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

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Topics for Further Study

(Literary Newsmakers for Students)

  • Compare Nickel and Dimed as a work of investigative journalism to another well-known work where the author goes underground to experience the truth of a disenfranchised group, such as Jack London's The People of the Abyss or John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me. How does Ehrenreich compare as an investigator in the commitment to getting to the truth? What does each investigator do to become a part of the group? How does assuming this new role change the way each author understands society? In what way does this new role change the understanding of self and identity? Write a three-page report comparing and contrasting these two books.
  • Research the history of welfare in the United States from President Roosevelt's Social Security Act of 1935 to the 1996 reform and the present. What are the major landmarks in this history? What changes have occurred, and what brought about those changes? What assumptions seem to underlie welfare in each stage of its history? Based on your research, what future do you see for welfare in America? What role can welfare play in our nation? What role should it play? Create a detailed timeline that not only measures the landmarks in welfare, but notes possible social assumptions and political concerns that informed them.
  • How are minimum-wage workers portrayed today? Consider as wide a range of depictions as you can, from news to movies to music to video games. Are there any patterns in terms of race, gender, or work situation? Are there any specific character traits given to minimum-wage workers that set them apart from other people? What communities or settings are they found in and, if a particular example has a plot, what is their role in the story? Create a five-minute presentation of two specific depictions that includes visual aids and, when helpful, plot synopses.
  • Pick a group that you would like to investigate by immersing yourself into its world, as Ehrenreich did with minimum-wage workers. How would you go about performing a similar investigation? What would you need to change—or hide—about yourself to be able to immerse into the group? What methods would you employ to get the information? Write a one-page investigation plan that lays out your investigative preparations in detail, along with what you hope to accomplish through your investigation.