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

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

Russell, Angela C

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America By Barbara Ehrenreich Metropolitan/Owl Books New York, New York, 240 pages.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America is a personal account of what it is like to live as a minimum wage earner in the United States. Essayist and culture critic Barbara Ehrenreich (2001) went undercover to discover the challenges of living as one of the working poor. Her journey began in Florida and eventually took her to Maine and Minnesota. Along her path, she resided in substandard dwellings and accepted work as a waitress, a hotel maid, a house cleaner, a nursing home aide, and a salesperson at Wal-Mart. The author soon discovered that working full-time for minimum wage does not generate enough money to meet even basic needs such as food and shelter. If an English speaking, well educated, White woman had trouble surviving, one can only imagine how much more difficult it must be for non-English speaking or less literate individuals and persons of color.

Ehrenreich began her adventure in poverty in Key West, FL with a car, good health, no children, and enough money to secure a place to live. She attempted to obtain unskilled employment by filling out a number of applications at a variety of different establishments where she was confronted with written applications, computer interviews, and policies about urine drug testing. She soon learned that being at the right place at the right time is the key to obtaining a minimum wage job. She also learned of the caste system in the minimum wage world where it helps to be English speaking and White and sometimes even female. In spite of being privileged to work as a waitress rather than a housekeeper, Ehrenreich soon discovered that her wages were not enough to cover her rent and came to the realization that unless she was able to generate more income, she would have to take up residence in her car. Luckily, the crisis was averted because she was able to find a second job. If the idea that one can get ahead in America with hard work is true, then the author should have prospered. What she found out was that despite working 16 hours a day, as a maid by day and a waitress by evening, she became mentally and physically exhausted. She walked out on both jobs in Florida, a privilege not generally afforded to the real working poor.

The next stop on Ehrenreich’s journey was Maine. In this homogeneous location, even the maids are predominantly White. The pretender easily infiltrated the world of minimum wage earners. She obtained double employment as a housecleaner and a dietary aide, a lesson learned as an experienced low wage earner. If the author did not have blond hair and blue eyes, it is doubtful whether she would have been able to obtain any kind of employment. Certainly, her experience in this environment would have been different if she was of a different profile.

The final stop on her journey was Minnesota, a state the author admittedly chose for its liberalism and mercy to the poor. As she put it, “Call me gutless, but what I was looking for this time around was a comfortable correspondence between income and rent, a few mild adventures, a soft landing” (Ehrenreich, 2001, p. 122). It is unfortunate that the vast majority of the working poor are not afforded these luxuries! By the time the author arrived in Minnesota, she was well versed in how to secure employment and lodging. In this location, she targeted retail employment in order to have a different kind of experience and encountered two unforeseen obstacles. First, there was the issue of a urine drug test, which she though she might not be able to pass because of her use of a prescription drug for chronic nasal congestion and an indiscretion with marijuana. If she had truly been one of the working poor, the prescription drug probably would not have been a problem because a lack of medical insurance and money would have prevented her from obtaining the medication. Second, the city of Minneapolis had a vacancy rate for housing of less than 1%, and the vacancy rate for affordable housing was as low as a tenth of that (Ehrenreich, 2001).

Passing the urine drug test was Ehrenreich’s first order of business in obtaining employment in Minnesota. Following a Web search (another luxury not available to many working poor), she discovered that there was a detox product sold at General Nutrition Centers (GNC) for $49.95. After taking the prescribed substances, the pretender was able to pass the urine drug test and secure employment at Wal-Mart. In spite of the multiethnic array of inhabitants in the Minneapolis area, the majority of new employees with her in orientation at Wal-Mart were Whites rather than people of color. The second problem, Minneapolis’ affordable housing shortage, was not so easily solved. The lack of affordable housing in this area forced low wage earners to live in shelters until something became available. Ehrenreich opted to pay daily rates at a hotel, an option not feasible for most low wage earners. A simply mathematical economic equation could have been used to show that minimum wage is not enough to meet basic needs, but I applaud Barbara Ehrenreich’s willingness to attempt to experience and publicize the world of the working poor. Although she defined selective poverty criteria prior to beginning the experiment to which she would not subject herself such as homelessness or hunger, she was willing to endure long hours of physical labor and mental bondage. It soon became apparent that even in the minimum wage world, as an English speaking, White woman, she was not only more able to secure employment but also more apt to obtain the more prestigious low wage jobs. In areas of the country, such as Portland, Maine, where “albinism” is the norm, she was accepted for employment and housing. Interestingly, even her marijuana use did not inhibit employment because non-poverty resources (e.g., education, money, technology) were available to her.

It is this reviewer’s opinion that Ehrenreich’s accounts of her journey into the minimum wage world fell short of any great revelations, although her mostly frustrating yet sometimes humorous stories did put the plight of many Americans on the New York Times Bestseller list. Additionally, Ehrenreich’s experiences vividly revealed the subdivisions of opportunities in this large and growing segment of society. If she was “nickel and dimed” at the top of the bottom, what is left for individuals who are even more shortchanged in this country because of background, color, language, or other marginalizing characteristic? That’s my two cents.

Copyright Riley Publications, Inc. Center for the Study of Multiculturalism and Health Winter 2004

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