highlights the difficulty of crossing class lines, as Ehrenreich describes in her 1989 book, Fear of Falling:

Even the middle-class left, where the spirit is most willing, has an uneven record of reaching out across the lines of class. Left and right, we are still locked in by a middle-class culture that is almost wholly insular, self-referential, and in its own way, parochial. We seldom see the "others" except as projections of our own anxieties or instruments of our ambition, and even when seeing them—as victims, "cases," or exemplars of some archaic virtue—seldom hear.

Despite being aware of the problem, Ehrenreich falls into this trap repeatedly in Nickel and Dimed. As alarming as the trainer's attitude is, Ehrenreich believes herself unable to say what she thinks, to speak in terms that the woman can understand. It is an opportunity when Ehrenreich can bridge the gap between classes but fails to do so. This reluctance is rooted in part by her own class anxieties, as fear of slippage weighs heavily throughout the book. When she gets hired for her first minimum-wage job and is told to report the next day, she becomes uneasy: "[S]omething between fear and indignation rises in my chest. I want to say, 'Thank you for your time, sir, but this is just an experiment, you know, not my actual life.'"

Towards the end of her three-city quest for working-class insight, she ponders how different her working-class self is from her professional-managerial class self. She draws a clear distinction between the Barbara of her normal life and the "Barb" of her Wal-Mart assignment: "Take away the career and the higher education, and maybe what you're left with is the original Barb, the one who might have ended up working at Wal-Mart for real." She notes that Barb is like a slightly less-civilized version of herself, "meaner and slyer … and not quite as smart as I hoped."

If there is any ongoing conflict between characters, then, it is the tense standoff between Barb and Barbara. Ehrenreich's experiences are so compelling to herself and her readers that we often do not notice—or at least, we do not find it odd—how she does not hear her co-workers as much as she simply describes her own woes. Thus, what makes Nickel and Dimed an engaging read also reduces the urgency of these issues. If this were an account of a truly lower-class person working a permanent minimum-wage job, the story would be different, perhaps even inaccessible to middle-class readers who resist the unvarnished truth about the working poor. Members of the actual working class are disposable in Ehrenreich's narrative: the episodic traveling account means all characters besides Ehrenreich are dropped at the end of a chapter, paving the way for a new cast in the next city. The only one whose personal history earns an extended telling is Carolina in Minnesota, who is not a co-worker but a relative of a friend in Ehrenreich's real life. None of Ehrenreich's work compatriots are described beyond a couple of personality traits and statistic-affirming situations.

For the middle-class readers who have long been her audience, Ehrenreich provides a buffer. She is a spy in the house of drudge, an outsider who manages to work her way in. To sympathize with her during this "scientific experiment"—which in itself is another distancing effect: How many working-class people would describe their lives as ongoing experiments in matching wages to expenses?—is to know that all the hardships will soon enough fade for our heroine, disappearing down "the rabbit hole." Ehrenreich is Alice in low-wage Wonderland, and waking from this dream is as simple as returning to her real life. Like Alice, her adventures through the lower class are odd, amusing, and at times grotesque. This brings to mind Scott Sherman's observation in the Columbia Journalism Review:

A striking feature of immersion narratives like London's People of the Abyss and Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier is the extent to which compassion and sympathy co-exist uneasily with revulsion and disapproval…. Passages of this sort tell us something about the immutability of class boundaries; but they also stand as examples of reportorial honesty and, in Orwell's case, narrative sophistication.

Ehrenreich often feels outrage at the indignities she must experience, which she sees as the indignities suffered by all workers in her chosen situation. However, this outrage is matched with an unmistakable exasperation about the lack of resistance her co-workers show against their working situations. Ehrenreich never claims that her co-workers deserved the poor treatment they received, but she often comments at how much of it they tolerate—more than she can, as is proven time and again.

That said, she at least tries to understand the lower-class characters she encounters, to rationalize—if not excuse—their lack of progressive fervor. While she encounters many unlikable co-workers and customers in her account, Ehrenreich often explains the bad behavior or finds a reason to like the person; that is, if the person is lower class. Ehrenreich is considerably less forgiving with the upper- and middle-class homes she cleans for The Maids, exposing the hypocrisy and lack of good taste of various clients. One might wonder why a staunchly working-class hero does not emerge in her narrative—or at least a sympathetic middle-class character besides the princess-in-disguise that is herself.

