Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By In America

An Overview of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Research on Low-Wage Employment

Striking workers carry signs asking for better wages.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

In her book Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By In America, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich conducted ethnographic research to study what it’s like to be a low-wage worker in the United States. Ehrenreich took an immersive approach to her research: she worked in low-wage jobs, such as food service and housecleaning, in order to better understand these workers’ lives.

Key Takeaways: Nickel and Dimed

  • Barbara Ehrenreich worked at several low-wage jobs in order to immerse herself in the experience of low-wage workers in the United States.
  • Without revealing her full educational background or skills to employers, Ehrenreich took a series of jobs as a waitress, housecleaner, nursing home aide, and retail worker.
  • In her research, Ehrenreich found that low-wage employees often go without health insurance and struggle to find affordable housing.
  • She found that low-wage jobs can be both physically and psychologically demanding for employees.

At the time of her research (around 1998), roughly 30 percent of the workforce in the United States worked for $8 an hour or less. Ehrenreich cannot imagine how these people survive on these low wages and sets out to see first-hand how they get by. She has three rules and parameters for her experiment. First, in her search for jobs, she cannot fall back on any skills derived from her education or usual work. Second, she had to take the highest-paying job that was offered to her and do her best to keep it. Third, she had to take the cheapest accommodations she could find, with an acceptable level of safety and privacy.

When presenting herself to others, Ehrenreich was a divorced homemaker reentering the workforce after many years. She told others that she had three years of college at her real-life alma mater. She also gave herself some limits on what she was willing to endure. First, she would always have a car. Second, she would never allow herself to be homeless. And finally, she would never allow herself to go hungry. She promised herself that if any of these limits approached, she would dig out her ATM card and cheat.

For the experiment, Ehrenreich took on low-wage jobs in three states in America: in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota.

Florida

The first city Ehrenreich moves to is Key West, Florida. Here, the first job she gets is a waitressing position where she works from 2:00 in the afternoon until 10:00 at night for $2.43 an hour, plus tips. After working there for two weeks, she realizes that she will have to get a second job to get by. She is starting to learn the hidden costs of being poor. With no health insurance to see a doctor when health issues first arise, those who are uninsured can end up with significant and costly health problems. Also, with no money for a security deposit, many poor people are forced to live in a cheap hotel, which in the end is more costly because there is no kitchen to cook and eating out means spending more money on food that is anything but nutritious.

Ehrenreich picks up a second waitressing job, but soon discovers that she cannot work both jobs. Because she can make more money at the second job, she quits the first one. After a month of waitressing there, Ehrenreich gets another job as a maid in a hotel making $6.10 an hour. After one day of working at the hotel, she is tired and sleep deprived and has an awful night at her waitressing job. She then decides she has had enough, walks out on both jobs, and leaves Key West.

Maine

After Key West, Ehrenreich moves to Maine. She chose Maine because of the large number of white, English speaking people in the low-wage force and notes that there is an abundance of work available. She begins by living in a Motel 6, but soon moves to a cottage for $120 a week. She gets a job as a housecleaner for a cleaning service during the week and as a nursing home aide on the weekends.

The housecleaning job gets more and more difficult for Ehrenreich, both physically and mentally, as the days go by. The schedule makes it difficult for any of the women to have a lunch break, so they usually pick up a few items such as potato chips at a local convenience store and eat them on the way to the next house. Physically, the job is extremely demanding and the women Ehrenreich works with often take pain medications to ease the pain of performing their duties.

In Maine, Ehrenreich discovers that there is little assistance for the working poor. When she tries to get assistance, she finds that the people she speaks to are rude and unwilling to help.

Minnesota

The last place Ehrenreich moves to is Minnesota, where she believes there will be a comfortable balance between rent and wages. Here she has the most difficulty finding housing and eventually moves into a hotel. This exceeds her budget, but it is the only safe choice.

Ehrenreich gets a job at a local Wal-Mart in the ladies’ clothing section making $7 an hour. This is not enough to buy any cooking items to cook for herself, so she lives on fast food. While working at Wal-Mart, she starts to realize that the employees are working too hard for the wages they are paid. She starts to plant the idea of unionizing into other employees' minds, however she leaves before anything is done about it.

Evaluation

In the last part of the book, Ehrenreich reflects back on each experience and what she learned along the way. Low-wage jobs, she discovered, are very demanding, often degrading, and are ridden with politics and strict rules and regulations. For instance, most of the places she worked had policies against the employees speaking to one another, which she thought was an attempt to keep employees from airing their dissatisfaction and attempting to organize against the management.

Low-wage workers typically have very few options, little education, and transportation problems. These people at the bottom 20 percent of the economy have very complex problems and it is typically very difficult to change their situation. The main way that wages are kept low in these jobs, says Ehrenreich, is by reinforcing the employees’ low self-esteem that is inherent in each job. This includes random drug-tests, being yelled at by management, being accused of breaking rules, and being treated like a child.

References

Ehrenreich, B. (2001). Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By In America. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.