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

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

by Barbara Ehrenreich, Frances Fox Piven

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Our sharpest and most original social critic goes "undercover" as an unskilled worker to reveal the dark side of American prosperity.

Millions of Americans work full time, year round, for poverty-level wages. In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that a job -- any job -- can be the ticket to a better life. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered. Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, she worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. She lived in trailer parks and crumbling residential motels. Very quickly, she discovered that no job is truly "unskilled," that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you int to live indoors.

Nickel and Dimed reveals low-rent America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity -- a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate stratagems for survival. Read it for the smoldering clarity of Ehrenreich's perspective and for a rare view of how "prosperity" looks from the bottom. You will never see anything -- from a motel bathroom to a restaurant meal -- in quite the same way again.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429926645
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 04/01/2010
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 55,029
File size: 370 KB

About the Author

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of Nickel and Dimed, Blood Rites, The Worst Years of Our Lives (a New York Times bestseller), Fear of Falling, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, and several other books. A frequent contributor to Time, Harper's, Esquire, The New Republic, Mirabella, The Nation, and The New York Times Magazine, she lives near Key West, Florida.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the bestselling author of several books, including Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch, Bright-sided, This Land Is Their Land, Dancing In The Streets, and Blood Rites. A frequent contributor to Harper's and The Nation, she has also been a columnist at The New York Times and Time magazine.

“A simply brilliant, hilarious satirist.”—The Baltimore Sun

“It would be hard to find a wittier, more insightful guide to the last three decades than Ehrenreich. Arguing with her is part of the pleasure of reading her.”—Laura Shapiro, Newsweek

Read an Excerpt

It is hotter inside than out, but I do all right until I encounter the banks of glass doors. Each one has to be Windexed, wiped, and buffed-inside and out, top to bottom, left to right, until it's as streakless and invisible as a material substance can be. Outside, I can see construction guys knocking back Gatorade, but the rule is that no fluid or food item can touch a maid's lips when she's inside a house. I sweat without replacement or pause, not in individual drops but in continuous sheets of fluid, soaking through my polo shirt, pouring down the backs of my legs. Working my way through the living room(s), I wonder if Mrs. W. will ever have occasion to realize that every single doodad and objet through which she expresses her unique, individual self is, from the vantage point of a maid, only an obstacle on the road to a glass of water.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Getting Ready1
1Serving in Florida11
2Scrubbing in Maine51
3Selling in Minnesota121

What People are Saying About This

Molly Ivins

Reading Ehrenreich is good for the soul.

Diane Sawyer

Barbara Ehrenreich is smart, provocative, funny, and sane in a world that needs more of all four.

Reading Group Guide

To the Teacher
Millions of Americans work full-time for poverty-level wages. Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. Nickel and Dimed is the revealing, compelling, and widely acclaimed result of that decision-a book that has already become a masterpiece of undercover reportage, and a portrait-of-the-working-poor classic that is showing up in classrooms throughout the nation.

How does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 an hour? To ?nd out, Ehrenreich takes low-wage jobs in Florida, then in Maine, and finally in Minnesota, working as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing home aide, and a Wal-Mart salesperson. She lives in trailer parks and crumbling motels; she eats fast or cheap food, since she can't afford a stove, refrigerator, or cookware. She also learns that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you plan to live indoors. And healthcare is a luxury she cannot afford.
This is that rare book that reveals a harsh reality without resorting to sentiment, that speaks the plain truth without being preachy or complex. Nickel and Dimed is an absolute must for anyone who wants to see what "prosperity" looks like from the bottom, or who suspects that the "American dream" is becoming a fantasy.

