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

by Barbara Ehrenreich

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In "Serving in Florida," how does Ehrenreich balance her narrative stance as both an outsider and insider?

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Throughout Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich explores the dynamics of trying to maintain two contrasting positions. While in some ways, her book is a work of investigative journalism for which she went undercover as a low-wage employee, in other ways it is an introspective, reflexive personal statement about the impact her findings had on her. Perhaps because it was the first installment, “Serving in Florida,” presents those two missions with a number of abrupt transitions.

It is not always clear whether the insights she had into the dynamics of the interactions with other workers actually occurred to her while the events were transpiring or if she is adding ideas that she thought of after the fact. Much of the tension in the various situations is derived from the necessity for deceit. While she expected, or at least hoped, that others would be honest with her, she could not reciprocate without blowing her cover. The burden of this deception is especially brought home in the situation with George. While the “real” Barbara would certainly go to bat for someone she thought was falsely accused, the undercover Barbara behaves as she imagines a fellow employee would, putting the security of their own job first and hesitating to challenge management.

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If you look at Ehrenrich's conversations with Gail, you can see the mix of the insider and outsider at its most obvious.  As a fellow employee, they can complain about similar things and have some common ground.  But when Gail suggests that she will move out of her current living situation to get a room at the Day's Inn, Ehrenreich's status as an outsider takes over.

She can point out to Gail how dangerous that is and the fact that it really is far from ideal, but she also cannot fully empathize with Gail because she always has the option of returning to her "other Barbara" or falling back on resources that her co-workers never imagine.  The fact that she is never fully immersed in the experiment because of this fall-back option creates problematic moments.

Ehrenreich addresses this, at least partially, when she returns to her other life briefly and notes that she feels alienated from her previous lifestyle.  This is of course a nice observation but in the end does little to truly embed her in the experiment that she sets out to undertake given that she never has to face the fear of really losing her job and running out of money.

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