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

by Barbara Ehrenreich

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What are the three rules set by the author in Nickel and Dimed and does she break them?

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Barbara Ehrenreich is a journalist and essayist. In order to do her investigation, she took low-wage jobs, such as waitressing and housecleaning work. She followed three rules: no use of prior education or skills, accept the highest-paying job available, and pay the least in rent possible while still feeling safe in the residence. She found that even though she followed those rules, there were still many hardships.

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In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich examines the impact of the 1996 welfare reform act on the class in America. The investigative report uncovers the difficulties that low-income workers uniquely face. For example, if a low-income worker cannot afford the upfront payment to rent an apartment (typically a security deposit plus a few months’ worth of rent money), they are forced to live in hotels, which have less upfront cost but will end up costing them a higher daily rate.

Ehrenreich conducted this investigative reporting by working at minimum wage jobs. Her first rule was to only take jobs that people with no writing skills and a lack of education would be able to take. She did not want to fall back on her previous education or skillset. She followed this rule successfully.

Her second rule was to accept the highest-paying job available and treat the work seriously, as she reasoned this is what a serious job seeker would do. She followed this rule for the most part, although she did accept a job with a lower gauge because it would be the highest paying in the long run.

Her third rule was that she would pay the least amount in rent as possible, as she also reasoned that this is what a serious job seeker would do. She tried to follow this rule, but felt incredibly unsafe after staying in a run-down hotel. From there she revised the rule to pay as little in rent while still feeling safe in the residence.

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When Barbara Ehrenreich decided to try working at minimum-wage jobs in order to write a book about it, she was determined to earn a living by doing so. Divorcing herself from her successful life as a writer and professor, she did keep an emergency fund, which most poor people do not have.

Aside from that, a primary decision was to establish a clear separation from her writing profession. The jobs she sought would be the kind that people with less education and no writing skills would be able to do. This rule she did follow.

A second rule was that she would take the highest-wage job, as she reasoned that is what serious job hunters would do. In practice, however, when she learned to weigh pros-and-cons, at least one time she took a job at a lower wage because the net would be higher in relation to other expenses and demands.

Third, she would live cheaply, paying as little rent as possible. This, however, did not always jibe with the corollary that she needed to feel safe. After a sleepless night in a flimsy motel room, she looked for a better, slightly more expensive option. In this case, the initial housing option was somewhat of a shock to her; she had not previously anticipated just how crummy the available options would be or completely thought through what her concept of personal safety was.

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Ehrenreich sets the following three rules for herself as she sets out to live on the wages of an unskilled worker: first, she will not "fall back" on her education or skills she acquired on prior jobs in order to get work. Second, she will accept the highest-paying job offered to her and do it to the best of her ability: she will not, as she puts it, engage in "Marxist rants" or reading novels in the restroom. Third, she will find the cheapest living space possible that offers privacy and safety. 

Ehrenreich says herself that she breaks or bends her rules during her project. She notes, for example, that in Key West, she falls back briefly on her education, saying as she interviews for a waitressing job that she could greet customers with Bonjour or Guten Tag. However, I would not tend to count this, as people with little education might well know these very common words in French or German. She also mentions that in Minneapolis she doesn't take the highest-paying job offered. This is a $10-an-hour job at Menards that she turns down after she has already started at Wal-Mart at $7 an hour because Wal-Mart "has already sunk its talons into me." She thinks about doing a second shift at Menards, but decides it would be too exhausting. In this case, she really is breaking her rule: to be true to it she should have quit at Wal-Mart and gone to Menards. I think she stays at Wal-Mart because the whole situation of getting oriented to a new job is exhausting and she doesn't want to go through it again. In addition,  Menards wants her to work 11-hour shifts.

Finally, she says she rants, but only outside of the hearing of management. I would mention as well that she rants directly at her manager, Ted, when she works at The Maids, telling him he should send her coworker, Holly, home for hurting her knee. "I blow. ... I tell him he can't keep putting money above his employee's health and ...this girl [Holly] is in really bad shape." In this case, she is annoyed at Holly's willingness to take abuse, knows Holly's health isn't good to begin with and that she might be pregnant, and she is fed up enough to want to take a stand. All through the book, we can feel how Ehrenreich is worn down by the jobs she holds and the grueling nature of trying to live on very low wages.

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