Nickel and Dimed: On Getting By in America – Not

Nickel and Dimed: On Getting By in America – Not – Review

Joni Scott

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2001); 256 pp,; $23.00 cloth.

At the risk of being stoned, I have to say that it seems to have taken an atheist to do a Christian’s job. Barbara Ehrenreich’s “princess pretends to be a pauper” tale journeys to where 30 percent of the U.S. population earns eight dollars per hour while Citigroup CEO Sanford Weill munches on corporate profits to the tune of a $224,870,103 per year salary. Nickel and Dimed is an American anti-fairy tale, infused with emotionally charged imagery, raw authenticity, and mordant wit.

The author’s sojourn begins with a twinkle in her publisher’s eye over haute cuisine. The publisher is struck by the revelation that a sacrificial journalist must bravely go out into the fields to live among the lowly for the gut wrenching facts! (At this point my eyes roll involuntarily and I imagine Don Ameche in the film Trading Places.)

So despite middle-age reluctance, Ehrenreich roils up her sleeves and embarks on a social science experiment (writing that, after all, she does have a biology degree). As one who has long lived the life she explores only on a short-term basis, I bristle when, with cool and clinical objectivity she writes, “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.” Apes and chimpanzees pop into my head and then I read, “The only way to find out was to get out there and get my hands dirty.” I cringe but keep an open mind.

Bravely sliding down a mock socioeconomic slide, Ehrenreich descends from a six-figure salary as a lecturer and writer to hourly squalor–the American Dream in reverse. I’m glad she acknowledges that her scientific variables misrepresent the norm and that she is protected by an economic trampoline. Many don’t have the luxury of start-up money, car, white skin, good health, the ability to speak English, or three years of college to help her secure employment.

Thankfully, my indignant grunts cease as she pens her respect for those enduring the daily maelstrom of low-wage life. She empathically exhorts, “I was only visiting a world that others inhabit full time,” stating that the educated classes need to know the poor are bright and anyone who “thinks otherwise ought to broaden their circle of friends.” State by state Ehrenreich scrubs, serves, and even feeds residents in an Alzheimer ward without complaint. I can almost hear a collective cheer from the “caste culture” when, on a brief excursion home, she expresses annoyance that relatives and friends were like “a distant race of people with exotic concerns and far too much time on their hands.”

Ehrenreich unveils the fallout of corporate greed much as Michael Moore did in Roger and Me (1989) and she examines how corporations often strip employees of their dignity. Random locker searches and drug testing occur despite what she routinely observes to be honest, hard working co-workers. Forced “mandatory gentility” leads to robotic, inauthentic behavior. As one employee laments, “They talk about having spirit, but they don’t give us any reason to have any spirit.”

Withholding first paychecks–a common corporate practice–can devastate new employees who must front money for extra costs such as work clothing. Banal corporate quizzes with no-brainer questions like “Are you an honest person?” and supervisors who warn, “A break room is not a right, it can be taken away,” reduce adults to the status of school children.

Nickel and Dimed exposes the anti-America of flophouses, multiple house sharing, employees sleeping in cars, and the homeless who work forty hours or more weekly. Those who used to be middle class, despite often working two jobs, now endure a daily scramble to prioritize such needs as food, housing, childcare, and health care. One extra expense–like dental work, work uniforms, medication, school supplies, and the like–can “break the camel’s back.”

So I can’t fault Ehrenreich for having stock options and a pension plan while publicly admonishing the excesses of the wealthy. She ponders whether the exurb queens whose houses she and her newfound comrades clean “have any idea of the misery that goes into rendering their homes motel-perfect?” She queries, “Would they be bothered if they did know or would they take a sadistic pride in what they have purchased–boasting to dinner guests for example that their floors are cleaned only with the purest of fresh human tears?”

And regarding the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) patrons she serves during her Key West server stint, she writes: they “look at us disapprovingly no matter what we do (and they don’t tip) as if they were confusing waitressing with Mary Magdalene’s original profession.” Another poke at hypocrisy comes when Ehrenreich describes how ennui moves her to investigate a Saturday night “tent revival.” This passage plunges into a commentary about Jesus being “out there in the dark, gagged and tethered to a tent pole” thereby stifling his message of Christian charity.

Mostly, she delivers a profoundly poignant description of people, such as a hopeful Czech dishwasher living with a crowd of other Czech “dishers.” He can’t sleep until one of them goes to work, leaving a vacant bed.

On that note, I hear the ghost of social reformer past, Jacob A. Riis, a police reporter who wrote of and extensively photographed the poor in his 1890 book How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. Riis’ words could apply to this century:

The gap between the classes in which it surges unseen, unsuspected by the

thoughtless is widening day by day. No tardy enactment of law, no political

expedient can close it…. I know of but one bridge that will carry us over

safe, a bridge founded upon justice and built of human hearts.

By the end of Nickel and Dimed I felt thankful to Barbara Ehrenreich for this important literary contribution and call to action that I hope is answered. I believe this book should be required reading for corporate executives and politicians. A bumpersticker once read, “He who has the most toys at the end wins.” Is this to be our legacy?

Joni Scott is associate director of the Pro Choice League ( in Huntington, New York, and is currently helping write the life story of Bill Baird.

COPYRIGHT 2001 American Humanist Association

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group