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

Barbara Ehrenreich

Ray Mescallado

Mescallado has studied literature and pop culture, writing extensively on these topics for academic and popular venues. In this essay, Mescallado considers Ehrenreich's book in terms of bridging the gap between the middle and lower class. What looks on the surface to be an attempt to erase class differences actually reinforces them.

For all the compelling claims Barbara Ehrenreich makes in Nickel and Dimed about the working poor of America, there is one issue she is oddly quiet about: what can be done to bridge the gap between classes. The book seems to address this with its very premise; deciding to work and live as one of the lower class, Ehrenreich made more of an effort than most middle-class people would even consider. Upon close reading, however, Nickel and Dimed often reinforces class tensions instead of erasing them. Class is not only about different degrees of wealth, but also different perspectives and experiences. For all her success as a worker and survivor, Ehrenreich is still a middle-class woman in a lower-class world, and that influences how she tells her story as well as how we read her book.

Nickel and Dimed is a personal book about a public problem; that is a key part of its appeal. Time and again, Ehrenreich mentions the physical pain she suffers as a result of her work. All of us can sympathize when bodies are forced beyond their limits. She writes to great effect about human dignity, something robbed too often by the draconian, or extremely harsh, measures imposed on such workers. We all want to keep our self-respect and have others respect us as well. Unfortunately, even these aspects of life are not understood the same way by different classes. One of her clients at The Maids, a physical trainer, tries to be friendly and suggests that cleaning house is a good workout. Ehrenreich laments that she "can't explain that this form of exercise is totally asymmetrical, brutally repetitive, and as likely to destroy the musculoskeletal structure as to strengthen it."

This encounter highlights the difficulty of crossing class lines, as Ehrenreich describes in her 1989 book, Fear of Falling:

Even the middle-class left, where the spirit is most willing, has an uneven record of reaching out across the lines of class. Left and right, we are still locked in by a middle-class culture that is almost wholly insular, self-referential, and in its own way, parochial. We seldom see the "others" except as projections of our own anxieties or instruments of our ambition, and even when seeing them—as victims, "cases," or exemplars of some archaic virtue—seldom hear.

Despite being aware of the problem, Ehrenreich falls into this trap repeatedly in Nickel and Dimed. As alarming as the trainer's attitude is, Ehrenreich believes herself unable to say what she thinks, to speak in terms that the woman can understand. It is an opportunity when Ehrenreich can bridge the gap between classes but fails to do so. This reluctance is rooted in part by her own class anxieties, as fear of slippage weighs heavily throughout the book. When she gets hired for her first minimum-wage job and is told to report the next day, she becomes uneasy: "[S]omething between fear and indignation rises in my chest. I want to say, 'Thank you for your time, sir, but this is just an experiment, you know, not my actual life.'"

Towards the end of her three-city quest for working-class insight, she ponders how different her working-class self is from her professional-managerial class self. She draws a clear distinction between the Barbara of her normal life and the "Barb" of her Wal-Mart assignment: "Take away the career and the higher education, and maybe what you're left with is the original Barb, the one who might have ended up working at Wal-Mart for real." She notes that Barb is like a slightly less-civilized version of herself, "meaner and slyer … and not quite as smart as I hoped."

If there is any ongoing conflict between characters, then, it is the tense standoff between Barb and Barbara. Ehrenreich's experiences are so compelling to herself and her readers that we often do not notice—or at least, we do not find it odd—how she does not hear her co-workers as much as she simply describes her own woes. Thus, what makes Nickel and Dimed an engaging read also reduces the urgency of these issues. If this were an account of a truly lower-class person working a permanent minimum-wage job, the story would be different, perhaps even inaccessible to middle-class readers who resist the unvarnished truth about the working poor. Members of the actual working class are disposable in Ehrenreich's narrative: the episodic traveling account means all characters besides Ehrenreich are dropped at the end of a chapter, paving the way for a new cast in the next city. The only one whose personal history...

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Scott Sherman

In the following essay, Sherman analyzes Ehrenreich's complex and often contradictory attitude toward the people she writes about.

A striking feature of immersion narratives like London's People of the Abyss and Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier is the extent to which compassion and sympathy co-exist uneasily with revulsion and disapproval. Jack London possessed a deep empathy for the slum dwellers of turn-of-the-century England, but he still allowed himself to describe them as "stupid and heavy, without imagination." Orwell, recalling his stay in a squalid lodging house in the industrial north of England, confessed: "On the day when there was a full chamber-pot under the breakfast table I decided to leave. The place was beginning to depress me." Passages of this sort tell us something about the immutability of class boundaries; but they also stand as examples of reportorial honesty and, in Orwell's case, narrative sophistication.

Nickel and Dimed, too, is streaked with contradictory sentiments. Ehrenreich, for instance, writes with considerable feeling about Gail, a "wiry middle-aged waitress" who can't afford a security deposit for an apartment, so she sleeps in her car. "When I moved out of the trailer park," Ehrenreich writes, in the closing lines of her waitressing chapter, "I gave the key to number 46 to Gail and arranged for my deposit to be transferred to her."

But in many other places, Ehrenreich's compassion degenerates into spite. An Alzheimer's patient who threw milk on Ehrenreich is "a tiny, scabrous old lady with wild white hair who looks like she's been folded into her wheelchair and squished." A woman whose home is cleaned by Ehrenreich's crew is "an alumna...

(The entire section is 707 words.)

Joni Scott

In the following essay, Scott posits that Ehrenreich's book is an important literary and social contribution.

Nickel and Dimed exposes the anti-America of flophouses, multiple house sharing, employees sleeping in cars, and the homeless who work forty hours or more weekly. Those who used to be middle class, despite often working two jobs, now endure a daily scramble to prioritize such needs as food, housing, childcare, and health care. One extra expense—like dental work, work uniforms, medication, school supplies, and the like—can "break the camel's back."

So I can't fault Ehrenreich for having stock options and a pension plan while publicly admonishing the excesses of the wealthy. She...

(The entire section is 483 words.)

Kya Ogyn

In the following essay, Ogyn offers some possible insight into the author's intent in writing this book.

I think the actual purpose of Ehrenreich's experiment becomes clear when identifying the intended audience. What we have is a successful, affluent writer addressing members of her own class. Her intent is to tell people who have never experienced it something of what it is like to work at jobs that do not pay enough to live on. Even more importantly, her intent is to say that her experience "is the best-case scenario: a person with every advantage that ethnicity and education, health and motivation can confer attempting, in a time of exuberant prosperity, to survive in the economy's lower depths."


(The entire section is 384 words.)