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 jobany jobcan 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 generositya 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 anythingfrom a motel bathroom to a restaurant mealin quite the same way again.
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Introduction: Getting Ready
The idea that led to this book arose in comparatively sumptuous circumstances. Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s, had taken me out for a $30 lunch at some understated French country-style place to discuss future articles I might write for his magazine. I had the salmon and field greens, I think, and was pitching him some ideas having to do with pop culture when the conversation drifted to one of my more familiar themes—poverty. How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? How, in particular, we wondered, were the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour? Then I said something that I have since had many opportunities to regret: "Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism—you know, go out there and try it for themselves. " I meant someone much younger than myself, some hungry neophyte journalist with time on her hands. But Lapham got this crazy-looking half smile on his face and ended life as I knew it, for long stretches at least, with the single word "You. "
The last time anyone had urged me to forsake my normal life for a run-of-the-mill low-paid job had been in the seventies, when dozens, perhaps hundreds, of sixties radicals started going into the factories to "proletarianize" themselves and organize the working class in the process. Not this girl. I felt sorry for the parents who had paid college tuition for these blue-collar wannabes and sorry, too, for the people they intended to uplift. In my own family, the low-wage way of life had never been many degrees of separation away; it was close enough, in any case, to make me treasure the gloriously autonomous, if not always well-paid, writing life. My sister has been through one low-paid job after another—phone company business rep, factory worker, receptionist—constantly struggling against what she calls "the hopelessness of being a wage slave. " My husband and companion of seventeen years was a $4.50-an-hour warehouse worker when I fell in with him, escaping eventually and with huge relief to become an organizer for the Teamsters. My father had been a copper miner; uncles and grandfathers worked in the mines or for the Union Pacific. So to me, sitting at a desk all day was not only a privilege but a duty: something I owed to all those people in my life, living and dead, who’d had so much more to say than anyone ever got to hear.
Adding to my misgivings, certain family members kept reminding me unhelpfully that I could do this project, after a fashion, without ever leaving my study. I could just pay myself a typical entry-level wage for eight hours a day, charge myself for room and board plus some plausible expenses like gas, and total up the numbers after a month. With the prevailing wages running at $6–$7 an hour in my town and rents at $400 a month or more, the numbers might, it seemed to me, just barely work out all right. But if the question was whether a single mother leaving welfare could survive without government assistance in the form of food stamps, Medicaid, and housing and child care subsidies, the answer was well known before I ever left the comforts of home. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, in 1998—the year I started this project—it took, on average nationwide, an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one-bedroom apartment, and the Preamble Center for Public Policy was estimating that the odds against a typical welfare recipient’s landing a job at such a "living wage" were about 97 to 1. Why should I bother to confirm these unpleasant facts? As the time when I could no longer avoid the assignment approached, I began to feel a little like the elderly man I once knew who used a calculator to balance his checkbook and then went back and checked the results by redoing each sum by hand.
In the end, the only way to overcome my hesitation was by thinking of myself as a scientist, which is, in fact, what I was educated to be. I have a Ph.D. in biology, and I didn’t get it by sitting at a desk and fiddling with numbers. In that line of business, you can think all you want, but sooner or later you have to get to the bench and plunge into the everyday chaos of nature, where surprises lurk in the most mundane measurements. Maybe when I got into the project, I would discover some hidden economies in the world of the low-wage worker. After all, if almost 30 percent of the workforce toils for $8 an hour or less, as the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute reported in 1998, they may have found some tricks as yet unknown to me. Maybe I would even be able to detect in myself the bracing psychological effects of getting out of the house, as promised by the wonks who brought us welfare reform. Or, on the other hand, maybe there would be unexpected costs—physical, financial, emotional—to throw off all my calculations. The only way to find out was to get out there and get my hands dirty.
In the spirit of science, I first decided on certain rules and parameters. Rule one, obviously enough, was that I could not, in my search for jobs, fall back on any skills derived from my education or usual work—not that there were a lot of want ads for essayists anyway. Two, I had to take the highest-paying job that was offered me and do my best to hold it; no Marxist rants or sneaking off to read novels in the ladies’ room. Three, I had to take the cheapest accommodations I could find, at least the cheapest that offered an acceptable level of safety and privacy, though my standards in this regard were hazy and, as it turned out, prone to deterioration over time.
