Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
by Barbara Ehrenreich
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Publication Date: 2002
Publisher: Henry Holt / Metropolitan
Topics: Corporate Rule, Human Health & Welfare, Labor & Work / Classism, United States
Description: Acclaimed as an instant classic upon publication, Nickel and Dimed has sold more than 1.5 million copies and become a staple of classroom reading. Chosen for “one book” initiatives across the country, it has fueled nationwide campaigns for a living wage. Funny, poignant, and passionate, this revelatory firsthand account of life in low-wage America the story of Barbara Ehrenreich's attempts to eke out a living while working as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing-home aide, and Wal-Mart associate has become an essential part of the nations political discourse.
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 job - any job - could be the ticket to a better life. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on six to seven dollars an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered as a woefully inexperienced homemaker returning to the workforce. So began a grueling, hair-raising, and darkly funny odyssey through the underside of working America.
Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, Ehrenreich worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. 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 intend to live indoors.
'Nickel and Dimed' reveals low-wage America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity - a 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 anything - from a motel bathroom to a restaurant meal - quite the same way again.
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of numerous books including 'Blood Rites', 'The Worst Years of Our Lives', and 'Fear of Falling', and is a frequent contributor to Time, Harper's, The Nation, and many other magazines.
Review(s): "...a stiff punch in the nose to those righteous apostles of 'welfare reform'. Not only is it must reading, but it's mesmeric. You can't put the damn thing down. Bravo!" - Studs Terkel
"[A] brave and frank book..." - Naomi Klein
"Reading Ehrenreich is good for the soul." - Molly Ivins
"Barbara Ehrenreich is smart, provocative, funny, and sane in a world that needs more of all four." - Diane Sawyer
"One of today's most original writers." - New York Times
"Ehrenreich is passionate, public, hotly lucid, and politically engaged." - Chicago Tribune
"'Nickel and Dimed' is an important book that should be read by anyone who has been lulled into middle-class complacency." - Ms. Magazine
"We have Barbara Ehrenreich to thank for bringing us the news of America's working poor so clearly and directly, and conveying with it a deep moral outrage and a finely textured sense of lives as lived. As Michael Harrington was, she is now our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism." - Dorothy Gallagher, New York Times Book Review
"Between 1998 and 2000, Ehrenreich spent about three months in three cities throughout the nation, attempting to "get by" on the salary available to low-paid and unskilled workers. Beginning with advantages not enjoyed by many such individuals - she is white, English-speaking, educated, healthy, and unburdened with transportation or child-care worries - she tried to support herself by working as a waitress, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart employee. She discovered that her average salary of $7 per hour couldn't even provide the necessities of life (rent, transportation, and food), let alone the luxury of health coverage. Her account is at once enraging and sobering. In straightforward language, she describes how labor-intensive, demeaning, and controlling such jobs can be: she scrubbed floors on her hands and knees, and found out that talking to coworkers while on the job was considered "time theft." She describes full-time workers who sleep in their cars because they cannot afford housing and employees who yearn for the ability to "take a day off now and then - and still be able to buy groceries the next day." In a concluding chapter, Ehrenreich takes on issues and questions posed before and during the experiment, including why these wages are so low, why workers are so accepting of them, and what Washington's refusal to increase the minimum wage to a realistic "living wage" says about both our economy and our culture. Mandatory reading for any workforce entrant." - Dori DeSpain, Fairfax County Public Library, VA, in School Library Journal
"In contrast to recent books by Michael Lewis and Dinesh D'Souza that explore the lives and psyches of the New Economy's millionares, Ehrenreich ('Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class') turns her gimlet eye on the view from the workforce's bottom rung. Determined to find out how anyone could make ends meet on $7 an hour, she left behind her middle class life as a journalist - except for $1000 in start-up funds, a car and her laptop computer - to try to sustain herself as a low-skilled worker for a month at a time. In 1999 and 2000, Ehrenreich worked as a waitress in Key West, Florida, as a cleaning woman and a nursing home aide in Portland, Maine, and in a Wal-Mart in Minneapolis, Minnesota. During the application process, she faced routine drug tests and spurious "personality tests"; once on the job, she endured constant surveillance and numbing harangues over infractions like serving a second roll and butter. Beset by transportation costs and high rents, she learned the tricks of the trade from her co-workers, some of whom sleep in their cars, and many of whom work when they're vexed by arthritis, back pain or worse, yet still manage small gestures of kindness. Despite the advantages of her race, education, good health and lack of children, Ehrenreich's income barely covered her month's expenses in only one instance, when she worked seven days a week at two jobs (one of which provided free meals) during the off-season in a vacation town. Delivering a fast read that's both sobering and sassy, she gives readers pause about those caught in the economy's undertow, even in good times." - Publishers Weekly