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

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

3.6 315
by Barbara Ehrenreich
     
 

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Our sharpest and most original social critic goes "undercover" as an unskilled worker to reveal the dark side of American prosperity.

Millions of Americans work full time, year round, for poverty-level wages. In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that a job -- any job

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Overview

Our sharpest and most original social critic goes "undercover" as an unskilled worker to reveal the dark side of American prosperity.

Millions of Americans work full time, year round, for poverty-level wages. In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that a job -- any job -- can be the ticket to a better life. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered. Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, she worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. She lived in trailer parks and crumbling residential motels. Very quickly, she discovered that no job is truly "unskilled," that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you int to live indoors.

Nickel and Dimed reveals low-rent America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity -- a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate stratagems for survival. Read it for the smoldering clarity of Ehrenreich's perspective and for a rare view of how "prosperity" looks from the bottom. You will never see anything -- from a motel bathroom to a restaurant meal -- in quite the same way again.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
A close observer and astute analyzer of American life (The Worst Years of Our Life and The Fear of Falling), Ehrenreich turns her attention to what it is like trying to subsist while working in low-paying jobs. Inspired to see what boom times looked like from the bottom, she hides her real identity and attempts to make a life on a salary of just over $300 per week after taxes. She is often forced to work at two jobs, leaving her time and energy for little else than sleeping and working. Ehrenreich vividly describes her experiences living in isolated trailers and dilapidated motels while working as a nursing-home aide, a Wal-Mart "sales associate," a cleaning woman, a waitress, and a hotel maid in three states: Florida, Maine, and Minnesota. Her narrative is candid, often moving, and very revealing. Looking back on her experiences, Ehrenreich claims that the hardest thing for her to accept is the "invisibility of the poor"; one sees them daily in restaurants, hotels, discount stores, and fast-food chains but one doesn't recognize them as "poor" because, after all, they have jobs. No real answers to the problem but a compelling sketch of its reality and pervasiveness. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/01.] Jack Forman, San Diego Mesa Coll. Lib. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Between 1998 and 2000, Ehrenreich spent about three months in three cities throughout the nation, attempting to "get by" on the salary available to low-paid and unskilled workers. Beginning with advantages not enjoyed by many such individuals-she is white, English-speaking, educated, healthy, and unburdened with transportation or child-care worries-she tried to support herself by working as a waitress, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart employee. She discovered that her average salary of $7 per hour couldn't even provide the necessities of life (rent, transportation, and food), let alone the luxury of health coverage. Her account is at once enraging and sobering. In straightforward language, she describes how labor-intensive, demeaning, and controlling such jobs can be: she scrubbed floors on her hands and knees, and found out that talking to coworkers while on the job was considered "time theft." She describes full-time workers who sleep in their cars because they cannot afford housing and employees who yearn for the ability to "take a day off now and then-and still be able to buy groceries the next day." In a concluding chapter, Ehrenreich takes on issues and questions posed before and during the experiment, including why these wages are so low, why workers are so accepting of them, and what Washington's refusal to increase the minimum wage to a realistic "living wage" says about both our economy and our culture. Mandatory reading for any workforce entrant.-Dori DeSpain, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780312626686
Publisher:
Picador
Publication date:
08/02/2011
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
256
Sales rank:
38,508
Product dimensions:
8.04(w) x 5.62(h) x 0.72(d)

Read an Excerpt

It is hotter inside than out, but I do all right until I encounter the banks of glass doors. Each one has to be Windexed, wiped, and buffed-inside and out, top to bottom, left to right, until it's as streakless and invisible as a material substance can be. Outside, I can see construction guys knocking back Gatorade, but the rule is that no fluid or food item can touch a maid's lips when she's inside a house. I sweat without replacement or pause, not in individual drops but in continuous sheets of fluid, soaking through my polo shirt, pouring down the backs of my legs. Working my way through the living room(s), I wonder if Mrs. W. will ever have occasion to realize that every single doodad and object through which she expresses her unique, individual self is, from the vantage point of a maid, only an obstacle on the road to a glass of water.

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