Consider Ted, the franchise owner of The Maids. Of all the middle-class characters in the novel, he is the least offensive, if still nowhere near heroic. When told there is no key to get into a client's house, his reported response—"Don't do this to me!"—is selfish but not aggressive or mean-spirited. In this book, the lack of malice in any kind of manager is striking. After Holly injures herself on the job, Ehrenreich convinces her to call Ted from the next house. She then insists on speaking to Ted and what follows is an angry tirade by Ehrenreich:

I can't remember the exact words, but I tell him he can't keep putting money above his employees' health and I don't want to hear about "working through it," because this girl is in really bad shape. But he just goes on about "calm down," and meanwhile Holly is hopping around the bathroom, wiping up pubic hairs.

The scene Ehrenreich paints is both amusing and troubling, an excellent example of her gifts as a writer but also of the problems brought about by her aggressively partisan class consciousness. Holly the lower-class worker persists at her job, no matter how humiliating it is or how silly she appears. As the mediator, Ehrenreich vents her anger at the middle-class employer. And Ted, this representative of the middle class, rewards her. She is afraid she will be fired but her co-workers assure her she will not and, indeed, she is not. Instead, he concedes some ground, as Holly is forced to take off the next day—an action Holly considers unjust and which she blames on Ehrenreich's meddling. When Ted later pays extra attention to Ehrenreich, picking her up for a special assignment and giving her a raise, she believes she is being recruited as a stool pigeon. Ted fishes for the names of problem employees, hoping that Erhenreich will supply them now that he has given her a raise: "This must be my cue to name a few names, because this is how Ted operates, my co-workers claim—through snitches and by setting up one woman against another."

Ehrenreich's assumptions are odd, as she is the one who complains about Holly's situation, even "threatening a work stoppage." A kinder interpretation of the situation is that Ted admires her willingness to look out for her co-workers, but does not want grief directed his way. What may be a veiled bribe for Ehrenreich to stop being so abrasive is instead seen as a more malicious ploy, based primarily on "what my co-workers claim." In effect, Ehrenreich plays into the class tensions, the underlying conflict between worker and employer—more so than the other maids, who profess to admire Ted and seek his approval—instead of trying to mediate the two sides.

Considering the resentment Holly ends up feeling for Ehrenreich, perhaps there is some truth in Ted's statement that "you can't help someone who doesn't want to be helped." Ehrenreich explains in the "Analysis" chapter why the lower class accept low pay, poor working conditions, and legalized violation of civil rights. However, she never addresses how to help those who do not want to be helped. Instead, she fantasizes about a working-class revolt, a day when minimum-wage earners "are bound to tire of getting so little in return and … demand to be paid what they're worth … and we will all be better off for it in the end."

Is Ehrenreich imagining a people's revolution in classic Marxist fashion (Marxism is the political idea that socialism will lead to a classless society), where the proletariat overthrow the ruling class? Or something less grandiose, a general strike that will force legislation that better serves the needs of all workers? If she is considering the less radical revolt, how will this come about? And why assume that everyone will be better off?

As Sherman discovers in his interview with Ehrenreich in the Columbia Journalism Review, she places little faith in her book causing any real changes in policy; perhaps her time in the servant-class has made her more sharply aware of the realpolitik (politics based on the practical rather than on morals or standards) of the poor. Nickel and Dimed opened a dialogue that does not gloss over the difficulties of class tensions—which in itself is a brave, important act. Having experienced the patchier side of the fence, though, Ehrenreich is now grateful to remain on the greener side, to embrace a middle-class perspective even as she works for her progressive beliefs.

Source: Ray Mescallado, Critical Essay on Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, in Literary Newsmakers for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Scott Sherman

In the following essay, Sherman analyzes Ehrenreich's complex and often contradictory attitude toward the people she writes about.


  • Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy (2002), edited by Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, is a collection of essays examining injustices regarding low-wage female workers around the world. It includes an essay by Ehrenreich, "Maid to Order," which expands on her study of maid work in Nickel and Dimed.
  • Ehrenreich's Fear of Falling (1989) is a study of the middle class and their retreat from liberalism. It complements Nickel and Dimed on a thematic level, considering the tension between social classes from another angle.
  • Jack London wrote The People of the Abyss (1903) after spending several months investigating slum conditions in London's East End. A work of journalism very similar to Nickel and Dimed, it serves as a useful contrast to Ehrenreich's investigative technique and style and is an illuminating historical document of the poor from another time and culture.
  • The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), by George Orwell, was written from a similar desire to examine the plight of London's poor at the time. After examining the living conditions of the lower class, Orwell devotes the second half of his book to socialism as an ideal and how it compares to the reality of socialism in his times.
  • Along with London and Orwell's works, John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me (1961) is the book most often compared to Nickel and Dimed. It describes how Griffin dyed his skin black and experienced firsthand what it was like to be an African American in the racially segregated South.

A striking feature of immersion narratives like London's People of the Abyss and Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier is the extent to which compassion and sympathy co-exist uneasily with revulsion and disapproval. Jack London possessed a deep empathy for the slum dwellers of turn-of-the-century England, but he still allowed himself to describe them as "stupid and heavy, without imagination." Orwell, recalling his stay in a squalid lodging house in the industrial north of England, confessed: "On the day when there was a full chamber-pot under the breakfast table I decided to leave. The place was beginning to depress me." Passages of this sort tell us something about the immutability of class boundaries; but they also stand as examples of reportorial honesty and, in Orwell's case, narrative sophistication.

Nickel and Dimed, too, is streaked with contradictory sentiments. Ehrenreich, for instance, writes with considerable feeling about Gail, a "wiry middle-aged waitress" who can't afford a security deposit for an apartment, so she sleeps in her car. "When I moved out of the trailer park," Ehrenreich writes, in the closing lines of her waitressing chapter, "I gave the key to number 46 to Gail and arranged for my deposit to be transferred to her."

But in many other places, Ehrenreich's compassion degenerates into spite. An Alzheimer's patient who threw milk on Ehrenreich is "a tiny, scabrous old lady with wild white hair who looks like she's been folded into her wheelchair and squished." A woman whose home is cleaned by Ehrenreich's crew is "an alumna of an important women's college, now occupying herself by monitoring her investments and the baby's bowel movements." At Wal-Mart the sight of an obese woman fills Ehrenreich with disgust. "Those of us," she writes, "who work in ladies' are for obvious reasons a pretty lean lot … and we live with the fear of being crushed by some wide-body as she hurtles through the narrow passage from Faded Glory to woman size, lost in fantasies involving svelte Kathie Lee sheaths."

More illuminating, perhaps, is the anger Ehrenreich directs at some of her co-workers, especially the other maids in Maine, who are bereft of class consciousness and self-esteem. Indeed, the docility and fatalism of the working poor is a primary theme of the book: "For the most part," she writes, "my co-workers seem content to occupy their little niche on the sheer cliff face of class inequality." Even when injured on the job, they prefer to talk about recipes instead of retribution. There is a harrowing moment when "Holly," a maid on her crew, falls into a hole and hurts her ankle; Ehrenreich insists that she get an X-ray immediately—and even calls for a "work stoppage"—but all Holly can do is whimper and go back to cleaning bathrooms on her injured ankle.

Holly's passive response to her injury—she is, first and foremost, terrified of losing her job—leaves Ehrenreich in a red-hot fury: "All I can see is this grass fire raging in the back of my eyes." At the end of the day, on the car ride home, Ehrenreich can think of nothing but the accident, but Holly, still reeling from the pain, "starts up one of those pornographic late-afternoon food conversations she enjoys so much. 'What are you making for dinner tonight, Marge?… Oh, yeah, with tomato sauce?'" Marge, another maid, is previously described as someone "who normally chatters on obliviously about the events in her life ('It was the biggest spider' or 'So she just puts a little mustard right in with the baked beans …')."

