Book Review: Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

by RC on July 26, 2008

I read Nickel and Dimed- On Not Getting By in America after I read Scratch Beginnings-Me, $25, and the Pursuit of the American Dream by Adam Shepard. Since Scratch Beginnings was written in a response to Nickel and Dimed, I decided to read it and publish my review of it first; look for my review of Scratch Beginnings next week.

Nickel and Dimed- On Not Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich is more of a social commentary than a personal finance book, but it does examine critical questions about the cost of living, low wages, and asks ” Can someone survive on minimum wage?” Barbara Ehrenreich, an accomplished author in her own right, meets with an editor of a magazine to discuss a piece for his magazine, and together they decide to experiment to determine if it is possible to live off minimum wage (or whatever entry level wage is available) for someone getting off of welfare and largely unskilled.

She decides to go to 3 cities, find the best paying job she can get, rent a place to live, work for a month, and see if she can pay for the next month’s rent. She will pretend to be a recently divorced homemaker, with little skill and not having any recent work experience -similar to someone coming off of welfare.

Key West

She begins in Key West, close to her home town. She looks for a job at hotels and grocery stores, but finally settles on something she wanted to avoid: waiting on tables. She starts in one restaurant, the moves to another. She learns about her co-workers lives, many of whom live in small apartments that they share, trailers, and some even in their cars. After a few weeks, her experiment in Key West ends the first day she tries to work a second job, as she goes to the restaurant in the afternoon, and gets overwhelmed and walks out.


In Maine, she finds a weekly motel rental, gets a job with a maid service, and a weekend gig helping out at an assisted living facility. working seven days a week. She manages to stick it out until the end of her month long experiment.


In Minneapolis, due to a recent jump in rental demand, she has trouble finding an apartment. She ends up working at Walmart, staying at an expensive but very seed motel, and eventually, after not being able to fins a place she can afford, ends up quitting there too. But she did not take the highest paying job available, and it was difficult to decipher how hard she was trying to find somewhere more affordable to stay.


While Nickel and Dimed was a pretty good book and well-written, I did not get the impression that Ehrenreich actually expected to succeed in her experiment. While in Key West, she quits her waitressing job, because it is too much after her 1st day working after she starts second job in the morning. While in Key West, she decides not to take a job at a Winn-Dixie because she does not want to deal with the “indignity” of a drug test, as she puts it. Later, in Minneapolis, she again rails on employee drug testing (because she had smoked marijuana in the previous few weeks) and decides not to take the test, then only does after she takes measures to mask it. Maybe she has been a writer for too long, neither in the blue-collar world or in white-collar corporate America, since she works as an author and freelance writer. Drug testing is common in many lines of work, and there is a reason for it: safety and liability. For someone working in a chemical plant, refinery, or construction industry, it is quite obvious of the safety concerns. But warehouses, and stores like Walmart and Home Depot, have those concerns as well. Someone who was “stoned” could pull a heavy box or item off a shelf and drop it on a customer’s head. Or drive a fork-lift in the back and damage something. Also, it is probably more difficult to visually detect if someone is stoned than if they come in reeking of alcohol, I would imagine. In her wrap up chapter, she calls drug testing a indignity that may violate the 4th amendment. I have had to take several drug tests in my lifetime, and if you have nothing to hide, I don’t think most people consider it anything but a very minor inconvenience. While working at Walmart, she talks of the workers organizing and tells some they should form a union; not surprisingly, since in the beginning of the book she tells how her husband is a Teamster (union) organizer. Her attitude towards the people she was working with seemed a little condescending as well. She mentions her education frequently and how she is in “good shape” and healthy (compared to people she works with), but complains at how working all day makes her body ache. The fact is ( and I know from experience after working manual labor for several years) is that you get used to “physical work” after a few weeks.

She does point out many hardships and difficulties for those who, whether lacking education or other reasons, have to start out at the bottom earning minimum wage. It is difficult to get by, and even harder to get ahead. I would not expect it to be easy, but I am not sure if Ehrenreich expected it to be quite so hard. I am also not sure if her experiment was long enough to tell, or if she gave it her full effort. However, many of the points she brings up are true. It is incredibly difficult, I would imagine, for someone who was born into poverty to break the cycle. Other factors such as being a single parent or not having an education can make it all the more difficult as well. But it is not impossible. Nevertheless Nickel and Dimed was well-written and may be worth reading just for that fact. If you have never worked in a low paying job before, it may open your eyes. It also points to the difficulties many have just paying for rent and food in this country, while making only minimum wage. But it just didn’t seem quite genuine to me, and her attitude towards some of her co-workers was unappealing as well.

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