21: Barbara Ehrenreich
Excerpt from Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America Published in 2001.
As Barbara Ehrenreich (1941–) studied to get her Ph.D., a college or university's highest degree, in biology, she was an activist who supported the causes of low-income housing and educational opportunities for the underprivileged. She also began writing about social inequalities faced by women and by people of lower income levels. For example, Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness (1973), which she wrote with Deirdre English, addresses differences in the quality of health care that patients received based on their gender, class, and race.
Ehrenreich continued to write social criticism and became a popular and well-paid author. In 1998 she took on a new challenge: living as part of the low-wage workforce in order to research how people survived on minimal incomes. Leaving behind her comfortable life, Ehrenreich set off with $1,300 and a car, along with a laptop computer she could use to write about her experiences. During the next two years she held a series of jobs, including waiting tables and cleaning hotel rooms in Key West, Florida; caretaking at a nursing home in Portland, Maine; and working at a Wal-Mart store in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
"[D]uring a month of poverty and toil, no one recognizes my face or my name, which goes unnoticed and for the most part unuttered. In this parallel universe where my father never got out of the mines and I never got through college, I am 'baby,' 'honey,' 'blondie,' and, most commonly, 'girl.'"
Ehrenreich quickly discovered that covering her basic monthly necessities was extremely difficult through minimum wage jobs. The minimum wage is a standard set by the U.S. government and individual state government as the lowest amount of money that a worker can be paid by the hour. She found a small apartment for $500 per month, but her first job—as a server in a restaurant of a small chain-hotel—paid $5.15 per hour, not including tips. It was not enough money to cover the cost of her apartment. Her next job, at a large, well-known family restaurant chain, paid a little better: Ehrenreich earned just over $1,000 per month. After paying for basic needs, however, she was left with $22. In addition to being low-paying, the two jobs required workers to be on their feet all day, with breaks only for restroom use, no facilities for lunch, and no health or retirement benefits.
Ehrenreich encountered similar difficulties wherever she tried to live and work. She wrote about her experiences in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America (2001).
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America:
- Highly educated and enjoying a comfortable lifestyle, Ehrenreich posed as a middle-aged woman trying to make ends meet with work that required little education or training. She discovered that turnover—replacing one worker with another—in the low-wage world is high and that few of the working poor have health insurance.
- Ehrenreich's experiences are common to tens of millions of people living in modern urban America. In an interview with Bill Moyers, she noted that these events led her to state what she called a "simple theory of poverty: It's not a psychological condition. It is, above all—a consequence of shamefully low wages and lack of opportunity for anything else."
- Prior to writing Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich had earned a strong reputation as a writer for her observations, commentary, and criticism. In these types of writing, the author appears as someone commenting on but not directly involved in events. In Nickel and Dimed, on the other hand, she used a first-person narrative so readers could relate to her experiences as they were happening.
Excerpt from Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America
Mostly out of laziness, I decide to start my low-wage life in the town nearest to where I actually live, Key West, Florida, which with a population of about 25,000 is elbowing its way up to the status of a genuine city. The downside of familiarity, I soon realize, is that it's not easy to go from being a consumer, thoughtlessly throwing money around in exchange for groceries and movies and gas, to being a worker in the very same place. I am terrified, especially at the beginning, of being recognized by some friendly business owner or erstwhile [former] neighbor and having to stammer out some explanation of my project. Happily, though, my fears turn out to be entirely unwarranted [needless]: during a month of poverty and toil, no one recognizes my face or my name, which goes unnoticed and for the most part unuttered [unspoken]. In this parallel universe where my father never got out of the mines and I never got through college, I am "baby," "honey," "blondie," and, most commonly, "girl."
My first task is to find a place to live. I figure that if I can earn $7 an hour—which, from the want ads, seems doable—I can afford to spend $500 on rent or maybe, with severe economies, $600 and still have $400 or $500 left over for food and gas. In the Key West area, this pretty much confines me to flophouses and trailer homes—like the one, a pleasing fifteen-minute drive from town, that has no air-conditioning, no screens, no fans, no television, and, by way of diversion, only the challenge of evading the landlord's Doberman pinscher. The big problem with this place, though, is the rent, which at $675 a month is well beyond my reach. All right, Key West is expensive. But so is New York City, or the Bay Area [San Francisco], or Jackson, Wyoming, or Telluride [Colorado], or Boston [Massachusetts], or any other place where tourists and the wealthy compete for living space with the people who clean their toilets and fry their hash browns. Still, it is a shock to realize that "trailer trash" has become, for me, a demographic category to aspire to.
