When she is working as a maid in Maine, Barbara Ehrenreich develops a rash of unknown origin. She also begins to suffer from various aches and pains caused by the rigors of her job.
Barbara is a writer for Harper's when she takes on the assignment of investigating the reality of what it is like to live on a minimum wage. She herself has managed to rise above a working-class background and is educated and financially comfortable. Barbara is not sure she wants to return to the type of life she once lived, but agrees to participate in the experiment after setting some ground rules for herself. Although she will actually have to work at whatever jobs she can manage to secure and live in the most inexpensive housing she can find, she has the security of knowing that she will never go hungry, nor be homeless, and can walk away from the experiment at any time.
After working for awhile in Florida as a waitress, Barbara travels to Maine, where she takes a job at a housecleaning service. She discovers that the work is extremely taxing physically, involving activities such as scrubbing floors in ostentatious houses on her hands and knees. Barbara develops the physical ailments described above, but her co-worker, Holly, is pregnant, and fares even worse than she does. Despite how hard her fellow housecleaners work, they all live at the edge of poverty.