Nickel and Dimed
On (Not) Getting By In America

Ehrenreich, Barbara
Publisher:  Owl Books
Year Published:  2001
Pages:  230pp   Price:  $18.95   Library of Congress Number:  HD4918.E375 2001   Dewey:  305.569'092--dc21
Resource Type:  Book
Cx Number:  CX8660

Millions of Americans work full-time, year-round, for poverty-level wages. Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them, inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that any job equals a better life. But how can anyone survive, let alone prosper, on six to seven dollars an hour?

Barbara Ehrenreich captures her experience of shedding the life of a successful writer for one of the average low-wage earner. In wake of the welfare reform which was to catapult millions of women into the labour market, the question arose whether it is possible to match income to expenses at an earning rate of $6-$7 an hour. Ehrenreich, presenting herself as a "divorced homemaker reentering the labour market after many years", embraces the challenges faced by America's "working poor".

Her account begins with an introduction of the parameters of the experiment - most of which she claims were bent or broken at some point throughout the experiment. One the one hand, the rules of the experiment excluded her from falling back on her skills acquired through formal education and obligated her to accept the highest-paying job and the cheapest accommodations offered. On the other hand, she set limitations on how extreme she would allow her situation to get. For example, she would always have access to a car and if she ran out of money, the experiment would be over - homelessness was not an option.

What follows are three chapters, each depicting a different variation of the experiment: serving in Florida, scrubbing in Maine and selling in Minnesota. Told in an anecdotal style, Ehrenreich captures both the hardship and humour found in the underbelly of the labour force. In her evaluation, she notes that no job is "unskilled" while every job comes with its own hierarchy and sociological challenges. She asserts that while basic, low-skill jobs are both mentally and physically draining, at least two are required to make ends meet - a claim she supports with relevant and convincing statistics. Additional themes explored by Ehrenreich include workplace authoritarianism in relation to the civil liberties and economic rationality of the workers. She warns that one day they will tire of receiving so little for so much effort, resulting in anger, strikes and general disruption.

As a final comprehensive element, a "Reader's Guide" is provided containing 17 questions intended to help the reader directly relate to the themes highlighted throughout the book - and thus to the millions of workers who live this reality.

[Abstract by Theodora Millward]

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