So I decide to make the common trade-off between affordability and convenience and go for a $500-a-month "efficiency" thirty miles up a two-lane highway from the employment opportunities of Key West, meaning forty-five minutes if there's no road construction and I don't get caught behind some sundazed Canadian tourists. I hate the drive, along a roadside studded with white crosses commemorating the more effective head-on collisions, but it's a sweet little place—a cabin, more or less, set in the swampy backyard of the converted mobile home where my landlord, an affable [pleasant] TV repairman, lives with his bartender girlfriend. Anthropologically speaking, the trailer park would be preferable, but here I have a gleaming white floor and a firm mattress, and the few resident bugs are easily vanquished [eliminated].
The next piece of business is to comb [search] through the want ads and find a job. I rule out various occupations for one reason or another: hotel front-desk clerk, for example, which to my surprise is regarded as unskilled and pays only $6 or $7 an hour, gets eliminated because it involves standing in one spot for eight hours a day. Waitressing is also something I'd like to avoid, because I remember it leaving me bone-tired when I was eighteen, and I'm decades of varicosities and back pain beyond that now. Telemarketing, one of the first refuges of the suddenly indigent [poor], can be dismissed on grounds of personality. This leaves certain supermarket jobs, such as deli clerk, or housekeeping in the hotels and guest houses, which pays about $7 and, I imagine, is not too different from what I've been doing part-time, in my own home, all my life.
So I put on what I take to be a respectable-looking outfit of ironed Bermuda shorts and scooped-neck T-shirt and set out for a tour of the local hotels and supermarkets. Best Western, Econo Lodge, and Hojo's all let me fill out application forms, and these are, to my relief, mostly interested in whether I am a legal resident of the United States and have committed any felonies [serious crimes]. My next stop is Winn-Dixie, the supermarket, which turns out to have a particularly onerous [burdensome] application process, featuring a twenty-minute "interview" by computer since, apparently, no human on the premises [on site] is deemed capable of representing the corporate point of view. I am conducted to a large room decorated with posters illustrating how to look "professional" (it helps to be white and, if female, permed) and warning of the slick promises that union organizers might try to tempt me with. The interview is multiple-choice: Do I have anything, such as child care problems, that might make it hard for me to get to work on time? Do I think safety on the job is the responsibility of management? Then, popping up cunningly [cleverly] out of the blue: How many dollars' worth of stolen goods have I purchased in the last year? Would I turn in a fellow employee if I caught him stealing? Finally, "Are you an honest person?"
Apparently I ace the interview, because I am told that all I have to do is show up in some doctor's office tomorrow for a urine test. This seems to be a fairly general rule: if you want to stack Cheerios boxes or vacuum hotel rooms in chemically fascist America, you have to be willing to squat down and pee in front of a health worker (who has no doubt had to do the same thing herself). The wages Winn-Dixie is offering—$6 and a couple of dimes to start with—are not enough, I decide, to compensate for this indignity [humiliation].
I lunch at Wendy's, where $4.99 gets you unlimited refills at the Mexican part of the Super-bar, a comforting surfeit [surplus] of refried beans and cheese sauce. A teenage employee, seeing me studying the want ads, kindly offers me an application form, which I fill out, though here, too, the pay is just $6 and change an hour. Then it's off for a round of the locally owned inns and guest houses in Key West's Old Town, which is where all the serious sightseeing and guzzling goes on, a couple of miles removed from the functional end of the island, where the discount hotels make their homes. At The Palms, let's call it, a bouncy manager actually takes me around to see the rooms and meet the current housekeepers, who, I note with satisfaction, look pretty much like me—faded ex-hippie types in shorts with long hair pulled back in braids. Mostly, though, no one speaks to me or even looks at me except to proffer [hand out] an application form. At my last stop, a palatial B & B, I wait twenty minutes to meet "Max," only to be told that there are no jobs now but there should be one soon, since "nobody lasts more than a couple weeks."