I tried to stick to these rules, but in the course of the project, all of them were bent or broken at some time. In Key West, for example, where I began this project in the late spring of 1998, I once promoted myself to an interviewer for a waitressing job by telling her I could greet European tourists with the appropriate Bonjour or Guten Tag, but this was the only case in which I drew on any remnant of my actual education. In Minneapolis, my final destination, where I lived in the early summer of 2000, I broke another rule by failing to take the best-paying job that was offered, and you will have to judge my reasons for doing so yourself. And finally, toward the very end, I did break down and rant—stealthily, though, and never within hearing of management.
There was also the problem of how to present myself to potential employers and, in particular, how to explain my dismal lack of relevant job experience. The truth, or at least a drastically stripped-down version thereof, seemed easiest: I described myself to interviewers as a divorced homemaker reentering the workforce after many years, which is true as far as it goes. Sometimes, though not always, I would throw in a few housecleaning jobs, citing as references former housemates and a friend in Key West whom I have at least helped with after-dinner cleanups now and then. Job application forms also want to know about education, and here I figured the Ph.D. would be no help at all, might even lead employers to suspect that I was an alcoholic washout or worse. So I confined myself to three years of college, listing my real-life alma mater. No one ever questioned my background, as it turned out, and only one employer out of several dozen bothered to check my references. When, on one occasion, an exceptionally chatty interviewer asked about hobbies, I said "writing" and she seemed to find nothing strange about this, although the job she was offering could have been performed perfectly well by an illiterate.
Finally, I set some reassuring limits to whatever tribulations I might have to endure. First, I would always have a car. In Key West I drove my own; in other cities I used Rent-A-Wrecks, which I paid for with a credit card rather than my earnings. Yes, I could have walked more or limited myself to jobs accessible by public transportation. I just figured that a story about waiting for buses would not be very interesting to read. Second, I ruled out homelessness as an option. The idea was to spend a month in each setting and see whether I could find a job and earn, in that time, the money to pay a second month’s rent. If I was paying rent by the week and ran out of money I would simply declare the project at an end; no shelters or sleeping in cars for me. Furthermore, I had no intention of going hungry. If things ever got to the point where the next meal was in question, I promised myself as the time to begin the "experiment" approached, I would dig out my ATM card and cheat.
So this is not a story of some death-defying "undercover" adventure. Almost anyone could do what I did—look for jobs, work those jobs, try to make ends meet. In fact, millions of Americans do it every day, and with a lot less fanfare and dithering.
I AM, OF COURSE, VERY DIFFERENT FROM THE PEOPLE WHO NORMALLY fill America’s least attractive jobs, and in ways that both helped and limited me. Most obviously, I was only visiting a world that others inhabit full-time, often for most of their lives. With all the real-life assets I’ve built up in middle age—bank account, IRA, health insurance, multiroom home—waiting indulgently in the background, there was no way I was going to "experience poverty" or find out how it "really feels" to be a long-term low-wage worker. My aim here was much more straightforward and objective—just to see whether I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day. Besides, I’ve had enough unchosen encounters with poverty in my lifetime to know it’s not a place you would want to visit for touristic purposes; it just smells too much like fear.
Unlike many low-wage workers, I have the further advantages of being white and a native English speaker. I don’t think this affected my chances of getting a job, given the willingness of employers to hire almost anyone in the tight labor market of 1998 to 2000, but it almost certainly affected the kinds of jobs I was offered. In Key West, I originally sought what I assumed would be a relatively easy job in hotel housekeeping and found myself steered instead into waitressing, no doubt because of my ethnicity and my English skills. As it happened, waitressing didn’t provide much of a financial advantage over housekeeping, at least not in the low-tip off-season when I worked in Key West. But the experience did help determine my choice of other localities in which to live and work. I ruled out places like New York and L.A., for example, where the working class consists mainly of people of color and a white woman with unaccented English seeking entry-level jobs might only look desperate or weird.
I had other advantages—the car, for example—that set me off from many, though hardly all, of my coworkers. Ideally, at least if I were seeking to replicate the experience of a woman entering the workforce from welfare, I would have had a couple of children in tow, but mine are grown and no one was willing to lend me theirs for a monthlong vacation in penury. In addition to being mobile and unencumbered, I am probably in a lot better health than most members of the long-term low-wage workforce. I had everything going for me.
