Nickel and Dimed
|Nickel and Dimed|
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America is a book written by Barbara Ehrenreich. Written from her perspective as an undercover journalist, it sets out to investigate the impact of the 1996 welfare reform act on the "working poor" in the United States. In some ways it is similar to George Orwell's much earlier Down and Out in Paris and London, German investigative reporter Günter Wallraff's Ganz Unten (The Lowest of the Low), and John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me.
The events related in the book took place between spring 1998 and summer 2000. The book was first published in 2001 by Metropolitan Books. An earlier version appeared as an article in the January 1999 issue of Harper's magazine. Ehrenreich later wrote a companion book, Bait and Switch (published September 2005), which discusses her attempt to find a white-collar job.
Ehrenreich investigates many of the difficulties low wage workers face, including the "hidden costs" involved in such necessities as shelter (the poor often have to spend much more on daily hotel costs than they would pay to rent an apartment if they could afford the security deposit and first-and-last month fees) and food (e.g., the poor have to buy food that is both more expensive and less healthy than they would if they had access to refrigeration and appliances needed to cook).
Foremost, she attacks the notion that low-wage jobs require "unskilled" labor. The author, a journalist with a Ph.D. in cell biology, found manual labor taxing, uninteresting and degrading. She says that the work required incredible feats of stamina, focus, memory, quick thinking, and fast learning. Constant and repeated movement creates a risk of repetitive stress injury; pain must often be worked through to hold a job in a market with constant turnover; and the days are filled with degrading and uninteresting tasks (e.g. toilet-cleaning and mopping). She also details several individuals in management roles who served mainly to interfere with worker productivity, to force employees to undertake pointless tasks, and to make the entire low-wage work experience even more miserable.
She decries "personality" tests, questionnaires designed to weed out "incompatible" potential employees, and urine drug tests, increasingly common in the low wage market, arguing that they deter potential applicants and violate liberties while having little tangible positive effect on work performance.
She argues that "help needed" signs do not necessarily indicate a job opening; more often their purpose is to sustain a pool of applicants in fields that have notorious rapid turnover of employees. She also posits that one low-wage job is often not enough to support one person (let alone a family); with inflating housing prices and stagnant wages, this practice increasingly becomes difficult to maintain. Many of the workers encountered in the book survive by living with relatives or other persons in the same position, or even in their vehicles.
She concludes with the argument that all low-wage workers, recipients of government or charitable services like welfare, food, and health care, are not simply living off the generosity of others. Instead, she suggests, "we" live off their generosity:
- When someone works for less pay than she can live on ... she has made a great sacrifice for you .... The "working poor" ... are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone. (p. 221)
The author concludes that someday, low-wage workers will rise up and demand to be treated fairly, and when that day comes everyone will be better off.
Response and criticism
In response to Nickel and Dimed, Adam Shepard undertook a project that he later wrote about in his book Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream. A February 11, 2008 article in The Christian Science Monitor summarizes his story. With only $25 in his pocket, Adam Shepard spent 10 months in South Carolina, eventually landing a job, buying a pickup truck, and renting his own apartment.
Another response to the book came from Charles Platt, author and former senior editor at Wired Magazine, who took an entry-level job at a Wal-Mart store and recounted his experience on the blog Boing Boing. While his account reaffirmed some of Ehrenreich's experience, including the low pay and tedious nature of the job, Platt also reported positive experiences with supervisors, safety training incentives, and employee autonomy and treatment.
The book's cover features a waitress, Kimmie Jo Christianson, giving a worried look over her shoulder. The photo of Christianson was taken in 1986 for an unrelated Fortune cover. After the release of Nickel and Dimed, Christianson filed suit against the book's publishers, arguing that they used her picture without her consent. In 2007, a judge ruled that the lawsuit could go ahead, because the cover was not part of Ehrenreich's narrative and was part of the publisher's "selling" of the book.
A stage adaptation by Joan Holden opened in 2002.
Ms. Ehrenreich makes an appearance in the documentary The American Ruling Class in 2007. In this she portrays her life undercover working as a waitress and is accompanied by a musical rendition titled "Nickeled and Dimed".
- Homeless: Can You Build A Life From $25?, The Christian Science Monitor, February 11, 2008
- Platt, Charles (February 1, 2009). "Life at Wal-Mart". Boing Boing. Retrieved "2008-02-03".
- Judge OKs Ex-Waitress's Suit Over Bestseller's Cover