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

by Barbara Ehrenreich

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In Nickel and Dimed, did discrimination shape Ehrenreich's story? How?

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As the other answer explains, race and, especially, gender determines the kind of minimum wage work Ehrenreich does. Her jobs as a waitress and a house cleaner are particularly tied to gendered concepts of what "woman's work" should be.

However, today class discrimination is what most emerges from this book and what is most pertinent to the political climate two decades after the book's publication.

Ehrenreich is acutely conscious of being from a different class than the people she works with. She is well educated, very well-to-do, and a highly renowned journalist with elite connections. As she states from the start, her family worked hard to get to the point that its descendants, people like her, could be afforded the education and opportunities to rise out of the working class and achieve success. She says she has no interest in going back to a working class lifestyle. She is very clear that she is simply briefly descending into this milieu to gather information for her book.

This influences how she interacts with the people she meets on the job. Her class background sometimes causes her to take on a superior or even paternalistic attitude toward her peers. For example, when she works for the cleaning company The Maids, she finds its bemusing and a bit pathetic that her female fellow cleaners are so dependent on approval and praise from their male manager, Ted. She also takes it on herself to interfere and calls Ted to pressure him to give time off to their team leader, Holly, when she is injured.

Ehrenreich means well, but she can come across as seeing her working class peers not as fellow humans she meets across a table of equality but as zoo specimens she observes and feels superior to. (She tries not to do this, but I would argue she ultimately fails.) While both feeling a deep sympathy towards the people she works with, she also discriminates against them on the basis of class, perceiving them as inferior to her. This kind of assumption of elitism on the part of the educated middle classes has, it is said, worked to alienate the classes from one another and widen political divides in this country.

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Discrimination is a dominant theme of Nickel and Dimed. It was in part to investigate discrimination in the work place that Barbara Ehrenreich conceived her plan to go undercover as a low-wage worker. Ehrenreich was aware that numerous preconceptions about working-class people were rampant in business, but her personal experiences brought home just how deep-seated they were. One of the conflicts she faced was that, in order to remain employed herself, she had to participate in discriminatory behavior as well.

Racial discrimination was one factor she expected to find, and she did. This factor structured not merely her choice of employment within a given city but even in what part of the country she looked for employment. After finishing her stint in Florida, she decided to go to Maine to look for work. Because she was aware that employers chose nonwhite people for many low-wage jobs, the fact that she is white motivated her to go to a state that has a predominantly white population. Her idea was that it would be easier for her to get hired in a low-wage job if she was the same race as most of the work force, and that turned out to be the case.

Gender discrimination was widespread in basically every employment situation into which Ehrenreich was hired. The jobs themselves were heavily tracked male or female, so she ended up working with many female co-workers. The majority of managers were male, even though in most cases it seemed they were not more qualified than many of the workers. The few female managers she did have seemed to her to treat the employees more fairly.

Class bias is also rampant in the book. This is probably the most expected aspect, as Ehrenreich specifically decided to focus on the working class. It was also the most difficult for her to be objective about. There were numerous instances where her upper-middle-class background wanted to assert itself, even though she knew that to speak out would have gotten her fired. She did actually leave a job because she objected to the working conditions, rather than just to keep moving and try a different scene. In that case, her class background worked against her objective because if she had been poor, she could not have afforded to leave.

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Discrimination works in a few different ways in this text. First, Ehrenreich experiences the discrimination against the working class in a supposedly classless society. The extreme invasions of privacy put on minimum wage earners are nothing like the freedom middle class or upper class workers experience. Random bag searches, drug tests, and personality tests may be required to get a job, and at least two of those are almost certainly required to keep it, in many cases. In addition, she experiences a different attitude entirely toward herself as a minimum wage worker. The memory of working Walmart is one of the most depressing pieces of investigative journalism in recent history. She is subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) outcast from those who shop there, and looked on as a servant. This is essentially what she confronts in all her jobs.

Another example of discrimination throughout the book is gender discrimination. She faces sexual harassment and lower wages due to being female, & watches many women forced to use their sexuality just to remain on equal terms with male co-workers, or to be treated decently by male employers. This is especially relevant today, with the raging health care debate. Women can still be denied coverage due to Cesarean sections, and some insurance companies require sterilization as a criterion for coverage if one has had a Cesarean section.

Finally, Ehrenreich is not only on the receving end of the discrimintaion. She brings middle class biases to her research, & often judges her fellow workers for their perceived lack of anger at their situation. She also makes many disparaging remarks about obese people in her work as well.

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