There is no book, essay, or blog post more important for you to read than Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001).

I’m late to this book, which should be considered the paramount ethnography of the working poor and mandatory reading for all Americans. The eBook has sat abandoned in my iTunes book library, waiting for me to open it for years while I’ve been too busy reading Yvonne Vera or Coetzee. They’re worth it, of course, but it pains me to have just now finished the defining, canonical text of my field.

Ehrenreich travels to three different cities in the three different regions of the U.S. with a seemingly simple mission. She tries to find a place to live, food to eat, and all of the other requisites for living, all while working a low-wage job. At that time, the jobs she worked paid from $6 to $7 dollars per hour. For some perspective, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI Inflation Calculator claims that $6 per hour in January of 2000 has the buying power of $8.87 today. $7 has the buying power of $10.35. Perhaps the numbers vary by region, but that should shock you. Those are not wages we collectively view as abject, debilitating poverty.

Ehrenreich begins her investigative mission working as a waitress outside of Key West for a month. Here, she transitions from one restaurant to a second, from an efficiency apartment to a trailer closer to her newfound workplace. In Maine, Ehrenreich works as a Nutritional Aid or food server at a nursing home for Alzheimer’s patients on the weekend and as a maid during the week for a franchise cleaning company while living in a long-term motel apartment.  In Minneapolis, Ehrenreich works at Wal-Mart while living in one motel with a particular set of safety and comfort challenges.

In each chapter, Ehrenreich identifies the aspects of living a low-wage life that shock her upper-middle-class sensibilities. I deeply respect her for that. In my opinion, Ehrenreich never pities the laboring class or grows frustrated by some essentialist pitying characteristic. If she does, she calls herself out, checking her privilege at the confines of the doorframe she owns. Ehrenreich is the advocate. The translator, not the one with a voice. The men and women she meets in each line of work are as important as she is. If I was disappointed in any of her journalism, it was the lack of interviews from her neighborhood. At the same time, Ehrenreich, like many employed low-wage laborers, is rarely galivanting for friendship. When she isn’t working, she’s finding food, a cheaper place to live, or trying to numb her aching mind and body by attempting self-care. No, you don’t see her neighbors or listen to the voices in the home community. There’s a reason for that. It’s work.

The experiment itself proves that surviving on a low-wage income as a single adult is impossible. In Maine, Ehrenreich almost achieves a state of survival while working seven days a week and, not to rely on pitying words, enduring physically breaking work. While working as a maid, Ehrenreich ruminates on the moment one client explains the difficulties she has with the shower stall in her bathroom:

“Seems the marble walls have been ‘bleeding’ onto the brass fixtures, and can I scrub the grouting extra hard? That’s not your marble bleeding, I want to tell her, it’s the worldwide working class—the people who quarried the marble, wove your Persian rugs until they went blind, harvested the apples in your lovely fall-themed dining room centerpiece, smelted the steel for the nails, drove the trucks, put up this building, and now bend and squat and sweat to clean it” (112).

The maid chapter is this: bodily harm, sprained ankles, backs that give out and rashes that form on the body. Descriptions of bodies become vile, stained with shit and sweat and grime while being demeaned by cashiers at their convenient store lunch spots that probably make the same hourly wage. The maid chapter is tough to read. Tougher, I’d say, by the amount of corporation-induced bodily strain. The women that work for the company can’t drink water in the homes they clean. If they hurt themselves in the line of duty, they probably won’t be paid for the shift they have to miss and can’t get medical care. They’re hungry, expending thousands of calories that will never be adequately replaced on Doritos and crackers. This chapter, more than any other, should insight rage at the bodily abuse taken on by laborers who are forced to remain invisible by our collective “propriety;” our belief that the laborers that clean our shit are worthless.

Ehrenreich also analyzes the gross misunderstandings we have, even implicitly, about the working poor. She doesn’t have to directly address the concept that the poor don’t work hard, because the hours of backbreaking labor she describes with language such as, “Don’t stop, don’t think, don’t even pause for an instant, because if you do, you’ll be aware of the weariness taking over your legs, and then it will win” (106). More than the grossly inaccurate collective imagination the middle-class has for the poor, she also refutes the drugged and drunk hypothesis, showing the job drug testing, food assistance programs that offer no cash assistance, and firings due to drug-related rumors. Smoking because it’s the only affordable addiction outlet.

