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.
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, Ehrenreich attacks the notion that low-wage jobs require only unskilled labor. A journalist with a Ph.D. in cell biology, she found that manual labor 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. Additionally, she describes her managers changing her shift schedule from week to week without notifying her.
Ehrenreich describes 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 also comments that she believes they are a way for an employer to relay to an employee what is expected of them conduct wise.
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.
Ehrenreich 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
Barbara Ehrenreich states in her book that her goal is to "see whether or not I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day." "Nickel and Dimed" has been criticized as an inaccurate portrayal of the working poor. Ehrenreich began her study with money already in her pocket and a post-graduate education, which typically is not the case for the working class poor. One critic of Barbara Ehrenreich, Michael Tremoglie, wrote, "According to the Commerce Department the poverty rate for a single person younger than 65 in 1999 was $8,700 per year. Barbara was earning 170 percent of that. Even the liberal Economics Policy Institute states a living wage is 130 percent of the poverty standard."
In response to Nickel and Dimed and its critiques, two men undertook similar projects to Ehrenreich. Adam Shepard's Scratch Beginnings tells of starting homeless in a new state with only $25 in his pocket. In the ten months, Shephard was able to land a job which paid well enough to buy a pickup truck and rent his own apartment. Similarly, Charles Platt, an author and former senior editor at Wired Magazine, took an entry-level job at a Wal-Mart store and recounted his experience on the blog Boing Boing. His account reaffirmed some of Ehrenreich's experience, including the low pay and tedious nature of the job, but 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. The case was later dismissed as part of a settlement.
Ehrenreich makes an appearance in the documentary The American Ruling Class in 2007. She portrays her life undercover working as a waitress and is accompanied by a musical rendition titled "Nickeled and Dimed".
However, in Key West, Barbara earned $1,039 in one month and spent $517 on food, gas, toiletries, laundry, phone, and utilities. She could have been able to pay the rent if she had stayed in her $500 efficiency with $22 left over (though sooner or later, she would have had to spend something on medical and dental care). But by moving to the trailer park in order to take a second job, she had to pay $625. She could have bought a used bike instead of using the car, but she still would have needed two jobs—and she learned she could not sustain two physically demanding jobs.
Here Barbara delves into line-by-line calculations of the economic realities of her experiment. At the start she’d noted that she could simply add up income and expenses from a desk, but now the reader can recall specific moments and choices that led to Barbara’s struggles to pay the bills. In Key West, there was no ideal situation: even having a bike wouldn’t have solved her financial troubles.