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Nickel and Dimed

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Nickel and Dimed

On (Not) Getting By in America

Henry Holt,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Ever wondered how people with minimum-wage jobs survive in America? They don’t.

Editorial Rating



  • Innovative


The most unsettling aspect of Barbara Ehrenreich’s eye-opening foray into the world of the working poor is that the situation hasn’t improved. In fact, it’s gotten worse. The U.S. economy was booming in the late 1990s when she began her project, working anonymously in various minimum-wage jobs and reporting about the experience. Though she steps in and out of the lives of the minimum-wage workers who befriend her, she is a very powerful, effective advocate for them. In her book, she shows that living decently on about $7 an hour (still the minimum wage in most states) is impossible. However, Ehrenreich gives it a try in three cities, working as a waitress, housekeeper and Wal-Mart clerk. She reports from the front lines, where the working poor eat potato chips for dinner and sleep in fleabag motels, and she does the same. She finds that minimum-wage workers lead a dreary existence, toiling away in obscurity day after day with little hope, just getting by as long as they don’t fall ill, need dental work or get in a car wreck. The terribly sad part is that many see no light at the end of the tunnel. getAbstract finds that Ehrenreich is a gifted writer with keen perceptions and a wry sense of humor. Her narrative flows effortlessly as she enlightens, educates and entertains. If only she had a magic wand.


A Painful Journey

In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich, an educated author, accepted a challenge from a magazine editor to join the working poor and write about the experience. Welfare reform was pushing millions of Americans into the workforce. Studies already had proven that surviving on minimum wage without government assistance was impossible, but Ehrenreich tackled the project anyway. She wanted to learn firsthand about life on the edge. She worked for poverty-level wages for a month each in Florida, Maine and Minnesota.

Ehrenreich established three rules for herself: She would not rely on any of her professional skills; she had to accept the best-paying job she could find and work earnestly to keep it; and she had to live in the cheapest place that offered reasonable privacy and safety. She applied for jobs pretending to be a divorcee with little experience who was returning to the workforce after many years. She did make a couple of concessions. She insisted on having a car, and she wasn’t willing to be homeless or without food. In an emergency, she would use her ATM card. But her goal was to spend a month in each place, land a job and make enough to pay for another ...

About the Author

Barbara Ehrenreich has written 12 books and contributes often to national magazines.

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    H. S. 1 decade ago
    Just read Bait and Switch and now this one. My respect for the author has only increased!

    Highly recommend reading the summary and possibly the book.
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    C. A. 1 decade ago
    I feel this was a goog story ,and for once is good that some one reallylived what most of us really live.

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