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Comparison of “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Nickel and Dimed”

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John Steinbeck, in The Grapes of Wrath, and Barbara Ehrenreich, in Nickel and Dimed, both show the hardship of the working poor by depicting their lack of economic mobility. Both stories, although based in different time periods, focus on the lack of housing and liveable wages. This shows how the same problems have remained throughout the years and are still being fought today. The two novels follow the lives of those living paycheck to paycheck. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck tells the story of the Joad family who were forced to move from their farm in Oklahoma and instead chase work in California. Interspersed throughout their story are inner chapters which are not about one specific family but rather highlight some of the challenges facing migrant workers. They provide another perspective into the life of the poor and add details not always discussed elsewhere. By describing the life of one specific family Steinbeck is able to show the hardships regarding housing, job security, safety, health and wages.

Since the Joads were always moving to find work and had very little money obtaining housing was almost impossible. As migrant workers they spent weeks traveling from Oklahoma to California. Buying money, gas and fixing their car ate up the saved money they began the trip with. Therefore, the only place to live when they got to California was tents in migrant camps on the side of the road. The police can come into these camps whenever they want and take complete control over the Okies, a term used to reference those who travelled from middle-America to California. As shown on page 271 “You heard what that bull said. They’ll burn ya out if you don’t. ‘F you think that guy’s gonna take a beatin’ ‘thout gettin’ back, you’re nuts. The pool room boys’ll be down here tonight to burn us out,” whenever the police feel threatened they burn the camps and regain control. Since the government camp is private property and the police need a warrant or probable cause to raid, they felt threatened. In at attempt to prove their authority they paid people to start a fight which constitutes probable cause. Since the police get paid for every prisoner they try to instigate and rile up the migrant workers. This is depicted on page 263, “‘Ever see ‘im before?’ The contractor insisted, ‘Hmm, seems like I have. Las’ week when that used-car lot was busted into.

Seems like I seen this fella hangin’ aroun’. Yep! I’d swear it’s the same fella.’ Suddenly the smile left his face. ‘Get in the car,’ he said, and he unhooked the strap that covered the butt of his automatic. Tom said, “You got nothin’ on him.’ The deputy swung around. ‘ ‘F you’d like to go in too, you jus’ open your trap once more. They was two fellas hangin’ around that lot.” If an Okie spoke back, the cop would claim that he too is a criminal. It was one man’s word against the other and the cop always won. Due to the ratio between people without jobs and jobs available, finding a job at a liveable wage was not possible. When a farm owner had ripe fruit and needed workers to pick it all he had to do was tell a couple of people and hundreds would show up. This meant the farm owner could pay any wage and have workers since everyone was desperate for work. Wages changed daily based on the amount of ready workers at the field. This is shown on page 391, “‘I guess they bust the strike, awright,’ Tom said. ‘I guess you’ll start on two an’ a half cents.’ ‘But a fella could work at a run, an’ still he couldn’ eat.” When the Joads took their job picking peaches, the previous workers were striking because the salary was two and a half cents a box. Due to the strike there was a demand for workers and so the Joads made five cents a box. Once the strike was broken, there was an influx of workers and the wage retunred to two and a half cents a box which is not enough to survive. The Joads were forced to savor every penny and every meal because they were unsure when another would come.

The cost of gas meant that distance limited the jobs available. Once the Joads found themselves a permanent house in the government camp they were tasked with finding a job nearby. They had to save the little money they had for food and could afford to drive around looking for a job. Many workers chose to carpool to decrease gas costs. This only increased the number of workers at every job causing a decrease in wages. Since the migrant workers were so desperate for money they were often taken advantage of. When the Joads were preparing to leave Oklahoma they sold most of their belongings. Everything was sold for less than its worth. Then, when they bought a car the price was more than its actual worth. If Al Joad had not known how to check a car they would have been sold a car with broken parts. Another instance where the migrant workers were taken advantage of was the company stores in the large fields. When the Joads were working on the peach farm they were allowed to buy food from the company store but the prices were raised. When Ma Joad asked why the worker responded “yes, it’s high, an’ same time it ain’t high. Time you go on in town for a couple poun’s of hamburg, it’ll cost you ‘bout a gallon gas. So you see it ain’t really high here, ‘cause you got no gallon a gas.” (374) Instead of the workers being able to save money by going to the company store instead of driving to town, the owners charged the workers higher prices because they knew that they were the only option. Ehrenreich’s novel depicts her life when she decided to experience being a part of the working poor.