Customer Reviews

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Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America (Turtleback School & Library Binding Edition) 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 195 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was horrible. I can't believe that I gave this person money! The author doesn't bother to really understand what she is writing about. She is consistently surprised that the poor folks around her aren't impressed with her PhD.... and what's sick is that she doesn't get that a PhD shouldn't impress the working poor. Why does she feel that she is so much better than everyone else... why doesn't she bother to find out how the people around her are actually making it work? How in Gods green can she have problems getting by for ONE month when she has a paid for rental car, $1000 going into the experiment and an income, however meager? Why does she feel that eating off you lap is a major plight of the working poor that she has to write about it? Has she never been to a picnic? The idea was fabulous... it's too bad she ruined it. Lastly, no real suggestions to solve the problem? Raise minimum wage? Doesn't she realize that the cost for product will rise too... and still a worker at Wal-Mart won't be able to afford to shop there? All I got from this book was that a spoiled child couldn't figure out how to live on less. Bummer for her. Fortunately most people on the planet are a little more crafty and intelligent. Finally, we as Americans only need to look to other countries to understand what poor really is.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While the author's experiment is certainly intriguing and even worthwhile, objectivity is quickly clouded by Ehrenreich's opinions on various social issues. During the brief time she works as a maid, she's pretentious enough to criticize the people who own the homes she is cleaning. She implies that these owners, many of whom she has never met, must be mean, selfish people because they actually own something of monetary value and are paying to have it cleaned. The possibility that they may have earned money through hard work to buy their possessions never seems to occur to her. Of course, this might have broken her moment of self-righteousness. Likewise, on page 100, she describes how self-conscious and ostracized she feels about wearing her garish maid's uniform in a supermarket, saying that she's 'getting a tiny glimpse of what it would be like to be black.' In today's society, that is hardly an accurate comparison. If anything, maybe she got a glimpse of how a disfigured or physically handicapped person may feel, but I doubt such people go about their daily routines with the indignant paranoia she displayed. Granted, there are injustices everywhere in America. However, it still remains the best country in the world for individuals to achieve their goals and attain economic comfort. It is up to the idividual to take the initiative for improvement; no one else can do it for them.
AdditionalReport More than 1 year ago
The setting of this book begins in the place at where Ehrenreich lives, Key West, Florida as she decides to start her low-wage life. The plot of this book begins as Ehrenreich is planning her project on how people live in a low- wage life, and the problems that they may come across, like affording a place to live. After leaving her normal life for this project her first task was to find a place to live, since she figured she would probably make around $7 an hour. But once she found a job at Hearthside she found out that her salary was for $2.43 an hour and eventually decided to find another job at Jerry’s in order to live. From there she started moving a couple of more times because she could not find to work with such a low-wage and have enough money for the necessities she may have to come across. In her evaluation she explains how housing is really expensive but, wages have not increased. The main character of this book was Ehrenreich the one who was doing the project to experience a low- wage job. There were also many other characters in which she came across when she was working at different places. The theme of this book is poverty because poverty had a great role in Ehrenreich’s book throughout the book she demonstrates the difficulty of survival with a low-waged job. She shows that there are so many other people that are actually living their lives with so many limitations and, things they have to sacrifice like health insurance that may eventually leave them in debt if anything ever really happened. Nickel and Dimed, 235 pages.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I bought this book hoping to maybe spark some sort of social progression in myself, but I ended up with a bitter taste in my mouth toward the author. When she attempts to make the blanket claim that people cannot live on minimum wage, well as true as that can be, she doesn't give up her luxuries to do so. She still continues to smoke and drink and spend her money on items she does not need. I would say save your money.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book is a short 230 pages. It's the longest 230 pages you will ever read. The book is slow and I felt uninterested in the topics. It's not the greatest book and there are better books on the subject.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Having heard so much about this book, I was a little disappointed when I actually sat down to read it. While I appreciate the author's honesty about her unwillingness to be inconvenienced in certain ways (using a car, having a wad of 'start up' cash, etc.), it made her alternating moments of whininess and self-congratulation all the more irritating. Also, her focus on the process of making herself poor limited her ability to go deeper into the actual experience and, more importantly, the experiences of those around her. I found 'The Broke Diaries' more entertaining and insightful.