If there were other, subtler things different about me, no one ever pointed them out. Certainly I made no effort to play a role or fit into some imaginative stereotype of low-wage working women. I wore my usual clothes, wherever ordinary clothes were permitted, and my usual hairstyle and makeup. In conversations with coworkers, I talked about my real children, marital status, and relationships; there was no reason to invent a whole new life. I did modify my vocabulary, however, in one respect: at least when I was new at a job and worried about seeming brash or disrespectful, I censored the profanities that are—thanks largely to the Teamster influence—part of my normal speech. Other than that, I joked and teased, offered opinions, speculations, and, incidentally, a great deal of health related advice, exactly as I would do in any other setting.
Several times since completing this project I have been asked by acquaintances whether the people I worked with couldn’t, uh, tell—the supposition being that an educated person is ineradicably different, and in a superior direction, from your workaday drones. I wish I could say that some supervisor or coworker told me even once that I was special in some enviable way—more intelligent, for example, or clearly better educated than most. But this never happened, I suspect because the only thing that really made me "special" was my inexperience. To state the proposition in reverse, 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. Anyone in the educated classes who thinks otherwise ought to broaden their circle of friends.
There was always, of course, the difference that only I knew—that I wasn’t working for the money, I was doing research for an article and later a book. I went home every day not to anything resembling a normal domestic life but to a laptop on which I spent an hour or two recording the day’s events—very diligently, I should add, since note taking was seldom an option during the day. This deception, symbolized by the laptop that provided a link to my past and future, bothered me, at least in the case of people I cared about and wanted to know better. (I should mention here that names and identifying details have been altered to preserve the privacy of the people I worked with and encountered in other settings during the course of my research. In most cases, I have also changed the names of the places I worked and their exact locations to further ensure the anonymity of people I met.)
In each setting, toward the end of my stay and after much anxious forethought, I "came out" to a few chosen coworkers. The result was always stunningly anticlimactic, my favorite response being, "Does this mean you’re not going to be back on the evening shift next week? " I’ve wondered a lot about why there wasn’t more astonishment or even indignation, and part of the answer probably lies in people’s notion of "writing. " Years ago, when I married my second husband, he proudly told his uncle, who was a valet parker at the time, that I was a writer. The uncle’s response: "Who isn’t? " Everyone literate "writes, " and some of the low-wage workers I have known or met through this project write journals and poems—even, in one case, a lengthy science fiction novel.
But as I realized very late in this project, it may also be that I was exaggerating the extent of the "deception" to myself. There’s no way, for example, to pretend to be a waitress: the food either gets to the table or not. People knew me as a waitress, a cleaning person, a nursing home aide, or a retail clerk not because I acted like one but because that’s what I was, at least for the time I was with them. In every job, in every place I lived, the work absorbed all my energy and much of my intellect. I wasn’t kidding around. Even though I suspected from the start that the mathematics of wages and rents were working against me, I made a mighty effort to succeed.
I make no claims for the relevance of my experiences to anyone else’s, because there is nothing typical about my story. Just bear in mind, when I stumble, that this is in fact 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.
Excerpted from Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.
Copyright © 2001. by Barbara Ehrenreich.
Published in 2008 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.
Table of ContentsCONTENTS
Introduction: Getting Ready
One. Serving in Florida
Two. Scrubbing in Maine
Three. Selling in Minnesota
Afterword: Nickel and Dimed
A Reader’s Guide
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.
READING AND UNDERSTANDING THE BOOK
1. Near the outset, Ehrenreich (speaking of her own sister) employs the term "wage slave." What does she mean by this?
2. What are the three rules the author sets for herself at the beginning of Nickel and Dimed? Does she ever break them? If so, when and why, in your view, does she do so?
3. Early on, the author tells us that she has a Ph.D. in biology. How, if at all, does this figure into the narrative? What does Ehrenreich's scientific training bring to the "old-fashioned journalism" of this book?
4. Why does Ehrenreich assert in her Introduction that "a story about waiting for buses would not be very interesting to read"? What are the context and rationale for this remark? And given as much, do you agree?
5. Early in Chapter One, Ehrenreich notes that, in terms of low-wage work, "the want ads are not a reliable measure of the actual jobs available at any particular time." Explain why this is so.
