Nickel and Dimed is book about Barbara Ehrenreich’s undercover reporting as a working-class American. She takes on the project reluctantly, but embarks on this “journey” to uncover the lives of the invisible 12.7% of the American population (U.S Department of Labor). Ehrenreich first started in the spring of 1998, first reporting in Florida, then Maine, and finally Minnesota where she worked in various “low skilled” jobs.
To truly understand the experiences of Ehrenreich and her working-class colleagues, it is understand the context of time she was living in. Ehrenreich went undercover in the spring of 1998 just two years after welfare reformed into its new face of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) (Marger, 174). The new welfare program was enacted because of the assumptions that the poor were abusing the system to fund their “comfortable” lifestyles while staying unemployed. Some critics of the old welfare system even went as far as to say that women were having more children to collect more welfare. With TANF, new requirements were implemented for those who wanted to qualify for welfare. The new recipients were required to hold a job in order to qualify and were to only receive aid for no more than five years. Unfortunately, even with government assistance, many of Ehrenreich’s colleagues struggled to provide the basic necessities for themselves.
Unfortunately, the United States has an odd way of defining poverty as absolute: when someone does not have the minimum amount of income needed to buy life’s basic necessities (Marger, 147). To distinguish who lives in poverty the United States created a poverty line, however, the manner the government has structured this poverty line is deeply flawed. In 1964, Mollie Orshansky created the height of the poverty line “at three times the cost of a nutritionally adequate diet” (Marger, 149). Ehrenreich states that this is not an adequate division of the poverty line since some people, such as Caroline and her husband, make about $40,000 a year and still live in terrible conditions: “the bedrooms are tiny; the block is infested with drug dealers; the dining room ceiling leaks whenever the bathroom above it is used; the toilet can be flushed only by pouring in a bucket of water” (Ehrenreich, 131). At the time Ehrenreich was reporting her experience, the poverty live for a family of four in 1998 was $16,530, meaning that Caroline and husband were well above the poverty line but still lived in unsafe conditions (U.S. Census Bureau).
Contrary to popular belief, caucasian Americans are the ones who are most in poverty, however, the chances of being in poverty is much higher for racial minorities such as African Americans and Latinos. In Ehrenreich’s account, this unproportionate number of minorities in poverty is rarely seen because she only gets hired in certain jobs that only hire white workers. In Florida, she quickly notices that jobs hire people according to their race and ethnicity: “I am at the wrong end of some infallible ethnic equation: most, but by no means all, of the working housekeepers I see on my job searches are African Americans, Spanish-speaking, or refugees from the Central European post-Communist world, while [restaurant] servers are almost invariably white and monolingually English-speaking” (Ehrenreich, 29). It is evident that ethnic and racial minorities are given more invisible jobs, such as housekeeping or dishwashing, that keeps them out of sight and from interacting with others. While english speaking whites are given visible jobs to interact with consumers. Florida is the only place where the racial disparity is seen. There she meets George, a dishwasher from the Czech Republic who barely speaks english, and Carlotta, a middle aged African American women employed as a housekeeper. After learning of the racial and ethnic division in labor, Ehrenreich decides to move to more white population states, Maine and Minnesota, to be afforded the same jobs she cannot have in Florida.
Ehrenreich and her coworkers are considered the working-class “those who occupy the bottom rungs on the occupational ladder, filling jobs that are the lowest not only in wages but in prestige and power as well” (Marger, 157). Most of the working-class live paycheck to paycheck, they cannot afford to spend on luxuries or sudden medical emergencies even if they are employed and receive aid from the government. Ehrenreich experienced this grim reality in Maine, when she starts to run out of money for food due to an abrupt medical condition. She is resorted to search for services that provide free meals so she arrives to Prebles Street Resource Center only to find that it closes at 3pm, a time inconvenient to the working-class. So she calls a number where the man on the other line accusingly asks her why she did not have money if she works. After explaining herself she gets transferred from person to person until she is finally told where she can receive assistance. Although Ehrenreich did, eventually, receive assistance it was not without ease. She had to spend $2.80 of her already mere earnings and had to persist for 70 minutes just to receive assistance. From this experience, she notices how government assistance programs do not understand the lives of the poor. In addition to this, Ehrenreich notices that the working-class are constantly met with suspicions. When she was searching for food assistance she was met with suspicion from the man on the phone and from the vouchers, not money, she was given to purchase food. This was another obstacle Ehrenreich had to learn to endure, such as the constant urine tests she had to take to qualify for a job and the personality tests that implicitly measured if she were one to steal and submit to authority.
A relatively new characteristic of the working-class that came to be in the 1980’s, is the homeless. Before starting the this project, Ehrenreich stated that she would try to stay in each state for more than a month, but if she could not pay the next months rent she would call the project to an end. Fortunately, she never really became homeless, although in Maine she never did secure herself stable address, she never had to resort to sleeping in her car. However, one of Ehrenreich’s coworkers had to resort to this: “[Gail] has left the flophouse and her annoying roommate and is back to living in her truck… Phillip has given her permission to park overnight in the hotel parking lot, as long as she keeps out of sight, and the parking lot should be totally safe since it’s patrolled by a hotel security guard” (Ehrenreich, 32). Before this, Gail confindes in Ehrenreich that she is thinking of moving from away from her roomate and harassing boyfriend into a Motel on her own. Ehrenreich tries to warn her that she would increase her rent from $40 to $60 a day to which Gail snaps, “And where am I supposed to get a month’s rent and a month’s deposit for an apartment” (Ehrenreich, 27). Ehrenreich feels like a fool and realizes that she has had the privilege to allocated herself $1,300 to start her report, an unfair advantage most working-class Americans do not have.