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The author certainly talked the talk, but she really didn't walk the walk. She only spent three months trying to figure out the problems of the working poor; and all the time having her emergency money handy, her ATM card, and her mind set on the things that she would absolutely not do without. In the REAL world of the working poor, those options are not always a reality. The concept of the book was good but if she had stayed with it for a year or more without any help from her 'real life', then the story, from her point of view, might have been a better read for me. This book seemed more like a reality show that the author stepped into while knowing she could bale out at any time. If I had not had to read it for school, I would not have read it for pleasure.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The concept of the book seemed good, but the narration of the book ruined it for me. While reading this book, I couldn't help but feel that the author was completely ignorant on the idea of living off of a low wage job. She seemed to be completely prejudiced. To those who do happen to read this book: NOT EVERYONE LIVES THIS WAY.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book couldn't help me wondering how efficient a person with zero degrees, no money, no car, etc. would do in this situation. Just the simple fact that Ms. Enrenreich had start up money puts her far and above the average person looking for work. This book reminds me of the world I grew up in and visit quite often, rural America, except for one obvious difference: there are no Merry Maids and very few restaurants to even apply for a job. People there rely on friends and family, a garden, and the land, using its wild fruits, plants, and trees to survive. If one wants to know how to get by and thrive in America, get away from the cities and towns and travel the very rural roads of Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and Nebraska. The people you will find are certainly not loaded with money, but have the values and substance needed to not only survive, but lead a rich and stop-to-smell-the-roses lifestyle.
crazy4reading on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I finally finished this book. I am not one that usually enjoys books of this nature but since I am going through some rough patches right now I needed to read this book.The author Barbara Ehrenreich decides to see how the low income people survive on the pay that they receive. As I read this book it really made me realize how much the rich seem to get richer and the poor get poorer. I borrowed this book from my son's friend and I am glad I did. It took me awhile to read the book because it is only 3 chapters long and I would stop reading and then not pick the book up in a long time and have to go back just to refresh my memory.In this book Barb travels to different parts of the United States and gives herself a limited amount of money when she first moves to a new place to look for a low wage job. She first decides to find a job in Key West, Florida as a waitress. Her next stop is in Maine in the Portland Area as a maid, and her last stop is in Minnesota in sales.Barb first starts off with looking for a place to live when she first arrives in Florida, Maine and Minnesota. As she is looking for housing she also looks for jobs by looking in the want ads or just seeing signs posted in stores, restaraunts etc. The interesting thing about the book is that the pay wages are so different in each area and also in the types of jobs she accuires. Her first job as a waitress only pays $2.43 an hr. plus tips. So depending on the type of waitress she is and the establishment can make the job a good or bad one. Plus the waitresses have to split the tips with the busboys.
pumpernickel1997 More than 1 year ago
Had to read this for college. Terrible. This author is an absolute arrogant woman and it showed throughout the entire book. The concept and idea was spectacular but she executed this with bias after bias after bias.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
After reading this book required for a project for my economy class I found that it did provide some useful information about the struggles of finding a job and about some of the obstacles the working poor encounter. I do feel like the author included a lot of negative and unecessary remarks about the people she worked with and I did get the sense that she felt superior to those around her simply because she has a PhD and they do not. In the conclusion of the book, and overall throughout it, she implies that changes should be made, like increasing the minimum wage but comes to no real conclusion. Although the book somewhat depicts the current situtation in regards to the recession and teaches readers about how the working poor are being treated, I feel like the author makes the working class seem hopeless and like they will never be really able to better their lives.
cafereadsblogspotcom More than 1 year ago
This book is well-written account of an undercover journalist's journey into the world of the working poor. At times, the tone is biting and sarcastic. More often, it is sincere and sympathetic as Ehrenreich recounts her experiences working an array of low-paying jobs. The end notes can be daunting and Ehrenreich can be a bit cryptic at times, especially toward the end of the book, but overall I think this book is an important wake-up call to the struggles of America's working poor.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A must read for anyone who wants to thoroughly understand the obstacles in life when one get paid minimum wage. It was a fantastic book that opened my eyes to the harsh realities that people have to go through everyday. Nickel and dimed is a reminder of the very substantial underclass in our society. It's about those who toil long hours at menial jobs to make our lives so very comfortable. They work in our kitchens, clean our offices and bathrooms, wash our cars, mow our lawns, take care of many of our needs. They do it quietly, often unseen, without complaint, and without much reward.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In all honestly I did not like the author of the book. I strongly believe that the book should have been written by someone WITHOUT a college education. I personally thought that it was asinine how a college educated woman was writing a book about America's working class. In the book she mentions how she has a Ph.D., a savings account, IRA, health insurance, and house. Reading this book, I could not get out of mind that she is one of the privileged people in America. Although this book does provide in-depth the struggles that many hard working Americans face every day. Nickel and Dimed would have been more powerful if it was written by an actual working class American. I also hope that Ms. Ehrenreich gives some of the profits from this book to help out those who are in need of financial support.
