Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
Barbara Ehrenreich’s non-fiction bestseller, Nickel and Dimed, is the story of an essay writer who went undercover as a low wage worker to find out how non-skilled workers make ends meet. The experiment took place in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota, with the author finding a job and lodgings in each location. The experiment was held for one month in each location, working full time and living only off the amount of money earned in low-wage jobs. The goal was to determine whether or not the author could both live off the money earned and have enough money at the end of the month to pay the next month’s rent.
The first city chosen was Key West, Florida, due to the proximity to her home. Ehrenreich gets a job as a waitress in a diner-style restaurant, and finds a trailer to rent nearby. The income she receives from waiting tables is not enough to support her and to pay the next installment of rent, and Ehrenreich takes on a second job working as a hotel maid. The two jobs become too physically demanding for her to continue, and she vacates the maid position after one day. The waitress position becomes increasingly difficult as well, and Ehrenreich leaves the job before the month has been completed.
The second city chosen for the experiment was Portland, Maine. In this city, Ehrenreich found a job with The Maids, a residential housekeeping service. Knowing that it would likely take two jobs to meet her goals, she also took a job as a dietary aide in a nursing home. Her two jobs are staggered so that Ehrenreich works seven days a week. The housekeeping position proved to be physically demanding as well as low paying, and Ehrenreich also felt the job to be degrading. After one of the other maids in injured on the job, Ehrenreich demands that the younger maid stop working, and tries to halt the work of all the maids. Unsuccessful, Ehrenreich complains to the manager and wins a day off for the injured worker. As a dietary aide, Ehrenreich finds herself taking care of the entire Alzheimer’s ward by herself, afraid that by making a mistake she could harm her patients.
After leaving Maine, Ehrenreich travels to Minnesota, where she attempts to find both a job and an affordable place to live. Because of Minneapolis’ low apartment vacancy rate, she is unable to secure and apartment. She does quickly get hired by Wal-Mart as a “softlines” worker, putting errant clothing back on the racks. She finds a hotel to live in, but stays worried about the boltless door, and moves to a nicer hotel.
After leaving each job, Ehrenreich tells a few employees who have gained her trust that her reason for being in the job had only been to write a book about the experience. She is surprised that there is never a dramatic response to the confession, but the workers are caught up in their own low-wage situations and show little interest in her reasons for leaving.
- Barbara Ehrenreich - As a non-fiction narrative, the author was the main character of the book, conceiving and carrying out the low-wage experiments. Ehrenreich kept her real name while applying for jobs, though she did not reveal her Ph.D. in biology, nor her background as a writer.
- B.J.- All of the minor characters, including B.J., had their names changed by the author to protect their privacy. B.J. was a manager at the first job Ehrenreich took during the experiment, at a restaurant in Key West.
- George- George was a dishwasher in the Key West Restaurant. An immigrant from Czechoslovakia, George spoke little English and had trouble understanding the problems that were happening in the restaurant around him. He was eventually accused of stealing from the restaurant and fired without understanding the reason.
- Ted- Ted is the manager of The Maids, a housekeeping service in Maine that Ehrenreich joins. Ted attempts to get Ehrenreich to tell him about any employees who have been complaining about their jobs. Ehrenreich believes that many of the women working for The Maids are doing so to gain Ted’s approval.
- Holly- Holly is a maid who works with Ehrenreich in Maine. She discovers she is pregnant during the month Ehrenreich is there, and suffers from dizzy spells and nausea. During one house cleaning she twists her ankle and walks with a limp afterward.
- Marge- A maid from Maine who suffers from arthritis, Marge is regularly paired with Holly and Ehrenreich for house cleaning assignments.
- Melissa- An employee of a Wal-Mart in Minneapolis, Melissa works with Ehrenreich sorting clothing. She quits her job when Ehrenreich does, saying that she doesn’t want to work there without her.
- Howard- Howard is the assistant manager at the Minneapolis Wal-Mart. He conducts regular meetings for all employees in order to discuss emergency scenarios and to warn them not to talk to each other.
Introduction: Getting Ready
In the introduction, Ehrenreich describes her real life as a writer with a Ph.D. in biology and an upper middle class home and life. On the advice of Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham, Ehrenreich decides to take on an experiment to show the world what it’s really like to live as an unskilled, low-wage worker. To do this, she tries to survive in a variety of different settings, choosing three very different cities and finds a job and a place to live in each. She attempts to live only on the money she makes at whatever job she finds, though she makes the decision not to go hungry and to use a credit card if absolutely necessary. She brings enough money to get set up in an apartment or other dwelling, about $1,300. She attempts to find lodgings that she could sustain only with the money coming in from a job.