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Analysis of “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenreich

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Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich is story of the working poor. The author tries to know the living conditions of the people in the working poor. She experiences it as being one of the member of the working poor. The places she spends her time understanding the poor are Key West, Maine and Minnesota. She pretends to be a member of working poor, and does not reveal her education levels, and her future. She finds the jobs that can pay her enough to fulfill her monthly routine of bills and have a little leftover for food and other purposes. She does not focus on the quality of work, she worked all kinds of unattractive jobs which would keep her in balance with the money. Although there were situations when she ran out of money but she did not give up. Inequality and working poor are the major aspects of the book. Below are some sociological concepts that I found were referenced from the book.


Inequality is the baseline in this book, means inequality is seen everywhere. The author is experienced equality everywhere she worked. When working in key West at the Hearthside restaurant as a waitress, she gets paid only $2.43 per hour and other income is based on the tips. The tips are to be shared with the busboys and the dishwashers. This is typically a very low-wage working job, and sometimes there is not enough number of tips which she gets short at the end of the month of her rent. Inequality is also seen when the employees at the Hearthside are not allowed to enter from the front door, they are only to enter from the kitchen door. Everybody should be treated equal. This talks about Weber’s idea of class and status where the people with high economic standing or prestige can afford to have benefits, whereas the people with low status or prestige cannot have similar access which the prestigious people have. The author also explains the way she was treated in Maine, when she went to a restaurant wearing maids uniform. She accounts how the waitress did not even bother to pay attention to her and kept talking with another waitress. This was because she was in the maid’s uniform, she was not treated well as the job she does seemed of low dignity. She also faced the same situation at the supermarket, where the people working at that place were not happy enough for her to be there. The workers at the supermarket kept staring at her and questioned about her coming to the market. The type of work people do seems to be a great deal even if the pay is same.

Invisible Poverty

Invisible Poverty is defined for the working poor. They are invisible for the eyes of the society but they are still poor. The main reason for this is because they are in the labor force and they are not as poor as the people who have being in poverty constantly. In Nickel and Dimed, these people are mostly the ones which makes the middle class or the upper middle class lives better. The ones which Ehrenreich describes are the waitress at the Hearthside restaurant and at the Jerry’s, the housekeeping staff, the house cleaning workers at the Maids, the taking care of the elderly at the nursing home. These people are overlooked for poverty because the society is taking them for granted, from cleaning their dishes at the restaurant, to cleaning their houses and of course making their beds at the hotels. When working at Maids in Maine, she encounters how the owners of the house were unfriendly and sometimes rude to with them. She asks her team the reason about the situation when one of them replied that the owners think the house cleaning staff have nothing productive to do in that time. This indicates how the occupation is seen invisible to many people in the society, even though the occupation seems to fulfill the needs for the people in the society. There are less government benefits for working poor. In Maine, where Barbara is working two jobs and when she runs out of money because of paying her next stay at the motel and so she calls the Prebles Street Resource Center for some food help, but they were closed so she had to call some other place and so on and so forth, the helplines were not willing to help her because she was attacked with the questions of “ Why do I need money if I’m employed”(102), this is because the working poor’s problems are not very often seen by the government. Moving on to the other sociological concept that is food insecurity.

Food Insecurity

Food insecurity is seen as the most common factor associated with poverty. Even with the working poor food insecurity is a basic because they are often living paycheck to paycheck and may not have enough money to buy food. Ehrenreich notes when she is working at Jerry’s as a waitress that the workers live on smoking instead eating anything in particular (31). Their food is generally fast food that is cheap and something they can afford, which is not nutritious. The author also describes how she goes hours without eating food when she is working as a waitress at the restaurant. When she is working at the cleaning services The Maids, in Maine she encounters her co-worker, Holly eating just one cracker in her long shift of eight to nine hours (96). She also gives an account of her co-worker Rosalie, who lives with her boyfriend and mother but does not have anything to eat from her house, so she eats a pack of Doritos, and she does not have money to buy a drink which Barbara buys for her at last. This is the worst type of food insecurity when eating unhealthy and sometimes when Rosalie does not have money she goes on at work without eating, which make her dizzy. The increase in food insecurity gives rise to many health conditions and the low wage workers cannot afford those treatments. Concerning the above problem, the next concept seen in this book is low wage.

Low Wage

Starting from Key West to Minnesota, the author has experienced working in low wage. The amount of work does not equalize to the money given. The pay everywhere is around $6-$7 an hour and sometimes less than that. This was like living paycheck to paycheck and sometimes she also gets out of money for food and other costs. At an interview in Maine, at Merry Maids, the interviewer tells her that they pay $200-$250 per week for forty hours of work, and the interviewer tells her not to convert into hours because it was going to be less (60). This is how the low wage workers gets treated because the employers know they are going to take the job as they have nowhere else to go. When Barbara started working at the restaurant at Hearthside she only got paid $2.43 an hour plus the tips, which can be considered less because the tips had to be shared with the bus boys and the dish washers, so she was $100 less for her rent at the end of the month (28). The low wage workers cannot afford their expenses by working only at one job, so Barbara tries to find a second job to afford living at hotel because she cannot live in an apartment as the price does not match her budget. When working at Jerry’s they do not have a break room which symbolizes that they do not have any breaks, they are working more for what is being paid to them. When the author is working at the Maids, she doesn’t get paid for half-hour of after their arrival but they have to get at to work half hour early, which is just unfair to anyone (109). They are low wage workers because they lack the education levels and that is the reason they deal with certain inequality. The employers are not ready to provide health insurance to them. There is also a part in Minnesota, where she gets accepted to Menards and she was told to get paid $10 an hour by the worker, but she found out that it was way too much of money and she will not be getting $10 an hour, so she had to quit and only focus on Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart was paying the same $7 per hour, which she found less because she was having most difficulty finding a place to stay in Minnesota. Every place she went, the budget did not match the amount of the rent.

Culture of Poverty

Culture of Poverty is seen in some parts of the book. The idea of culture of poverty means the norms and the values of a specific culture, in this case poor. The ideas and the values of the poor are not most often considered as a something functional in the society. Their norms are unable to fit the established norms. They don’t have the power to dominate the higher class nor they have money. Ehrenreich outlines how her co-worker at The Maids, often gets mistreated by her husband for not going to work but does not understand her situation that she was pregnant and feeling sick (97). There is no other option for her than going to work. This is because she lacks the power to have control over his husband due to her situation of pregnancy. The lack of power can also develop because the she can be kicked out of the house and can become homeless. The phenomenon of culture of poverty also includes the way the poor are treated. At the Jerry’s, George, one of the dishwashers, stole few items from the storage room. The author thinks that the reason behind stealing was due to hunger and not about anything else. George was from another country and did not understand English very well, he would not be able to explain the reason behind his stealing before he gets fired. This situation can happen to any foreigner who is not well educated and has a language barrier. They also cannot seek help from someone due to lack of money. Being poor can sometimes be very torturing, as people in the society always associates negative factors against poor. In Florida, Ehrenreich encounters in an interview that the questions asked were not only absurd but also kind of demoralizing. One of the question was, the materials stolen in the last year was calculated around how many dollars. The type of questions asked are often faced by many poor who apply to low wage jobs. As poor are more likely to steal or break the rules because of their economic conditions.

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