In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich tells a powerful and gritty story of daily survival. Her tale transcends the gap that exists between rich and poor and relays a powerful accounting of the dark corners that lie somewhere beyond the popular portrayal of American prosperity. Throughout this book the reader will be intimately introduced to the world of the “working poor”, a place unfamiliar to the vast majority of affluent and middle-class Americans. What makes this world particularly real is the fact that we have all come across the hard-working hotel maid, store associate, or restaurant waitress but we hardly ever think of what their actual lives are like? We regularly dismiss these people as nearly invisible and they drop into the background of our normal routines. But they are real people with quite real and serious problems and, even by conservative estimates, there are millions of them struggling to persist each and every day.
What makes this book so riveting is that Ehrenreich doesn’t document the daily life of the working poor by analyzing government statistics or observing people from some distant location. Rather, Ehrenreich becomes a member of the working poor and her goal is quite simple, she wants to find out whether she could match her income to her expenses. Nickel and Dimed is a story that details the results of Ehrenreich’s “hands–on experiment” but it raises concerns that go far beyond her original goal.
The book opens with Ehrenreich at a lunch meeting with Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's Magazine. A topic being discussed at lunch was poverty in America. Both Ehrenreich and Lapham wondered how the “roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform” were going to make it on a minimal hourly wage (Ehrenreich, 2001, p.1). By the end of lunch, she decides to personally find out how difficult it is for people to make the transition from welfare to work and, if she could survive on the minimal income provided by a series of common, low level jobs. To accomplish this, she provided herself a small amount of startup money, and traveled to multiple locations around the United States where she conducted her “experiment”. She went to Key West, FL; Orchard Beach, ME; and Minneapolis, MN; and found employment and a place to live, with a goal of saving enough by the end of the month to pay the next month's rent. Her employment consisted of restaurant waitress and hotel maid in Florida, nursing home aide and a house cleaning maid in Maine, and a Wal-Mart associate in Minnesota.
As the author moved from locale to locale she identified a variety of recurring hardships faced by the working poor. The chief concern for many was housing. Finding and maintaining economical housing was the principal source of disruption in their lives. For many of the working poor it’s not uncommon to spend more than 50% of income on housing. These leaves a scarce amount of...