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

by Barbara Ehrenreich

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How do characters in Nickel and Dimed reflect US economic development in the late 20th century?

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The men and women who were Barbara Ehrenreich's co-workers reflected many of the economic trends and realities in the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century. In the midst of high employment rates and overall high wages, there is a large and growing section of the population that is being left behind in a minimum-wage class that is loosing ground as they struggle.

The majority of her peers in each of the work locations and types of jobs documented were recent immigrants or descendents of recent immigrants. Ehrenreich noted that the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that, in 1998, for the general classification of "private household cleaners and servants...36.8 percent were Hispanic, 15.8 percent black, and 2.7 percent 'other'."

Housing conditions were expensive to obtain, difficult to retain, and frequently substandard - trends commonly highlighted when discussing how the economy impacts changing family dynamics and evolving employment locations.

The Cape Cod Times describes families of four living squeezed into one room, cooking in microwaves, and eating on their beds...In 1991 there were forty-seven affordable rental units available to every one hundred low-income families, while by 1997 there were only thirty-six such units for every one hundred families.

Good nutrition is expensive; those living on low wages purchase inexpensive food, which frequently means "empty calories." The box of free food Ehrenreich received while living in Minnesota includes sugar cookies, Ghirardelli chocolate, cinnamon bread, barbecue sauce, and fruit snacks in addition to cold cereals and a jar of peanut butter.

Ehrenreich identifies several general trends that perpetuate the dilemna of the low-wage earner. Affordable housing is scarce, support systems to help the minimum wage earner learn of opportunities or obtain training to allow for employment in a better-paying situation is difficult to locate and hard to access, employers are condescending and hold all the power in negotiating responsibilities, restrictions, and working conditions. She offers no solutions, but concludes that the eventual outcome may be a general rebellion of those who work so hard for so little.

Someday, of course-and I will make no predictions as to exactly when-they are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they're worth. There'll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption. But the sky will not fall, and we will all be better off for it in the end.

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