Nickel and Dimed Summary

Barbara Ehrenreich

Nickel and Dimed

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Nickel and Dimed Summary

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Within American culture, it is common for those who enjoy such advantages as having a safe and comfortable place to live, access to medical services, and proper nutrition to believe that these are the just deserts of their hard work and determination. The flip side of this common attitude is the idea that those who lack such things, the have-nots, are deprived due to their lack of motivation and resourcefulness. With the exception of those who are unable to work due to disability, those living in adverse conditions are generally not seen as deserving of sympathy from the more fortunate. In Nickel and Dimed Barbara Ehlereich seeks to correct many such misconceptions about the bottom rungs of American society, and in particular, to make her readers aware of the obstacles that prevent even the most determined among the nation’s poor from achieving access to the lifestyle that most above them take for granted.

Ehlereich sets about her task drawing on the experiences she gained as she attempted to see for herself what life is like for America’s working poor. Traveling to Florida, then to Maine, and finally to Minnesota, Ehlereich’s mission was to get by supporting herself with no other resources than the salary she received from working jobs requiring no special training or education, in other words, jobs for unskilled laborers. Ehlereich would attempt to live as frugally as possible during her experiment, which meant, among other things, that she would forego spending money on new clothes, on entertainment, or on anything that was not absolutely necessary for survival.

The first stop on Ehlereich’s itinerary was Key West, Florida. One of the first things Ehlereich noticed was that the availability of jobs for unskilled laborers was much smaller than one would be led to believe by the number of job openings advertised. After sending out dozens of applications and hearing nothing back, Ehlereich finally is offered a job as a waitress.

As a waitress, the hours are long and the pay is insufficient for making ends meet, but there are no more lucrative positions available to Ehlereich. Committed to walking in the shoes of the working poor, Ehlereich does what is necessary to support herself, which means taking a second job working for a housecleaning service. But the combination of waitressing and cleaning proves to be too physically demanding for Ehlereich. Suffering from near exhaustion, Ehlereich gives up the housecleaning job after only a single day on the job. Although she had planned to remain in each of the three locations on the itinerary for at least a month, Ehlereich acknowledges that she has been defeated by Key West; She simply lacks the physical stamina to do what unskilled laborers do just to survive.

Another important observation Ehlereich makes in the course of her experiment is that in addition to earning low wages and living paycheck to paycheck, unskilled laborers are hit with extra costs for necessities such as rent and food. Lacking any substantial amount of savings, they are unable to provide security deposits that many landlords require from new tenants. Landlords who waive this condition in most cases will make up the difference by increasing the amount of rent demanded.

Being unable to accumulate significant savings also means that these working poor must also pay more for other necessities such as food. Many readers will have taken for granted the amount of money they save by being able to store food in their refrigerator. Those without means to purchase a fridge lose out on the savings, and moreover, are forced by their condition to subsist on cheap, but often unhealthy, food sold in convenience stores and fast food restaurants.

After Key West, Ehlereich makes a second go at her experiment in Portland, Maine, where she again takes two separate jobs – one as a housecleaner with The Maids housekeeping company, the other as an aide at a local nursing home. In Portland, Ehlereich experiences the same level of exhaustion that she experienced in Key West. Moreover, she gets a glimpse into the callous way that low-level workers are often treated by their employers. After one of Ehlereich’s co-workers with The Maids suffers an accident while working, it takes Ehlereich’s threatening to incite the other workers to strike before their boss will agree to give the injured worker a day off to recover.

Ehlereich’s final stop is Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she takes a job at Wal-Mart in the clothing department restocking the racks. The job requires extensive amounts of time spent on interviews and training before Ehlereich can even begin the job, which is tedious and exhausting in its own way. Aside from this, Ehlereich is unable to secure a normal apartment, as none available are within her budget. The situation forces Ehlereich to take up residence in a hotel, where she feels vulnerable to attack by those who pass by her first floor window.

In each location Ehlereich sees the same pattern of lack of opportunities for those struggling to survive, a situation perpetuated by employers and merchants who reap profits of all the hard work done by their employees and customers. What is perhaps most astonishing of all in Nickel and Dimed, however, is the resignation expressed by those whom Ehlereich works beside. It raises an important question: if those in some of the higher echelons of society are able to recognize the injustice and exploitation evident in Ehlereich’s narrative, why are those who are subject to such treatment unable to recognize it as such? Or if they do recognize it, why do they choose to grin and bear it? Such questions perhaps deserve further investigation of their own.