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

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Ray Mescallado

(Literary Newsmakers for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 3,584 words.)