Ehrenreich gave up her money and house and started over with only a car. Although this is not a perfect depiction since Ehrenreich can always return to her real life, she is still able to show the challenges of obtaining a liveable wage and affordable housing. Although the economy was booming when Ehrenreich chose to do her experiment, wages for the working poor were not increasing. Although Ehrenreich initially estimated if she could make seven dollars an hour she would survive, she only took into account housing, food and a little gas money. Already, during her first job Ehrenreich had to spend thirty dollars on pants. That money would take weeks to earn. She also realized how expensive gas is and has not taken that into account originally. Ehrenreich quickly leaned that her salary would not be enough to cover housing, food and gas. When Ehrenreich asked coworkers how they make ends meet she received two possible answers, they either had a partner who they lived with or they worked a second job. Ehrenreich took up a second job and promptly learned that she is not physically capable of completing the work of both jobs in one day. Therefore the second time she held two jobs she chose to have one during the week and one on the weekend. Although, Ehrenreich was able to hold both jobs she realized that she would not be able to last for months without a single day off. In order to find a job one must have spending money available.

Obtaining a job is not as easy as simply walking into a store and asking for one. One must pay for gas to drive from store to store and then once an application is accepted, a drug test must be taken. If someone had children they had to pay for a babysitter while they were trying to find a job. Also, time spent job hunting is time not spent making money. This meant that someone was already down money before they even started their job. Therefore, people lack flexibility and can not leave their current job without a good reason and a plan. Since many families have only one car and many people working, everyone in the family must make sure that the location and timing of their job fits with the driver of the car. This limited the jobs available and caused workers to accept anything regardless of the salary. Even when Ehrenreich was able to find a job there was no safe affordable housing available.

When Ehrenreich was in Minnesota she learned that the cheapest place to live is in a motel. But in her room the door has no bolt and the window has no screen. This posed a security threat leading to many sleepless nights. Lack of sleep causes a decrease in the quality of work and threatens the immune system. Ehrenreich realized that women who live this life everyday “really do have more to fear than women who have houses with double locks and alarm systems and husbands or dogs.” (153) These women must learn to live with the constant fear of being taken advantage of. This stress can only cause a decrease in health and low paying jobs do not offer health insurance. The only way to move out of the motel and into an apartment is to have money for two month’s rent. It could take months to save up enough while also having to pay for gas, food and current room.

Although the working poor are people they are taken advantage of simply because they have less. As Ehrenreich quickly learned, when one begins a new job their first week’s pay is withheld until they complete a second week but this is not shared beforehand. This means that money which is depended on for food and rent is not received until a week later. Also, when a bag is brought into a restaurant it becomes the owner’s property and he is allowed to search the bag, effectively removing workers’ privacy. Ehrenreich learned while working in Walmart that one may not curse while working, and can even be fired for it. Walmart is also allowed to change one’s shift regularly taking away the possibility of working two jobs. Steinbeck and Ehrenreich are successful in depicting the challenges which face the poor in America. The main point made in both novels is that low-wage workers are not paid enough to live and are taken advantage of by their bosses. Due to this they have no chance to leave this economic state, leaving them and their children stuck in a cycle of poverty without an exit.

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Comparison of “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Nickel and Dimed”. (2021, Dec 21). Retrieved from

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