These expressions of anger and frustration are the most honest and unsettling portions of Nickel and Dimed honest because Ehrenreich—whose original PMC essay envisioned a working class that could "alter society in its totality"—despises blue-collar apathy, superstition, and conservatism; and unsettling because they remind us that the works of our most humane chroniclers of the poor—Jonathan Kozol, Katherine Boo, the late Michael Harrington—possess a generosity of spirit that is not always evident in Nickel and Dimed.

Source: Scott Sherman, "Class Warrior: Barbara Ehrenreich's Singular Crusade," in Columbia Journalism Review, Vol. 42, No. 4, November-December 2003, p. 34.

Joni Scott

In the following essay, Scott posits that Ehrenreich's book is an important literary and social contribution.

Nickel and Dimed exposes the anti-America of flophouses, multiple house sharing, employees sleeping in cars, and the homeless who work forty hours or more weekly. Those who used to be middle class, despite often working two jobs, now endure a daily scramble to prioritize such needs as food, housing, childcare, and health care. One extra expense—like dental work, work uniforms, medication, school supplies, and the like—can "break the camel's back."

So I can't fault Ehrenreich for having stock options and a pension plan while publicly admonishing the excesses of the wealthy. She ponders whether the exurb queens whose houses she and her newfound comrades clean "have any idea of the misery that goes into rendering their homes motel-perfect?" She queries, "Would they be bothered if they did know or would they take a sadistic pride in what they have purchased—boasting to dinner guests for example that their floors are cleaned only with the purest of fresh human tears?"

And regarding the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) patrons she serves during her Key West server stint, she writes: they "look at us disapprovingly no matter what we do (and they don't tip) as if they were confusing waitressing with Mary Magdalene's original profession." Another poke at hypocrisy comes when Ehrenreich describes how ennui moves her to investigate a Saturday night "tent revival." This passage plunges into a commentary about Jesus being "out there in the dark, gagged and tethered to a tent pole" thereby stifling his message of Christian charity.

Mostly, she delivers a profoundly poignant description of people, such as a hopeful Czech dishwasher living with a crowd of other Czech "dishers." He can't sleep until one of them goes to work, leaving a vacant bed.

On that note, I hear the ghost of social reformer past, Jacob A. Riis, a police reporter who wrote of and extensively photographed the poor in his 1890 book How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. Riis' words could apply to this century: The gap between the classes in which it surges unseen, unsuspected by the thoughtless is widening day by day. No tardy enactment of law, no political expedient can close it … I know of but one bridge that will carry us over safe, a bridge founded upon justice and built of human hearts.

By the end of Nickel and Dimed I felt thankful to Barbara Ehrenreich for this important literary contribution and call to action that I hope is answered. I believe this book should be required reading for corporate executives and politicians. A bumpersticker once read, "He who has the most toys at the end wins." Is this to be our legacy?

Source: Joni Scott, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Review)," in Humanist, Vol. 61, No. 5, September 2001, p. 40.

Julia M. Klein

In the following essay, Klein weighs the ultimate worth of Ehrenreich's book.

In the end, what has she accomplished? It's no shock that the dollars don't add up; that affordable housing is hard, if not impossible, to find; and that taking a second job is a virtual necessity for many of the working poor. Ehrenreich is too busy scrubbing floors to give us more than a passing glimpse of the people in that world. Nor can she really transform herself into just another waitress or maid. She is both a prickly, self-confident woman and the possessor of a righteous, ideologically informed outrage at America's class system that can turn patronizing at times.

Still, Nickel and Dimed is a compelling and timely book whose insights sometimes do transcend the obvious. It's important to know, for instance, that low-wage workers, while often taking pride in their jobs, are routinely subjected to an authoritarian regime that ranges from demeaning drug tests to bans on "gossip" with other employees. The result, Ehrenreich argues, is "not just an economy but a culture of extreme inequality." And our most appropriate response, as members of the well-meaning middle-class? Not guilt, she tells us, but shame, for relying on the underpaid labor of others—a habit the living-wage movement is now trying to help us break.

Source: Julia M Klein, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. (Review)," in American Prospect, Vol. 12, No. 13, July 30, 2001, p. 43.

Kya Ogyn

In the following essay, Ogyn offers some possible insight into the author's intent in writing this book.

