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

by Barbara Ehrenreich

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What is the purpose of "Serving in Florida" in Nickle and Dimed and how might a thesis sentence be written?

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Ehrenreich's purpose is to show how tough it is to make a living as a waitress or food server. She emphasizes that the work is hard and actually takes a high degree of skill and competence. A server has to constantly multi-task, handle a string of challenges in real time, and do it all while remaining pleasant. Ehrenreich notes, too, how hard, if not impossible, it is to make ends meet on a server's earnings.

Ehrenreich is no Marxist. She emphasizes that she is not going to embrace the working class life as more than experiment and states that she enjoys the rewards that come from being a successful and well-known writer and journalist. She does not advocate for revolution or the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. She has no fundamental objection to capitalism per se. However, she believes capitalism should do more to improve the lives of people at the bottom of the society. She emphasizes how hard these people work. She implies that they deserve a bigger slice of the American Dream. 

A thesis might say something like the following: In "Serving in Florida," Barbara Ehrenreich uses pathos, or story, to illustrate how hard the life of a server is and how much skill it takes to do the job well. Through her narrative, she suggests that people in food service deserve better wages and a work environment that allows them more dignity. 

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In the introduction to her book titled Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, Barbara Ehrenreich reveals that her decision to write the book began during a conversation with a magazine editor. Eventually their conversation turned to a question that had long intrigued Ehrenreich:

How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled?

This, then – the problem of the economic struggles of the unskilled – is a key focus of Ehrenreich’s book. Yet she also discusses many other topics along the way, including the living conditions of the poor, the ways they are (mis)treated, and the challenges they suffer, especially at work. However, although Ehrenreich emphasizes the unskilled, she must almost necessarily deal with other groups, including those who are economically secure and also those who are economically well off. By comparing and contrasting the lives of these two groups with the lives of the unskilled, Ehrenreich is in a better position to depict the special challenges faced by the latter.

Thus, a thesis statement for the first chapter of Ehrenreich’s book (“Serving in Florida”) might go as something like this:

By depicting the social and economic challenges faced by unskilled laborers in the United States, Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Serving in Florida” shows how difficult it is to live on low wages, even as she also suggests how greatly the lives of the poor differ from the lives of middle-class persons and the rich.

Supporting evidence for this thesis begins appearing almost immediately in the “Serving in Florida” chapter.  Thus, in the chapter’s opening paragraph, Ehrenreich contrasts her earlier life as a middle-class consumer with her new, experimental lifestyle as a member of the working poor. In the second paragraph, she notes that the problems of unskilled laborers in Florida are no different from the problems of unskilled laborers anywhere in the U. S., especially when finding affordable housing is the issue at hand. In the third paragraph, the contrast between the poor and the comfortable is once again implied by the sarcastic reference to Canadian tourists.  A paragraph or two later, Ehrenreich recounts being “interviewed” by a computer, and she uses this opportunity to criticize the inhumanity of corporations.

In short, throughout her book, Ehrenreich is not simply reporting her experiences. Instead, she is using those experiences to illustrate and support an implied thesis about economic inequality in America.

Something extra: Ehrenreich’s book particularly lends itself to interpretations rooted in Marxist or cultural materialist literary theories. The purpose of these theories is not simply to study literature but to help transform society in ways intended to promote social justice.  Ehrenreich’s book has the same double aim: it is not simply an objective record of experiences but a piece of political criticism and advocacy.


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