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

Ehrenreich, Barbara

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Investigative Journalism

Annotated by:
Wear, Delese
  • Date of entry: Nov-16-2003
  • Last revised: Jan-08-2007


To find out how humans live and survive in minimum-wage America--particularly women who were at the time about to be pushed into the labor market because of "welfare reform"--writer Barbara Ehrenreich moved three times, from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, and worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a house cleaner, a nursing home aide, and a Wal-Mart employee.

The "rules" of her project (1) prohibited her from falling back on skills available to her because of her education (a PhD in biology) or previous work (an essayist with 11 books); (2) required that she take the highest-paying job offered to her and do her best to keep it; and (3) dictated that she take the cheapest accommodations she could find. The idea was to spend a month in each setting and to see if she could find a job and make enough money to pay a second month's rent. The book, then, tells her story of trying to make ends meet, what "millions of Americans do . . . every day, and with a lot less fanfare and dithering."


In this courageous, eloquent, reflective account of working for $6 or $7 per hour and then trying to live on it, Barbara Ehrenreich attempts to expand public awareness of the insulting travesty of minimum wage and the often mind-numbing and humiliating work required to receive such a wage. In each location, she provides readers with simple details, such as how she found work and what that work involved, how she was treated by prospective employers, how she found a place to live, and how she attempted to manage what little money she made.

These descriptions provide perspectives unavailable to most people who have never lived with the constant threat of poverty and everything associated with it: living in inadequate housing and with no health insurance; relying on broken-down cars or public transportation; silently facing the smug, patronizing, and at times abusive behaviors of employers as she is constantly monitored for "signs of sloth, theft, drug abuse, or worse."

In addition--and here's where the real merits of the book can be found--she attempts to tell readers what it feels like to be situated in a sociopolitical environment where treading water is about as good as it gets. All the while, she acknowledges that her position is one of privilege even within this social class category: she does not, for example, bear the brunt of racism, nor does she have child care expenses to worry about or the constant threat of losing time to take care of sick children.

This book should be required reading for all medical and nursing students. It offers a look at the lives of persons facing economic challenges far beyond superficial medical encounters and into the worlds they inhabit.


Henry Holt

Place Published

New York



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