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

May 3, 2010
"Most Obviously, I was only visiting a world that others inhabit full time, often for most of their lives."

I sometimes find myself thinking that kindergartners could handle some of the jobs I see people do at Sonic or Walgreens doing. Most people I know believe that minimum wage workers have jobs that require no real skill level. I can honestly say that I used to be one of those people. I assumed that the people I saw flipping burgers at fast food restaurants and folding clothes in department stores were just lazy people who did not want to use the extra effort to get a better job. I was wrong. With the help of Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, I learned that minimum wage workers not only work, but that their jobs are often more difficult, not to mention more tiring, than corporate jobs. Ehrenreich combines facts with personal stories to make her readers realize that no job is truly unskilled--not even the jobs given to minimum wage workers. The passion that Ehrenreich expresses throughout her book is evident, which only makes me want to discover that same passion. Because Ehrenreich devoted part of her life to uncovering the true lives of minimum wage workers, I now understand some of the hardships these workers encounter. Nickel and Dimed is a direct, almost harsh, wake-up call to the life of minimum wage workers.

"Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism- you know, go out there and try it for themselves."

Ehrenreich did what few people dare-- she traded her life of luxury for the grueling life of a wageworker. She experienced the hardships for herself and made decisions based on her experiences. Ehrenreich descends from a six-figure salary as an award-winning journalist to an “hourly squalor, ” according to an article in The Humanist by Joni Scott. Nickel and Dimed was not Ehrenreich’s first book about social injustices; she wrote essays and books titled "The Worst Years of our Lives: Irrelevant Notes from a Decade of Greed", Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, and The American Health Empire: Power, Profits, and Politics before writing Nickel and Dimed in 2001. But, Nickel and Dimed was the first book where she combined first-hand experience with fact. It is obvious that Barbara Ehrenreich had definitely done her research prior to writing and publishing the book because she lists an enough statistics, numbers, situations, and examples to prove her credibility and highlight her experience. While numerical information is important, I was more captured by Ehrenreich’s incorporation of her personal experiences inside the specific fields. It was not until she spoke of her interactions with her coworkers when I discovered her effective use of pathos. I felt an emotional attachment to these characters that I would not have felt if she would have simply listed their income or statistics about the majority of minimum wage workers. I have never purposely frowned upon minimum wage workers, but the stories that she shared made me realize that I judged minimum wage workers based on their jobs. Her stories also made me realize how fortunate I am; I have so much more than any of the characters in Nickel and Dimed and I do not even have a job. I not only have a house, but a big house in a nice neighborhood with a pool; I do not only have one car, but my family owns four cars, and I have something different to wear every single day. I have never had a job and I rarely have asked for something and not received it. I know I am spoiled, and I know not everyone has the same blessings as I do. I wish I had the courage to trade my life as a wealthy, spoiled student, but I cannot leave my comfortable life as Ehrenreich did.

"If you can't stand being around suffering people, then you have no business in the low-wage work world..."

The workers that clean our houses do not live the comfortable life that I do. I am not ridiculed daily because of my job as they are. They are average people like you and me, but they are thrown into a world where people look down on them, even though they work longer, harder hours than I could possibly imagine. The life of a minimum wage worker is not one that is desired by many people, but people who truly need the jobs, take them. I got the best taste of the lives of minimum wage workers in the chapter "Scrubbing in Maine." In Maine, Ehrenreich worked as a maid; cleaning after people was not a new job for her, (she has spent a lifetime of cleaning up after her husband a children) but in her home life, she was never forced to be on her hands and knees, scrubbing floors or being pestered by pompous home owners. Ehrenreich was under compulsion to clean some of the dirtiest and most difficult places of a home, including the bathroom. Because of the “stained toilets” (Ehrenreich, 92). Ehrenreich describes in this chapter I realized the people that I would least expect are doing the most emotionally and physically challenging work. I could not be paid enough money to clean the stained, fifthly toilets that maids have to clean routinely. The maids in Nickel and Dimed daily face the negative connotations; the job is thought as degrading and humiliating. Not only did Ehrenreich and her coworkers have to suffer the ridicule because of the uniform, but also they had to literally get her hands dirty by scrubbing floors and toilets. The picture above shows a woman wearing a shirt saying, "Maid to Clean." Imagine walking down the streets wearing something so degrading and demeaning. Imagine what people are thinking about you. The coarse joking, impolite homeowners, difficult tasks, pain, or sicknesses never stopped the women, no matter the age, from working.

