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

Overview

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 -- could be the ticket to a better life. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on six to seven dollars an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered as a woefully inexperienced homemaker ...
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Overview

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 -- could be the ticket to a better life. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on six to seven dollars an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered as a woefully inexperienced homemaker returning to the workforce. So began a grueling, hair-raising, and darkly funny odyssey through the underside of working America.

Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, Ehrenreich worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. 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 intend to live indoors.

Nickel and Dimed reveals low-wage 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 -- quite the same way again.

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

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
To understand life beyond boom-time America, Barbara Ehrenreich spent months laboring as a cleaning woman; as a waitress; and as a Wal-Mart sales clerk. Her revelations about these hard, supposedly "unskilled" jobs and the difficulty of making ends meet in the U.S. gives this book a powerful, personal edge.
Dorothy Gallagher
We have Barbara Ehrenreich to thank for bringing us the news of America's working poor so clearly and directly, and conveying with it a deep moral outrage and a finely textured sense of lives as lived. As Michael Harrington was, she is now our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism.
New York Times Book Review
Chicago Tribune
Ehrenreich is passionate, public, hotly lucid, and politically engaged.
Boston Globe
Ehrenreich's scorn withers, her humor stings, and her radical light shines on.
New York Times
One of today's most original writers.
Vivien Labaton
Nickel and Dimed is an important book that should be read by anyone who has been lulled into middle-class complacency.
Ms. Magazine
Publishers Weekly
In contrast to recent books by Michael Lewis and Dinesh D'Souza that explore the lives and psyches of the New Economy's millionares, Ehrenreich (Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class) turns her gimlet eye on the view from the workforce's bottom rung. Determined to find out how anyone could make ends meet on $7 an hour, she left behind her middle class life as a journalist—except for $1000 in start-up funds, a car and her laptop computer—to try to sustain herself as a low-skilled worker for a month at a time. In 1999 and 2000, Ehrenreich worked as a waitress in Key West, Fla., as a cleaning woman and a nursing home aide in Portland, Maine, and in a Wal-Mart in Minneapolis, Minn.

During the application process, she faced routine drug tests and spurious "personality tests"; once on the job, she endured constant surveillance and numbing harangues over infractions like serving a second roll and butter. Beset by transportation costs and high rents, she learned the tricks of the trade from her co-workers, some of whom sleep in their cars, and many of whom work when they're vexed by arthritis, back pain or worse, yet still manage small gestures of kindness. Despite the advantages of her race, education, good health and lack of children, Ehrenreich's income barely covered her month's expenses in only one instance, when she worked seven days a week at two jobs (one of which provided free meals) during the off-season in a vacation town. Delivering a fast read that's both sobering and sassy, she gives readers pause about those caught in the economy's undertow, even in good times.

Diana Henriques
". . . you will read this explosive little book cover to cover and pass it on to all your friends and relatives."
—Diana Henriques, The New York Times
Susannah Meadows
"Jarring, full of riveting grit . . . This book is already unforgettable."
—Susannah Meadows, Newsweek
Anne Colamosca
"Angry, amusing . . . An in-your-face expose."
—Anne Colamosca, Business Week
Eileen Boris
"With grace and wit, Ehrenreich discovers . . . the irony of being nickel and dimed during unprecedented prosperity."
—Eileen Boris, The Boston Globe
Stephen Metcalf
"Ehrenreich is a superb and relaxed stylist {with} a tremendous sense of rueful humor."
—Stephen Metcalf, Los Angeles Times Book Review
Dorothy Gallagher
"Barbara Ehrenreich . . . is our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism."
—Dorothy Gallagher, The New York Times Book
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.
From the Publisher
"Reading Ehrenreich is good for the soul." (Molly Ivins)

"Ehrenreich is passionate, public, hotly lucid, and politically engaged." (Chicago Tribune)

"Ehrenreich's scorn withers, her humor stings, and her radical light shines on." (The Boston Globe)

"One of today's most original writers." (The New York Times)

"Barbara Ehrenreich is smart, provocative, funny, and sane in a world that needs more of all four."(Diane Sawyer)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9789866723452
  • Publisher: Zuo an Wen Hua
  • Publication date: 10/28/2010
  • Language: Chinese
  • Pages: 320

Meet the Author

Barbara Ehrenreich
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of Blood Rites; The Worst Years of Our Lives (a New York Times bestseller); Fear of Falling, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; and eight other books. A frequent contributer to Time, Harper's, Esquire, The New Republic, Mirabella, The Nation, and The New York Times Magazine, she lives near Key West, Florida.
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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.

—Diana Henriques, The New York Times [Business Section]

"Jarring, full of riveting grit . . . This book is already unforgettable."

—Susannah Meadows, Newsweek

"Angry, amusing . . . An in-your-face expose."

—Anne Colamosca, Business Week

"With grace and wit, Ehrenreich discovers . . . the irony of being nickel and dimed during unprecedented prosperity."

—Eileen Boris, The Boston Globe

"Ehrenreich is a superb and relaxed stylist [with] a tremendous sense of rueful humor."

—Stephen Metcalf, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Barbara Ehrenreich . . . is our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism."

—Dorothy Gallagher, The New York Times Book

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Getting Ready 1
1 Serving in Florida 11
2 Scrubbing in Maine 51
3 Selling in Minnesota 121
Evaluation 193
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Reading Group Guide

To the Teacher

Millions of Americans work full-time for poverty-level wages. Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. Nickel and Dimed is the revealing, compelling, and widely acclaimed result of that decision—a book that has already become a masterpiece of undercover reportage, and a portrait-of-the-working-poor classic that is showing up in classrooms throughout the nation.

How does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich takes low-wage jobs in Florida, then in Maine, and finally in Minnesota, working as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing home aide, and a Wal-Mart salesperson. She lives in trailer parks and crumbling motels; she eats fast or cheap food, since she can’t afford a stove, refrigerator, or cookware. She also learns that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you plan to live indoors. And healthcare is a luxury she cannot afford.

This is that rare book that reveals a harsh reality without resorting to sentiment, that speaks the plain truth without being preachy or complex. Nickel and Dimed is an absolute must for anyone who wants to see what “prosperity” looks like from the bottom, or who suspects that the “American dream” is becoming a fantasy.

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