One of the most obvious setbacks of living poverty is what the U.S. government calls food insecurity, which is not having enough money to purchase food, let alone nutritious and healthy food. This is a recurring problem Ehrenreich runs into when she went undercover. Day after day she had to eat fast food to fuel her body for the long, grueling, physical labor hours. Sometimes she wouldn’t enjoy the food but she knew it’s what would keep her going for a while: “Dinner is at the Hearthside, which offers its employees a choice of BLT, fish sandwich, or hamburger for only $2. The burger lasts longest, especially if it’s heaped with gut-puckering jalapenos, but by midnight my stomach is growling again” (Ehrenreich, 28). However, the most extreme example of this is when Ehrenreich met Holly, her team leader at Merry Maids. When Ehrenreich first meets Holly, Ehrenreich notices she is visibly unwell; she is thin, pale, and always hungry. Everyday Holly eats a small bag of cracker sandwiches with peanut butter filling and by the afternoon she has, what Ehrenreich calls, food fantasies where she asked everyone what they had for dinner the night before and vocally ravishes about the details of their meals. These light lunches eventually take a toll on her health.
Not only are their unhealthy diets deteriorating their health but the hours of physical labor that takes a toll on their bodies. Most of the jobs Ehrenreich is employed in do not provide healthcare and so she, and many others, have to endure their physically demanding jobs with pain and a handful of pain relievers. In Florida, Ehrenreich’s meets Carlotta a housekeeper at a hotel who complains about her constant pain: “I don’t have to ask about health insurance once I meet Carlotta, the middle-aged African American woman who will be training me. Carlie, as she tells me to call her, is missing all of her top front teeth” (Ehrenreich, 42). Furthermore, the cost of any medication can take a toll on their tight paychecks and even their jobs. In Maine, the Merry Maids has punishment policy where their wages decreases from $6.65 an hour to $6.00 an hour for two weeks if they miss one day of work. Unfortunately, Holly is yet again another victim of the system, she cannot afford to take off another day. After Ehrenreich finds her slumped over the counter, Holly admits she might be pregnant and that she shouldn’t be at work. Ehrenreich tries to convince Holly to take the day off and think the chemical fumes that can affect the baby but Holly does not budge. Unfortunately, dwindling health leads to a premature death in those who live in poverty. The lack of access to medical services and days off deteriorates their health faster than anyone in any other economic class.
Not only is physical health affected by their straining job, but their mental health as well. People in poverty are in constant stress about their earnings, their rent, their food, and their health. However, this stress affects children the most as it affects their brain development, especially the surface area of the brain that is linked to intelligence. Although Ehrenreich did not come across any children in her research she did feel what the stress could do to her personality. When Ehrenreich is in Maine and Florida, she describes that the constant work gave her tunnel vision that distorts reality and turns her suspicious against her coworkers: “I wake up at three in the morning gripped by the theory that Pete had deliberately set me up. He should have been there with me loading plates, but he must have gotten pissed because I hadn’t been showing up for cigarette dates and decided to try to derail me. As it turns out, the theory is groundless; on the next Saturday, Pete even brings me a homemade Egg McMuffin as a treat” (Ehrenreich, 106). This happens in every state she visits, the never-ending work doesn not let think and empathize with others around her. Ehrenreich then starts to wonder how she would have been if she never earned her education and career: “So it’s interesting, and more than a little disturbing, to see how Barb turned out-that she’s meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I’d hoped” (Ehrenreich, 169).
Although it is quite obvious that those in poverty have many social structures stacked against them, many people still believe the poor put this upon themselves. Individual-focused explanations believes there are biological and cultural traits for the poor being poor. Biological explanations for poverty claim that the poor are genetically thus mentally “unfit” to rise above poverty, while cultural explanations claim that the poor have their own set of norms and values that differ from the mainstream population (Marger, 163- 165). Ehrenreich constantly shows that this is not the cause within the working-class. Those who are in poverty are in constant mental and physical exhaustion, this is seen when Ehrenreich’s reality starts to distort and starts to suspect some are plotting against her. Those who adhere to the individual focused explanations also argue that those in poverty can simply look for another job, however this is not as easy as it seems. However, as Ehrenreich soon starts to understand, some people may not have the education, time, or money to look for another job. In Maine, Holly is partly illiterate and struggled to take the personality test to earn her job at the Merry Maid. In Minnesota, the array of personality and urine tests take a majority of her time and postpone her eventual employment and, thus, her income. Thus, earning an education is simply not a choice for some people because they lose hours pay, such as Stan who had to begrudgingly leave school, “The idea, see, was that he would go to school (he names a two-year technical school) while he worked, but the work cut into studying too much, so he had to drop out ” (Ehrenreich, 184). Believing in the individual-focused explanation of poverty is fundamentally flawed and simply ignorant of the social structures that the working class have to endure.
An accurate, and widely accepted, explanation for poverty are structural-focused explanations. This explanation states that “structural forces stemming from the workings of the major societal institutions that have an impact on people and contribute to their poverty” (Marger, 167). This explanation validates the cycle of poverty, a cycle where many social institutions unintentionally sustain poverty. As seen in Ehrenreich’s account there is a clear pattern of discorncern and suspiciousness towards the working-class. Even if the those in poverty earn an income above the poverty line they may not necessarily have the lifestyle of someone out of poverty. This classification further disadvantages them as they are not allowed to qualify for welfare or medical assistance. Thus, Ehrenreich and her colleagues constantly find themselves trapped in the cycle of poverty. Although, the structural-focused explanations have a more accurate view of poverty it does not provide any advice for how to escape the cycle.