Three days go by like this and, to my chagrin [disappointment], no one from the approximately twenty places at which I've applied calls me for an interview. I had been vain enough to worry about coming across as too educated for the jobs I sought, but no one even seems interested in finding out how overqualified I am. Only later will I realize that the want ads are not a reliable [dependable] measure of the actual jobs available at any particular time. They are, as I should have guessed from Max's comment, the employers' insurance policy against the relentless [never-ending] turnover of the low-wage workforce. Most of the big hotels run ads almost continually, if only to build a supply of applicants to replace the current workers as they drift away or are fired, so finding a job is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time and flexible enough to take whatever is being offered that day. This finally happens to me at one of the big discount chain hotels where I go, as usual, for housekeeping and am sent instead to try out as a waitress at the attached "family restaurant," a dismal spot looking out on a parking garage, which is featuring "Polish sausage and BBQ sauce" on this 95-degree day. Phillip, the dapper young West Indian who introduces himself as the manager, interviews me with about as much enthusiasm as if he were a clerk processing me for Medicare, the principal questions being what shifts I can work and when I can start. I mutter about being woefully out of practice as a waitress, but he's already on to the uniform: I'm to show up
Hard Times in America
Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America is part of a tradition of works that have exposed the plight of the working poor to many American readers unaware of the depths of poverty and hardship among their fellow citizens. In addition to shocking readers about daily struggles for survival, many of these works inspired social and economic reforms.
An article profiling desolate life in New York City's tenements, accompanied with stark, often heart-wrenching photographs, caused a sensation after appearing in Scribner's, a popular magazine, in December of 1889. The article was written and illustrated by Jacob Riis (1849–1914), who was born in Denmark and immigrated to the United States in 1870 after turning twenty. While living in poverty in New York City, Riis found work as a journalist and photographer. He used these forums to communicate his theme that the poor were the victims rather than the makers of their fate. The Scribner's article was expanded into a book, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890) and led directly to reforms.
After reading in the book about police lodging houses where corruption and crime were rampant, Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), chief of police in the city at the time (and future U.S. president from 1901 to 1909), had the houses shut down. Meanwhile, city officials created new housing codes to improve living conditions. Riis profiled different groups in How the Other Half Lives as reflected in some of the book's chapter titles: "The Italian in New York," "Chinatown," "Jewtown," "The Bohemians—Tenement-Housing Cigarmaking," "The Street Arab," "The Color Line in New York," "Waifs of the City's Slums," and "The Working Girls of New York."
Erskine Caldwell (1903–1987) depicted rural poverty in the South as the contributing factor to social breakdown and tragedy in his novels Tobacco Road (1932) and God's Little Acre (1933). Accused of sensationalism in his portrait of wretched conditions, Caldwell responded by teaming with photographer Margaret Bourke-White (1904–1971) to detail examples of the rural poor in the South in a series of shocking articles published in the New York Post. Many of the illustrated articles were collected in Have You Seen Their Faces (1937).
Michael Harrington (1928–1989) wrote The Other America (1962) during a time of general prosperity. However, the work demonstrated with facts, figures, and examples that one of every four Americans was trapped in poverty. Examples included rural areas of Appalachia and the South, urban ghettos in America's great cities, and many senior citizens struggling on meager finances throughout the land. The book inspired presidents John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) to plan programs addressing poverty. Johnson's sweeping programs were initiated in the mid-1960s and included the establishment of Medicare, which provided insurance coverage benefits for the nation's elderly population; and Medicaid, which provided access to health care for low-income Americans.
tomorrow wearing black slacks and black shoes; he'll provide the rust-colored polo shirt with "Hearthside," as we'll call the place, embroidered on it, though I might want to wear my own shirt to get to work, ha ha. At the word tomorrow, something between fear and indignation [resentment] 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."
What happened next …
Nickel and Dimed was widely praised, became a best-seller, and was included on the "best books of 2001" lists of several newspapers and magazines, including Business Week. Several colleges and universities selected the book as part of a program where all incoming freshmen are required to read the same book and write a report. Objections to the book included a protest ad that appeared in the July 9, 2002, edition of the Raleigh News & Observer newspaper after the book was selected for new students to read at the University of North Carolina. As noted in Class Warrior, the ad, called an "open letter" to state residents, noted: "UNC-Chapel Hill Does It Again. Incoming UNC Chapel Hill Freshmen 'Expected' to Read Book by Radical Socialist." According to the ad, the book "mounts an all-out assault on Christians, conservatives and capitalism."
Ehrenreich stated that any positive social changes that may have resulted from her book soon faded. "My moment of maximum influence was in the summer of 2001 when [the book] first came out and I was invited to Washington to speak to a lunch of Democratic senators," she told the Columbia Journalism Review. "I had all these Democratic senators and congresspeople listening to me, and nodding, 'yes, yes, we must do something!' I said to myself, 'Wow, I am so influential!' But then came 9/11 [a reference to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States] and they forgot all that."