NickBoss_89 More than 1 year ago
This book has an interesting concept to it but unfortunately it can be a bit boring at sometimes. Reading this book felt like working a low wage job at times, especially during the introduction and evaluation. But I have to admit that Barbara Ehrenreich has some balls for going through on this project and having to deal with all the struggles that low wage workers go trough on a daily basis. People tend to forget or even look down upon certain jobs like waiting tables or house cleaning and it's important to know that the people who work these jobs are people as well, their struggles should be understood and should not be degraded.
EliseP on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have conflicted responses to this book. First, I do believe that the US's minimum wage is not a liveable wage. I would like the author to have given a little more backstory, regarding the history of the minimum wage, and what was its original purpose? How long did it take for the original legislation, from its initial concept to law (in 1938, I think). So I need to find that out on my own, I guess. I do believe that our country needs to have a liveable wage. That if these rich companies like Wal-Mart would really pay employees what they're worth, our economy, our quality of life, would improve enormously. At the very least, it was an enjoyable "listen" and provides much food for thought.
donp on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Still going through it, but I have to say that while I don't necessarily agree with all the charges of elitism often leveled against this book, the audiobook reader doesn't help the cause much in my mind's ear.
hmmn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Really interesting read, and quite funny at times but often reads as a little elitist. Most of the other reviewers have touched on how shallow her 'research' can be. . . I think that the information that we can extract from her experiences are at least a helpful addition to the discussion about the working poor.
ksoebroto on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was an incredibly important book for me to read. It allowed me to understand the sheer lack of choices that occurs when a person in under-employed. The cascading and often debilitating effects of working a minimum pay job were portrayed very clearly.
brigitte64 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
a very good book, and even when it`s written in 2001 I think it`s still the same in this country -if not getting a job at all.I think she could go further when she worked a Wal Mart. Just trying a little bit harder to establish a union. Make some noise. Even when she was running out of money. It would have been important for her co workers. She had nothing to loose, because when they fired her she had another life to catch on. And afterwords good information for the media to tell. These big corporations need more resistance against their cruel work conditions.
skinglist on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is really interesting. I'd heard good things about it, but my semester ate my soul leaving me no time for free reading. I picked this up recently though and was quickly engrossed. I like the range of work the author partook in, from cleaning to waitressing to being a Wal-Martian (perhaps my favourite term!) I think she presented her experiences and challenges well--ranging from housing to finding work. I'm very grateful that I make more than the minimum, but my own struggle to make ends meet really makes me wonder how those do it. I can't imagine having to go to work on a possible broken ankle just because it's what you *have* to do.
bokai on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Nickel and Dimed is a nice intro for those who haven't yet realized that the minimum wage is unlivable and that the lives of the 'working poor' are getting more difficult even as the demographic is grown. I think that most of us have realized this though, so the book becomes less of an eye-opener and more of an anecdotal confirmation of the statistics. Ehrenreich doesn't offer solutions, or analyze the problem very deeply. What she does is try to humanize the problem and she has been rather successful at that. I found it amusing that she treated the whole affair almost as if she was entering an alien planet, and some people have read into that elitism, but it felt to me that she was being honest with her circumstances and background. The well-to-do middle classes are, like she was, completely ignorant of how the bottom rung lives.Nickel and Dimed is good, but it only gives us a whiff of the issues in it. Comparing it to Fast Food Nation, I say this was the weaker book because it did not make as many strong connections as Fast Food Nation Did.
richardsonmichelle on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The author discovered something many people have known for years, but she did something about it. It was interesting reading about her experiences in different cities, working different jobs and trying to make ends meet. She did, however, take advantage of resources that most would not think of, let alone take the effort to find. For the most part, the book was an accurate portrayal of what life is like for the working poor. I especially liked hearing about the background and the stories about her coworkers, those made the book more credible for me.