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Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed” Analysis

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Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed reveals to the middle and upper class how difficult it truly is to live off of minimum wage. Throughout the book, Ehrenreich makes the minimum wage, which turned out to be five to six dollars (Ehrenreich 16). However, this was in 1998, twenty years ago. According to the Massachusetts institute of Technology, the living wage, or the lowest possible income for a single adult to live on is eleven dollars and fifty three cents per hour, while minimum wage is nine dollars and sixty five cents per hour (“Living”). To me, this is both shocking and disgusting. A single adult with no family can not live off of the minimum wage allotted by the state, and Minnesota’s minimum wage is up to two dollars higher than the national minimum wage (“Minimum”). I strongly believe that the minimum wage across America should be equal to the living wage. By doing this experiment, Ehrenreich proves to her own wealthy class, that poverty is not as easy as it seems, something I feel needs more attention than it gets by people over the poverty line.

Low wage jobs such as waitressing are often seen as occupations with little qualifications or skill. Barbara realizes on her first day how difficult waitressing truly is. She said she had forgotten how hard the job was, “about a third of a server’s job is “side work” invisible to customers- sweeping, scrubbing, slicing, refilling, and restocking,” (Ehrenreich 17). This particularly resonated with me because I realize it is easy to forget how much servers actually do

besides take an order and serve food. Similar to Barbara, I would have found this job to be difficult on the first day. Ehrenreich creates this response from the reader by using phrases such as “we utilize whatever bits of autonomy we have to ply our customers with illicit calories that signal our love,” (Ehrenreich 20). This draws the reader to pity the wait staff by explaining that the way they get most tips is to give extra butter pads and whipped cream, something most people would find ridiculous.

Ehrenreich’s reason for moving to Maine for her next job was told as, “an extreme case of demographic albinism,” (Ehrenreich 51). Here, she believes that when she tries to hide in the guise of a poverty-stricken woman, she will not be questioned. In Florida, she realized she did not fit in with the other servers because she was white. In Florida, she realized many of the lower class people were of color, while many people working in the white-collar industry were, in fact white. This observation led me to see the racial inequality in Florida. When introducing Maine, Ehrenreich said it was the “perfect place for a blue-eyed, English-speaking, Caucasian to infiltrate the low-wage workforce,” (Ehrenreich 51). This statement made me realize how much better she must have been getting treated in Florida compared to her coworkers. By saying this, she reveals that Florida was not the right place for the experiment because of the racial component, which makes a reader even more concerned about the struggles of working in America as a low class person of color.

While working at The Maids, Ehrenreich works with a woman named Holly. While on the job, Holly hurts her ankle but refuses to go to a hospital. She gets upset over how many days of work she had already missed and how she could not miss any more days. She makes this clear by stating that Holly would work “until you pry the cleaning rag from her cold, dead hands,” (Ehrenreich 111). By phrasing Holly’s persistence to work in this way, it leads me to believe she has no other option than to work until she physically no longer can. It makes me upset, because I have never gone through something like this and I cannot help those who do.

Another problem with wealthier people controlling the lower class in their jobs is trust. Employees in low wage professions are often not trusted, just because they are in poverty. Barbara shows that even she was not trusted with simple tasks, and when being interviewed, she was asked questions that showed stereotypes put on the lower class. In interviews, she is asked questions such as “In the last year I have stolen (check dollar amount below) worth of goods from my employers,” (Ehrenreich 126). Questions such as these give a stereotype on the lower class that I think is toxic. I found it shocking that this specific of a question would be asked, and my shock was multiplied by Ehrenreich’s statement that there were many questions similar to that on her job surveys. All of the jobs she interviewed for in Minnesota require a drug test, a process which Ehrenreich found awkward and almost dehumanizing (Ehrenreich 127). Since she had been uncomfortable, it is clear that drug tests had not been required in any of her pre-experimental job searches.

Barbara Ehrenreich eventually realized her experiment had to come to an end because she could not make ends meet with her salary. Her attempt to show people who live similar lifestyles to herself how much people in poverty are struggling ended in having to quit and go back to her normal lifestyle. Even when she had two jobs at many points at the book, she could never truly live off of it, especially not comfortably. The issue is, people who actually live in this situation can’t just end the experiment and start over because it truly is their life. Ehrenreich uses language throughout her book to make the reader feel pity for people living in poverty and uncomfortable with the treatment of people in these situations with low wage jobs.

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Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed” Analysis. (2021, Dec 21). Retrieved from

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