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

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Historical Context

(Literary Newsmakers for Students)

Prosperity in America

Nickel and Dimed was written during a time of great economic prosperity for the United States. This is best exemplified by the Internet boom that resulted in young entrepreneurs becoming overnight millionaires. Whether one is an Internet wizard, rap recording artist, stockbroker, or entrepreneur, the notion of self-initiative leading to unbridled success has never been more evident than in recent decades. Technology has created a wider range of comforts and productivity tools for those who can afford them, while changes in social mores, or attitudes, have made individual independence a more important value than the needs of the community.

This notion of rising through the classes, from lower-class origins to upper-class success, was first made popular in the books of Horatio Alger. These dozens of books, with titles like Struggling Upward and Risen from the Ranks, published from 1867 through the dawn of the twentieth century, all share the same theme: a poor young man, through virtue and hard work, can become a rich man. Although Alger himself never became a rich man, his books were found in a large number of Victorian homes. He has also been noted as an early influence for many entrepreneurs of the early twentieth century. In addition, the main theme of his books—that through hard work, anyone can succeed in America—has been adopted as a distinctly American ideal.

Welfare Reform Legislation

A national welfare program was instituted as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's Social Security Act in 1935 and has helped support the American poor in the decades since. Ehrenreich was partially inspired to write Nickel and Dimed by changes in welfare laws that were passed in 1996. The Personal Responsibility Act more than halved the number of people receiving welfare: in 1996, there were 12.2 million recipients, while in 2001, when the book was published, there were 5.3 million. This would seem to indicate a success in making lower-class workers more self-sufficient, but that is not how critics interpret the results. As Sharon Hays argues in Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform

While 84 percent of desperately poor (welfare-eligible) families had received benefits prior to the passage of the Personal Responsibility Act, by 2001 less than half of them did. This means that millions of parents and children in America were living on incomes lower than half the poverty level and not receiving the benefits for which they were technically eligible.

Further, the number of working poor, meaning people who have full-time jobs but still live at or near the poverty line, has grown in recent years as the support of welfare is no longer readily available to assist them.

Corporate Dominance

After an 1886 Supreme Court decision granted corporations many of the rights previously held only by individual citizens, corporations have flourished in the United States. This corporate personhood can provide many business advantages, though critics have long argued that it gives too many rights to corporations. This, as recent corporate scandals attest, can lead to great profit without anyone being personally responsible for how the profit is generated.

As corporations began to dominate American industry, smaller businesses had a difficult time competing in an aggressive marketplace. As more and more small businesses vanished, corporations became ever-present to fill consumer needs. Wal-Mart, the largest retailer and employer in the United States, is a perfect example of this corporate dominance. Indeed, this phenomenon has even been referred to as the Wal-Marting of America . Corporate advocates argue that big companies like Wal-Mart provide a consistent, affordable consumer experience that just cannot be matched by small businesses. Critics argue that corporations, driven solely by profit, sacrifice employee well-being for increased earnings. Through their decision-making executives, these same corporations actively resist the...

(The entire section is 3,917 words.)