6. At one point, Ehrenreich details the living conditions of her fellow workers at the Hearthside. Reviewing these arrangements, explain how each set-up compares with the author's own "$500 efficiency" quarters.
7. Waiting tables at Jerry's, the author meets a young dishwasher named George. Who is he? What is his story? Why do he and Ehrenreich befriend one another? And why does she not "intervene" when she learns from an assistant manager that George is thought to be a thief?
8. On her first-and last-day of housekeeping in Key West, Ehrenreich is met by a manager who addresses her as "babe" and gives her "a pamphlet emphasizing the need for a positive attitude." When and where else, throughout the book, does the author encounter cheap talk or hollow slogans in her endeavors as a low-wage worker? What purposes might such empty language serve? Why is it so prevalent?
9. In an extended footnote in Chapter Two, Ehrenreich explains how "the point" of the housecleaning service where she is employed "is not so much to clean as to create the appearance of having been cleaned." Why is this? Why the deceit? Why does The Maids outfit not clean its clients' homes properly?
10. "The hands-and-knees approach is a definite selling point for corporate cleaning services like The Maids," the author writes. Explain why this "oldfashioned way" of housecleaning is thus appealing. Why does it seem to, as Ehrenreich puts it, "gratify the consumers of maid services"?
11. Buying groceries with a voucher at a Shop-n-Save in Maine, Ehrenreich notes of the checkout woman ringing up her purchases: "I attempt to thank her, but she was looking the other way at nothing in particular." What might such body language mean? Why, if at all, is it telling?
12. Looking back on Chapter Two as a whole, what connections would you make between maids and minorities in the United States? What about between maids and poverty, and maids and "invisibility"? Refer to the text itself when making your links.
13. Who is Budgie? Why does Ehrenreich tell us to let Budgie "be a stand-in"? Also, would it be accurate to say that the author's efforts to find a safe and affordable place to live were least successful in Minnesota? Explain why or why not.
14. Paraphrase the brief "story within a story" represented by the character called Caroline. What is Caroline's tale? Why does Ehrenreich get in touch with this person, and what does she learn from her?
15. As her stint at Wal-Mart winds down, the author mentions to several of her colleagues that they "could use a union here"-only, as she herself readily admits, she is "not a union organizer anymore than [she is] Wal-Mart 'management material.'" So why, then, is she making efforts at unionizing? What has led her to these efforts? What are her reasons, grievances, motivations, and goals?
16. At the outset of her Evaluation chapter, the author seems to arrive at a new understanding of the phrase "unskilled labor." Explain this new understanding. Do you agree with it? Why or why not?
17. Describe the problems that Ehrenreich has with how the "poverty level" is calculated in this country. Is she correct on this score, in your view? Explain. Also, how does one's understanding of the poverty level-Ehrenreich's or anyone else's- relate to food costs, and to the author's assertion that our "wages are too low and rents too high."
18. What is the "money taboo"-and why and how does it function, as Ehrenreich puts it, "most effectively among the lowest-paid people"?
19. Why does Ehrenreich refer to low-wage workers, at the close of her book, as "the major philanthropists of our society"?
QUESTIONS AND EXERCISES FOR THE CLASS
1. In the Introduction to Nickel and Dimed, the author writes: "Unlike many lowwage workers, I have the further advantages of being white and a native English speaker." As a class, explore whether, why, and how these two facets of Ehrenreich's identity were, in fact, advantageous over the full duration of her study.
2. Near the beginning of this book, Ehrenreich compares the restaurant-tipping habits of Americans and Europeans. Near the end, she notes that, while "most civilized nations compensate for inadequacy of wages by providing relatively generous public services," the U.S. "leaves its citizens to fend for themselves." What, in Ehrenreich's view, could America learn from other countries about how to better treat its low-wage workers?
3. The action of Nickel and Dimed unfolds in three American communities, as found in three different states: Florida, Maine, and Minnesota. What about your own community? How would Nickel and Dimed be different-or similar-if it included the area you call home? On your own, or as part of a group, do some research-via newspapers and magazines, TV news broadcasts, and the Internet- in order to formulate your answer.
