Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

nickel-and-dimedRecommended to me by my economics teacher, Nickel and Dimed is an eye-opening read about the state of the working poor in America. Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich takes on a series of minimum wage jobs — waitress, hotel maid, cleaning woman for The Maids, nursing home aide, and Wal-Mart employee — and attempts to live on the $6-7 an hour (also known as minimum wage) from these jobs. But, as she comes to find out, being a member of the working poor means she has to stay in unsafe, unclean hotels and eat unhealthy, cheap fast food while holding down two dead-end jobs.

“When someone works for less pay than she can life on — when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently — than she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The “working poor,” as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.” (pg. 221)

There’s quite a bit about this book that I found utterly intriguing — the description of how The Maids make a house look aesthetically pleasing rather than actually cleaning the house with disinfectant — but I don’t think Ehrenreich was the right person for the job. There’s a moment when she applies for a job, but is worried about not passing a drug test. Why? Well, in between her relocation from one city or another, she dips into her previous life and smokes weed, along with treating herself to fancy dinners and buying new clothes.

Unlike Not Buying It — another memoir about a drastic life change — I didn’t feel like Ehrenreich’s dips into her old life (and her allowance of a car and a grand to start with) made her human, I felt like it made her a cheater, a poser.

“…and the odd thing is that she is original — the woman who uprooted herself and came out somehow on her feet and who did all this in real life and with children — while I am the imitation, the pallid, child-free pretender.” (pg. 134)

She also has a superiority complex over her coworkers. She ridicules her co-workers in her book and makes fun of their “lack of style,” which makes me thankful that she at least tried to keep their identities a secret. They probably would know who they are if they had the time and money to buy the book, but at least I don’t. She seemed shocked that she would actually have to learn a skill for a job. She expected them to notice her higher education, but was surprised when they didn’t. And when she told them she was actually a journalist, she was stunned that their response was “So you’re not going to be on the night shift next week?” rather than awe for her and what she was doing.

“When my — or, I should say Liza’s — team discovers there is not a single Dobie in our buckets, I suggest that we stop at a convenience story and buy one rather than drive all the way back to the office. But it turns out I haven’t brought any money with me and we cannot put together $2 between the four of our.” (pg. 80)

This could have been an excellent, enlightening book about the state of poverty in America, however Ehrenreich half-assed it. A real poor person does not have a couple grand to start with or to keep them going between jobs when they find out their working conditions are unbearable and, therefore, quit. Nor does a real poor person, when he or she develops some nasty rash, have a private doctor to phone in a prescription for ointment. Since a poor person does not have access to said doctor, he or she has to just suck it up and go to work itchy. At the end of her journey and book, Ehrenreich gives herself an evaluation; she says she makes a pretty decent poor person. Yet, Ehrenreich has a car, a $1,000, and isn’t a single mother.

“I’d been feeling pretty smug about my $500 efficiency, but of course it was made possible only by the $1,300 I had allotted myself for start-up costs when I began my low-wage life: $1,000 for the first month’s rent and deposit, $100 for initial groceries and cash in my pocket, $200 stuffed away for emergencies. In poverty, as in certain propositions in physics, starting conditions are everything.” (pg. 27)

They are interesting tidbits, and I’m glad so many people are reading this book and learning about this “state of emergency.” However, I wish someone else had done it.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. New York, NY: Henry Holt, 2002. Originally published 2001. Print. 221 pgs. ISBN: 9780805063899. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Henry Holt. Retrieved: April 24, 2009.


  1. I’m going to recommend another book to you, just because you said “I wish someone else had done it”… The Working Poor by David Shipler. It’s a little more academic than Nickel and Dimed, but it’s WAY better written, very enlightening, and it’s actual reporting, actual research instead of just “becoming poor” as Ehenriech does. You’ll get much, much more out of it.


  2. I was really bothered by how superior she felt to her co-workers- just because she had a higher education, but then she couldn’t do some of the job skills half as well!


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