Did you know …
- During a lunch in 1998 with Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's magazine, Ehrenreich expressed dismay over a government welfare reform act that would cut benefits for four million recipients and force most of them to live on wages of $6 per hour. As noted in "Class Warrior," she said: "Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism—you know, go out there and try it for themselves," she said to Lapham, who replied, "You." That was the beginning of the journey that resulted in Nickel and Dimed.
- Events surrounding the Vietnam War (1954–75) had a personal effect on Ehrenreich, who was then pursuing a science career. She was in a laboratory performing research in 1966 when a fellow student expressed concern about being drafted for military service. Before 1973 men over the age of eighteen were involuntarily recruited, or drafted for military service by the U.S. government. The student suggested they write to the president, and Ehrenreich soon found herself involved in writing letters and articles. She also joined antiwar activities in New York, where she met her first husband, John Ehrenreich. In 1969 the Ehrenreichs published a book, Long March, Short Spring: The Student Uprising at Home and Abroad, that launched her writing career.
- Nickel and Dimed was adapted into a play by dramatist Joan Holden in 2002. The play premiered in Seattle, Washington, and its success led to productions in California and Rhode Island within a year.
Consider the following …
- In the summer of 1996, the U.S. Congress passed and President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The new laws radically transformed the nation's welfare system. Research why the law was passed and what the results have been. Write an essay about the positive and negative effects of the law.
- Find out what your family typically spends on food for a week. Consider other costs, like having a car, paying for gas and car insurance, paying for utilities, and affording health care. Ehrenreich discovered that she could not survive on a $7 per hour wage. Consider how her experiment would have played out in your community. Limit yourself to $250 per week (or $1,000 per month) and create a monthly budget that includes rent for housing, car payments, food, utility bills, and money for any activities.
For More Information
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001.
Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deirdre English. Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1973.
Ehrenreich, Barbara, and John Ehrenreich. Long March, Short Spring: The Student Uprising at Home and Abroad. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969.
"The Best Business Books of 2001." Business Week (December 10, 2001).
Cherry, Robert. "Nickel and Dimed and Saving Bernice: Contrasting Perspectives on Welfare Reform." Review of Black Political Economy (Winter 2004).
"Down and Out in the Midst of a Boom." Business Week (May 28, 2001).
Early, Steve. "Prole Like Me." Nation (June 11, 2001).
Forman, Jack. "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in Boom-Time America." Library Journal (May 1, 2001).
Gallagher, Dorothy. "Making Ends Meet." New York Times Book Review (May 13, 2001).
Hower, Edward. "The Underside of Paradise: A Social Critic Investigates—and Experiences—the Lives of the 'Invisible Working Poor.'" World and I (December 2001).
Meadows, Susannah. "A Working Knowledge: Down and Out on the Job in America." Newsweek (June 4, 2001).
Schaeffer-Duffy, Claire. "It's a Hard-Knock Life." America (November 19, 2001).
Barbara Ehrenreich. http://www.barbaraehrenreich.com/ (accessed on June 23, 2006).
"Politics and the Economy: Nickel and Dimed in America." Now, with Bill Moyer. http://www.pbs.org/now/commentary/ehrenreich.htm (accessed June 23, 2006).
Sherman, Scott. "Class Warrior: Barbara Ehrenreich's Singular Crusade" (November/December 2003). Columbia Journalism Review (CJR):http://www.cjr.org/issues/2003/6/ehren-sherman.asp (accessed on June 11, 2006).
Stammer: Speaking with great difficulty.
Parallel universe: A world opposite to events one has experienced.
Severe economies: Spending as little as possible.
Flophouses: Cheap or free lodgings, usually offering only a bed.
Diversion: Enjoyable mental distraction from everyday stresses.
"Trailer trash": A derogatory term that some people use to stereotype people, often poor, who live in trailer parks.
Demographic: A grouping of people by age, gender, or class.
Efficiency: A small apartment, usually consisting of one room.
Anthropologically speaking: As a study of human culture.
Varicosities: A sometimes painful condition of having very large or very small veins, usually in the legs.
Telemarketing: Selling products over the phone.
Chemically fascist America: Refers to America as a country that forces people to take drug tests when applying for jobs.
Ex-hippie types: People who rejected the established customs of society usually when they were young.
Palatial B & B: A fancy bed and breakfast, where guests stay in stylish rooms and are given breakfast.
Medicare: A government service that helps with medical costs.