Study Guide

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

by Barbara Ehrenreich

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


Introduction: Getting Ready

The idea for Nickel and Dimed is hatched when Barbara Ehrenreich lunches with Harper's editor Lewis Lapham. She suggests that somebody should investigate living on minimum wage from the inside: that is, actually living on a minimum wage and reporting the experience. Lapham agrees and says the person should be Ehrenreich herself. The assignment involves working at minimum-wage jobs for one month at a time to see if she can match her earnings to her expenses.

Ehrenreich has misgivings. She is from a working-class background and has no desire to return to her roots. People around her suggest that she can recreate the situation of minimum wage without going through the actual hardships. However, she finally agrees to the assignment by imagining it as a scientific experiment. In this spirit, she sets up ground rules: first, she cannot rely on skills derived from her education or her work as a writer; second, she must take the highest paying job possible and actually work; and third, she must find the cheapest living conditions for herself. In retrospect, she admits these rules were not always observed. Ehrenreich sets up other parameters as well: she will always have a car, will never go homeless, and will not go hungry.

Ehrenreich acknowledges that she is different from many of the people she will be working with. She is financially comfortable and can walk away from her experiment if she wants. She is white and a native English speaker. She has a car. As for whether the people she deals with can tell she is different than they are, Ehrenreich confesses that the opposite was closer to the truth. Her lack of experience means she is less skilled in many situations. She does not merely pose as a minimum-wage worker; for a period of time, she is, in fact, a minimum-wage worker. The nature of every job she takes, each of which involves some form of physical labor, means that doing the job is never pretend. This fact is brought home by the anticlimactic responses from co-workers when she tells them she is really a writer.

Ehrenreich makes no claim for the typicality of her experience; however, she stresses that hers was a best-case scenario and many others live in far worse situations.

One: Serving in Florida

Ehrenreich decides to stay close to home for her first experiment, looking for work in Key West, Florida. She begins by finding a place to live: staying in Key West is too expensive, so she finds an efficiency apartment thirty miles away. Next, she sets out to find work, filling out applications at various hotels and supermarkets. She aces a computerized exam for a Winn-Dixie supermarket but declines to take a drug test, feeling the pay Winn-Dixie offers is not worth the indignity. After three days of searching, she is hired as a waitress at the Hearthside family restaurant.

On the first day of the job, she is trained by another waitress, Gail, who fills her in on the complexities of both the restaurant's policies and her own life. As a waitress, Ehrenreich is driven by her work ethic and a growing attachment to the customers she serves. Unfortunately, her hopes for a steady month of working as a waitress are disrupted by two things.

First, the restaurant's management is perceived by the rest of the staff as serving corporate interests instead of customers. When a mandatory meeting is called, it is so the manager, Phillip, can complain about the messiness of the break room. Four days later, another meeting is called regarding a report of drug activity during the night shift. This necessitates drug tests for all future hires as well as random tests for current employees. The gossip among staff is that assistant manager, Stu, was the one caught with drugs.

Second, Ehrenreich realizes that, despite taking home tip money every night, she will not be able to cover expenses on her current income. Her first and most important concern is housing, and Ehrenreich explains the different problems her fellow Hearthside employees endure in that department. Some live with family or a mate; others live with multiple roommates; and still others live in their cars or rent hotel rooms on a nightly basis. This last choice seems unwise to Ehrenreich and she says this to Gail, who is considering leaving her roommate and moving into a room at the Days Inn. As Gail points out, however, she is not able to get an apartment of her own without a month's rent and deposit in advance—an impossibility on her income, and something Ehrenreich was able to manage only by starting her experiment with $1,300 in her pocket.

Ehrenreich seeks out a second job and ends up working as a waitress at Jerry's, a family restaurant attached to a motel chain. While much busier than the Hearthside, Jerry's is an unclean restaurant that lacks both a staff break room and proper facilities for employees to wash their hands. The one reprieve for employees seems to be smoking, as seen by constantly-lit cigarettes awaiting quick puffs between orders. Ehrenreich is hurt by the coldness of her fellow waitresses on her first day but discovers it is because most people do not last more than one day at this job.

Ehrenreich is determined to work at both the Hearthside and Jerry's but finds herself too exhausted to do so and chooses to stick with Jerry's. Work at Jerry's is tiring in itself, and Ehrenreich decides to handle each day as a onetime, shift-long emergency. Unfortunately, she must also deal with work-related pain, including an old back injury that has returned. When she briefly returns to her regular life, she finds herself increasingly disassociated from the "real" Barbara Ehrenreich and "that" Barbara's relatively lavish lifestyle.

Ehrenreich befriends some of the staff at Jerry's, including a young Czech dishwasher named George, whom she teaches English. Ehrenreich also decides to move to a trailer park closer to Key West in order to save time and gas, making a new second job possible. The situation at Jerry's worsens when George is accused of stealing from the dry-storage room. Ehrenreich does not speak up in his defense—a change in her personality that troubles her deeply.

She gets a second job housekeeping for the hotel attached to Jerry's. She is assigned to train with a woman named Carlie. Ehrenreich discovers the one solace in cleaning hotel rooms is watching television. She leaves her housekeeping job to wait tables at Jerry's, but the night goes badly. The cook, Jesus, is overwhelmed by the rush of orders, as is Ehrenreich when she deals with four tables arriving at once. She leaves the restaurant mid-shift and does not return. Her one regret is not giving George her tips.

Two: Scrubbing in Maine

For her next experiment, Ehrenreich chooses Maine: unlike other places, she can blend in as a minimum-wage worker despite not being a minority. She arrives on a Tuesday and books a room at a Motel 6. After some searching, she secures an apartment at the Blue Haven Motel, where she can move on Sunday.

She applies at various places for a job, including taking personality tests at both Wal-Mart and The Maids, a...

(The entire section is 2958 words.)