Over the last decade of the twentieth century, the American economy has been a roller coaster of ups and downs, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit record highs and dot-coms soared and then crashed. The summer of 2001 saw rebate checks sent to millions of taxpayers—the fruits of a large government surplus—but a few months later the House and Senate were arguing over economic stimulus packages to get a stalled economy moving again.
A large group of U.S. citizens remain largely untouched by these wide economic swings. Known as the “working poor,” these people work long hours at jobs at or near the minimum wage. They do not have savings accounts and retirement funds to worry about, and they do not invest in the stock market. When a new federal plan for welfare reform promised to get able-bodied welfare recipients off the dole and into jobs, social critic Barbara Ehrenreich and a friend, a magazine editor, wondered what sorts of jobs these new workers would find, and whether they could earn enough from them to maintain a basic standard of living. That wondering led to a series of articles in Harper’s magazine and eventually to Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.
To research the book, Ehrenreich conducted an experiment that is easy to describe: She moved to a new town and found a place to live (“the cheapest that offered an acceptable level of safety and privacy”), paying the first month’s rent from her own savings. She accepted the highest-paying job she could find without drawing on her college degrees or her writing skills and lived off what she earned. At the end of the month, she hoped to have enough money saved to pay a second month’s rent. Ehrenreich lived a month each in three cities over a time span reaching from 1998 to 2000, working low-end jobs during the day and maintaining a journal on her laptop computer when she could summon the energy at night.
There has been a long tradition of left-leaning writers exploring the lower classes in this way. Two well-known examples came out of the early part of the twentieth century, as Jack London described farm laborers inPeople of the Abyss(1903), and George Orwell looked at urban workers during the Depression in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Ehrenreich herself has examined issues of class and economy before. In the 1980’s she offered reflections on The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed (1990). She traced the rise of the professional middle class in the United States in Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (1989). Not only are the aspirations of middle-class America somewhat empty, she concluded, but the middle class is so visible—considered so typical—that lower classes become invisible. With Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich puts a needed spotlight on one overlooked portion of the lower class, drawing attention to a group of people with whom her readers interact every day, but who are usually ignored. Ehrenreich’s aim is not to shed light on her own heroic passage through poverty (she points out that “millions of Americans” do for years what she did for only a month at a time, “and with a lot less fanfare and dithering”), but to illuminate the day-to-day challenges of making ends meet on a low-wage income. The focus is on numbers—the dollars and cents, the minutes and hours—instead of on personalities.
In her introduction, Ehrenreich shows that she has a clear sense of what her experiment can and can not establish convincingly. She is aware of the ways in which she is not typical, aware of the advantages she brings to her new life: education, good health and good health habits, white skin, English fluency, and the knowledge that she can return to her own life at any time. She allows herself a car and an ATM card for real emergencies. She does not have young children who need supervision while she is away at work. Her experience, therefore, is not typical, but probably the best that can be hoped for “in the economy’s lower depths.”
For her first stop, Ehrenreich moves to Key West, Florida, a small city near her own home. Although she has tried to prepare for what she is about to do, she is immediately stymied. She has guessed that she can earn about seven dollars an hour, and that she should therefore be able to spend five or six hundred dollars on rent. The cheapest place she can find in Key West, however, is a trailer with no air-conditioning, screens, or fans for $675 a month. Ultimately she decides to take a one-room cabin thirty miles out of town, and drive the forty-five minutes back and forth each day. The lack of affordable housing will be a continual problem as subsequent chapters take her...
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