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

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

(Literary Newsmakers for Students)

Employment and Economics

Nickel and Dimed focuses squarely on the workplace of the lower class: minimum-wage jobs that often involve providing service for others. All the other themes in the book spring from concerns about employment—work conditions, management styles of those in charge of low-wage workers, and the problem of minimum-wage work and whether it is possible to survive in modern America at that level of earning. The book also explores the humane side of economics, asking the question, how does one survive on a minimum-wage job in America? The very title of the work suggests that even the smallest changes in finances can have a debilitating effect for the lower class, whether it is the pay one earns or the cost of everyday living expenses. This is often illustrated in the dollars-and-cents accountings Ehrenreich gives of how much she earns, how much she spends on necessities such as rent and food, and the minor extra expenses she cannot help, such as medicine and painkillers for work-related injuries.

Ehrenreich believes that some basic human needs are not met for lower-class workers, even if they have full-time jobs. The amount earned does not match the actual expenses incurred, most notably in housing. Minimum-wage work makes it difficult to gather the funds for a lease on an apartment, and compromises of various sorts are often made. Throughout Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich scrambles to find the right balance in her housing: affordable, close to work, and safe. Often, at least one of these criterion ends up being forfeited, as she depends on trailer parks and resident hotels to provide reasonable housing. Further, the extreme measures of screening and surveillance often imposed on workers make just keeping a job a stressful affair and encourage a more compliant workforce. Workers are, thus, not only unsure if their jobs can truly support them, they are also unsure if their jobs will always be there.

Culture Clash

Ehrenreich perceives cultural differences between classes, enough that her forays into lower-class life feel like a different world to her. Within the experiences that encompass lower-class life, she is further concerned about fitting into every workplace of which she is a part, and every workplace is a unique microcosm to which she must adapt. If anything, Ehrenreich's true life as a middle-class writer has made her fit into minimum wage even more alienating, calling up a different set of behaviors and assumptions that she comments upon throughout the book. She understands that being accepted by her co-workers is essential in order to survive, and that a support system within the workplace is one of the tools that make minimum-wage jobs tolerable, if not desirable.

Pain and Suffering

Ehrenreich stresses the physical difficulties in the kind of labor she performs for these experiments. Her health is often in jeopardy, and yet she cannot do everything in her power to heal and become well. She is limited to what she can afford and what she can access after work hours. She often relates how a minor injury that could be nurtured into recovery in her middle-class life can become a major crisis for the lower class, who have fewer options in health care and are more reliant on hourly wages that can be lost if they take time out to recover. This particular point is brought home by Holly of The Maids, whose sickness and injury demand better care than she allows for herself—partly because she cannot afford decent health care, but also because her commitment to her job, misguided as it may be, does not allow her to stop working.

Empathy

Ehrenreich believes that the way to address the issue of the working poor and lower-class survival is to look at the people, not the demographics and statistics. Many minimum-wage jobs are of a service nature, and Ehrenreich implies that lower-class citizens have become a de facto servant class in a nation that claims to treat all its members equally. The purpose...

(The entire section is 997 words.)