I think the actual purpose of Ehrenreich's experiment becomes clear when identifying the intended audience. What we have is a successful, affluent writer addressing members of her own class. Her intent is to tell people who have never experienced it something of what it is like to work at jobs that do not pay enough to live on. Even more importantly, her intent is to say that her experience "is the best-case scenario: a person with every advantage that ethnicity and education, health and motivation can confer attempting, in a time of exuberant prosperity, to survive in the economy's lower depths."

Nickel and Dimed is a needed work—engaging, well-researched and written in a directly personal style. Ehrenreich succeeds beautifully in conveying to her middle-class audience that she is just like them and that since she could not support herself, never mind a family, on the jobs available to her, the problem lies in the system of low-paid work, not in the workers. However, beyond my regret that Ehrenreich was perhaps correct in considering her authoritative, middle-class voice necessary to make this point, I have two problems with this book. One is that, although she writes, "low-wage workers are no more homogeneous in personality or ability than people who write for a living, and no less likely to be funny or bright," she comes to the conclusion that Barb, who works for Wal-Mart, is "meaner and slyer" than Barbara the writer, and "more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I'd hoped." Although poverty can have a brutalizing effect on some people, there are demonstrably grudge-holders among the rich and powerful who are not very smart.

My second problem lies with Ehrenreich's attitudes toward fat people. The book contains numerous disdainful comments and one very disturbing rant—"we live in fear of being crushed by some wide-body as she hurtles through the narrow passage from Faded Glory to woman size, lost in fantasies involving svelte Kathie Lee sheaths." It is unfortunate that a political writer of her caliber has not only not examined fat hatred, but has contributed to it.

Source: Kya Ogyn, "Can You Live On It?" in Off Our Backs, Vol. 35, January-February 2005, p. 44.

Jane Yager

In the following essay, Yager attempts to find the Ehrenreich's message and intended audience in Nickled and Dimed.

[Text Not Available]

Source: Jane Yager, "Poverty: A National Emergency," in Dollars & Sense, January 2002, p. 42.


Early, Steve, "Prole Like Me," in the Nation, Vol. 272, No. 23, June 11, 2001, p. 52.

Ehrenreich, Barbara, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Metropolitan Books, 2001.

Hays, Sharon, Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 8.

Klein, Julia, Review of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, in the American Prospect, Vol. 12, No. 13, July 30, 2001, p. 43.

Ogyn, Kya, "Can You Live On It?," in Off Our Backs, Vol. 35, Jan-Feb 2005, pp. 44-46.

Scott, Joni, Review of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, in the Humanist, Vol. 61, No. 5, September-October 2001, p. 40.

Sherman, Scott, "Class Warrior: Barbara Ehrenreich's Singular Crusade," in Columbia Journalism Review, Vol. 42, No. 4, November-December 2003, pp. 34-42.

Yager, Jane, "Poverty: A National Emergency," in Dollars & Sense, January-February 2002, pp. 42-44.


Bergdahl, Michael, What I Learned From Sam Walton: How to Compete and Thrive in a Wal-Mart World, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004.

Though oriented to readers of business advice, this book is highly instructive in seeing Ehrenreich's story from a different perspective. In business terms, it discusses the success of Wal-Mart and what Bergdahl feels companies should do to compete against them.

Featherstone, Liza, Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Wal-Mart, Basic Books, 2004.

Using the landmark Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. class action suit as her focus, Featherstone examines the Wal-Mart culture and the inequities allegedly perpetuated within the company toward women and others.

Hays, Sharon, Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform, Oxford University Press, 2003.

Combining in-depth arguments with anecdotal stories about actual welfare offices and clients, Hays looks at the impact of welfare reform legislation on women and their families.

Newman, Katherine S., No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City, Knopf, 1999.

Refuting the idea of an unmotivated and lazy lower class, Newman examines in depth the lives of the urban working poor. She interviews workers who describe the specific difficulties faced when work is hampered by outside concerns such as crime, drug abuse, and poor schooling.

Shulman, Beth, The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans and Their Families, New Press, 2003.

Using statistics and personal stories, Shulman looks at the lives of workers in low-paying jobs, examining a wide range of occupations and experiences.

About this article

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

Updated About content Print Article