4. Ehrenreich often speaks of dietary matters, of nutrition, of food as fuel. Why does she keep doing so? What did reading this book tell you about how we eat and how we work in America? And what about the correlations that may or may not exist between low-wage American workers and their use of cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol?
5. In her chapter "Selling in Minnesota," Ehrenreich asserts: "Wherever you look, there is no alternative to the megascale corporate order, from which every form of local creativity and initiative has been abolished by distant home offices." Talk about whether this is true in your own experience. If not, why not? If so, where and when have you seen evidence to support this claim? Try to use your own examples and impressions here-not Ehrenreich's.
6. Describing the food at a Florida restaurant where she works, Ehrenreich calls it "your basic Ohio cuisine with a tropical twist." Later, wondering what living in Maine might be like, she says, "Maybe . . . when you give white people a whole state to themselves, they treat one another real nice." Still later, she writes that certain clothes on sale at her Minnesota Wal-Mart are "seemingly aimed at pudgy fourth-grade teachers with important barbecues to attend." Discuss the biting humor- the sharp and sometimes even mocking wit-appearing throughout this book. How, if at all, does such levity make Ehrenreich's arguments more effective? And were there instances where you thought her wisecracks went too far-or fell flat? Explain.
7. "Let's look at the record," writes Ehrenreich in her Evaluation. What does this record tell us? Where was she most successful in her experiment, and where was she least? Do you agree with the author when she says, after going over her record, "All right, I made mistakes"? Explain why or why not. What could she have done differently, and what would you-in her shoes-have done differently? Explain.
8. Throughout Nickel and Dimed the author makes complaints about "management." Summarize the many problems that Ehrenreich has with managers, looking especially at the book's Wal-Mart passages and the breakdown of "workplace authoritarianism" in the Evaluation chapter.
9. Explain why Ehrenreich believes that personality surveys and drug tests are both categorically unfair to low-wage workers. Look back over the full range of her low-wage experiences when crafting your answer.
10. More than once in these pages, we encounter the severe bodily and psychological harm that hard work at low pay can cause-the physical damage as well as the threats of what Ehrenreich calls, after an especially trying shift at her nursing home job, "repetitive injury of the spirit." Prepare a short report on the health risks of lowwage work, based on Ehrenreich's study and on your own findings in various media reports.
11. One of the strengths of this book must be its cast of characters-the real people who live and work in the real world Ehrenreich is reporting on, those workers with whom she toils, relates, confers, cries, argues, and so on. In a short essay, identify and discuss a certain individual (or two) from this book by whom you were particularly touched. In your essay, explain your choice(s).
12. A few times in Nickel and Dimed, the author refers to the "Sermon on the Mount," which appears in the biblical book of Matthew. Ehrenreich refers to this sermon not as a religious tract but as a work of a political philosophy, as a treatise on social or economic revolution. What is this sermon about? What does it say or claim? (Do some research, if you are unsure.) Finally, explain why Ehrenreich thinks this sermon now applies to America's low-wage workers in particular.
13. In a way, this book can read as a reaction to-or a hands-on test of-the "welfare reform" legislation enacted in the U.S. in the 1990s. "In the rhetorical buildup to welfare reform," Ehrenreich writes, "it was uniformly assumed that a job was the ticket out of poverty." As a class, conduct a detailed conversation about Nickel and Dimed as a point-by-point examination of this very assumption.
14. This book is, of course, more than a report on, and exposé of, "(not) getting by in America"-it is also a detailed critique. To this end, the bulk of its criticism might well be directed at the Wal-Mart empire. Is this appropriate, in your view? Explain. Given that Wal-Mart is far and away the world's largest company, is it right to expect the retail megachain to be all the more fair and respectful of its employees? Explain.
15. Nickel and Dimed takes place during a so-called economic boom in American history, the period of "peace and prosperity" (as many people called it then, and still call it now) that was the late 1990s. However, the book is largely about poverty, about the poor-and not simply the helplessly destitute, but rather the poor who are employed full-time. Near the outset of her study, Ehrenreich tells us that "there are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs." Near the end, in sum, she tells us that poverty is an experience of "acute distress"-a nonstop "state of emergency." Finish your exploration of the book by talking about what it taught you on the subject of poverty in America. Not just about what it costs to "get by" but about how people living in poverty make ends meet-how they, in Ehrenreich's language, "[try] to match income to expenses."