From my own perspective, smoking has always been a characteristic we can rightly attribute to the poor for a variety of reasons. I started smoking when I was fifteen, when a friend, who was working-class, gave me a Marlboro menthol she swiped from her mother. All of my working-class comrades are smokers. Primarily because cigarette companies target the poor, making millions off of the five to eight-dollar packs of cancer. It’s more than that. As a retail worker for four years, taking a cigarette break was the only respite I had to leave the store and get off my feet. Our floor was marble on top of concrete—and that cigarette break was my oasis, my moment to sit on the concrete ground of the parking garage for ten minutes and not have someone need something from me. Ehrenreich bonds with her coworkers over cigarette breaks, using it as networking time, interview real estate, or simply a minute to not work. In one analysis of the poor smoking, Ehrenreich writes:

“I don’t know why the antismoking crusaders have never grasped the element of defiant self-nurturance that makes the habit so endearing to its victims—as if, in the American workplace, the only thing people have to call their own is the tumors they are nourishing and the spare moments they devote to feeding them” (47).

Or, if that doesn’t kill you for the times you coughed loudly while a worker in a kitchen uniform leaned against the concrete wall of the back door to have five-fucking-minutes of silence, she also notes: “So ours is a world of pain—managed by Excedrin and Advil, compensated for with cigarettes and, in one or two cases and then only on weekends, with booze” (111). I’ve always held this belief, primarily because I’ve lived it, but also in plain economic numbers. The poor won’t get a $90 massage or a $125 steam facial for a relaxing appointment of self-care. $11 won’t pay your electricity bill. It will, however, buy a six-pack of Bud Light and a pack of Pall-Malls. When you need self-care on a budget, I can guaran-damn-tee a sixer of beer and a pack of smokes will set you back in working order.

Ehrenreich concludes her work on the state of poverty in America with a straightforward call-to-action. We believe poverty can be sustainable. We believe, however inaccurately, that having a class of poor people in the labor sector is requisite to Capitalistic function. Ehrenreich notes the bullshit you know to be true, no matter how easily you erase the hidden poor from your mind. That’s why this book is dangerous. That why this book is necessary.

“These experiences are not part of a sustainable lifestyle, even a lifestyle of chronic deprivation and relentless low-level punishment. They are, by almost any standard of subsistence, emergency situations. And that is how we should see the poverty of so many millions of low-wage Americans—as a state of emergency” (256).

You can download the eBook here ($10), or purchase from Nashville’s Parnassus Books for $13 here.

Header photo by @tyrusarthur





Posted by:Rachel

3 replies on “Review: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

  1. Rachael,
    I took a respite from the digital editions of the NYT and Washington Post to check my mail which led me to read your review of “Nickel and Dimed”. It’s as good as any review I would find in the book section of either paper.

    It made me think back to our earlier conversation about DeWitt Dawson and his family. I called them thugs which I sort of regret as I have had a few weeks to let it all marinate.

    I am blessed with a good tech job. It’s a long way from where I am now to where I grew up in Colbert County. My relatively easy life gives me the luxury of reflection and I admit that upon reflection, if I were in Dewitt’s shoes back when he came of age, being a thug may have been a better choice than trying to make it as a farmer or working long hours at Ford, Reynolds, or the foundry in Florence. A lot of good people went this route and died young of work related injuries or cancer or even alcoholism, despite having “good jobs”. Dewitt died young too but he had a helluva ride while he was living.

    I’m not demeaning solid blue collar jobs nor am I giving Dewitt a free pass for some of the mayhem and ruined lives that he is responsible for (most people don’t know the full extent of his criminality). I am saying that when your choices are limited, you see in your own friends and family what a dead end your life may become, and because of family ties you aren’t willing to pack all your belongings in your car and start new somewhere else (which is what I did) you may make some choices that don’t seem moral, ethical, or even rational to those who have had their hands on a silver spoon since birth.

    And for those whose faith and perseverance keep them in marginal jobs for 30 or 40 years, God bless them. They are better people that I. A bad day for me at work is when the printer malfunctions before a meeting or I don’t have time for lunch.

    Anyway, your writing is always thought provoking. Keep doing what you do.


    1. Troy,

      Thank you for reading! I think you’ve said it really well: circumstances dictate our choices, experience shapes our moral and ethical compasses. You also make a good point about the dwindling, hard jobs in Alabama that haven’t changed much since Dewitt’s day. I think that drove Dewitt–he was ambitious, but what opportunities did he have during Reagan era Alabama? To my mind, bootlegging was one area he could excel. Crime was his career.

      As always, thank you for reading!


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