"Ours is an economic culture that reflexively rewards and flatters the prosperous while punishing and insulting the poor, no matter how hard they work."

Nickel and Dimed was not primarily written as an "expose of the service industry” according to Christine Curran, author of Trading Places, but Ehrenreich describes the mandatory drug tests, break times, busy work, and the kitsch lives of minimum wage workers as though she is criticizing the wrong in society. The working poor do not receive the attention they deserve. Little statistical information is known about minimum wage workers because nobody goes out of their way to find out anything. Who knows? You may discover a truth about minimum wage workers that you never thought was possible; I know I did. Do not be one of those people who mocks minimum wage workers because of their uniform, be the person who is aware of their hard work. Instead of getting angry at the guy at Sonic for taking too long to bring you your food, think about the people making your food, how long they have been cooking and cleaning all day. I learned that not everyone has the privilege to go to college, or even finish high school. The working world is a very real thing. Many people have not experienced what it is like, neither have I, but reading Nickel and Dimed opened my eyes to the secret lives of minimum wage workers.

"...a self-cleaned house was the hall-mark of womanly virtue"

I felt that Ehrenreich wanted her audience to realize that no job is truly unskilled. Even the jobs that seem simple like waitressing or working at Wal-Mart require “a good deal of work and can be thought with frustration and difficulty” according to Christine Curran, who changed her opinion after reading Nickel and Dimed. Before reading Ehrenreich’s book I too would argue that minimum wage jobs are unskilled, but after reading about the intense pain Holly (a maid that worked with Ehrenreich) suffered through when cleaning a house and obeying a customer’s every command while waitressing, my mind was quickly changed. Cleaning houses may seem like a mindless job, but there is skill required to perfectly dust each window seal, sanitize each bathroom, and scrub each floor, especially when homeowners are continually criticizing you for "missing a spot" or moving too slow. After finishing Nickel and Dimed, I decided that I wanted to try to clean my entire house. I figured my house was about the size of a typical house that Ehrenreich and her crew cleaned. Embarrassingly enough, I could not clean my house. I started with dusting, then I vacuumed, and finished with washing dishes... Doing all of this in one room- the kitchen. I do not have the perseverance that Ehrenreich and her coworkers have. Ehrenreich's mother used to tell her that "a self-cleaned house was the hall-mark of womanly virtue," her mother would not have liked me because even more embarrassing, I had to ask my mom how to start the dishwasher. This experience further proved my belief that no job is truly unskilled.

"They think we're stupid... They think we have nothing better to do with our time... We're nothing to these people... We're just maids."

Sadly, not all people agree with my opinion. While I do not think one can be judged on their job (because minimum wage jobs often require more work than corporate jobs), others believe that higher paid jobs are more strenuous because of the effort and education is takes to get there. Writer, John Carson, is one of the many people that once though that “positions filled by the working poor usually are classified as being unskilled,” but Nickel and Dimed taught him that no jobs that Ehrenrich performed (waitress, maid, nursing home aide, and Wal-Mart employee) were truly unskilled. These jobs require concentration, quick learning and adaptation, and physically demanding labor, such as working on a snapped ankle (Ehrenreich 110). Although it may not seem like it, I think minimum wage workers work harder than the suits in the business world.

"...but sooner or later you have to get to the bench and plunge into the everyday chaos of nature..."

Because Ehrenriech stepped out of her comfort zone and decided to experience a life she has never known, because she chose to live the life of a minimum wage worker, my opinion of minimum wage workers has changed. Is it wrong that I once

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