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Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

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Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America Cover

 

 

Excerpt

Introduction: Getting Ready

The idea that led to this book arose in comparatively sumptuous circumstances. Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harpers, had taken me out for a $30 lunch at some understated French country-style place to discuss future articles I might write for his magazine. I had the salmon and field greens, I think, and was pitching him some ideas having to do with pop culture when the conversation drifted to one of my more familiar themes—poverty. How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? How, in particular, we wondered, were the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour? Then I said something that I have since had many opportunities to regret: "Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism—you know, go out there and try it for themselves. " I meant someone much younger than myself, some hungry neophyte journalist with time on her hands. But Lapham got this crazy-looking half smile on his face and ended life as I knew it, for long stretches at least, with the single word "You. "

The last time anyone had urged me to forsake my normal life for a run-of-the-mill low-paid job had been in the seventies, when dozens, perhaps hundreds, of sixties radicals started going into the factories to "proletarianize" themselves and organize the working class in the process. Not this girl. I felt sorry for the parents who had paid college tuition for these blue-collar wannabes and sorry, too, for the people they intended to uplift. In my own family, the low-wage way of life had never been many degrees of separation away; it was close enough, in any case, to make me treasure the gloriously autonomous, if not always well-paid, writing life. My sister has been through one low-paid job after another—phone company business rep, factory worker, receptionist—constantly struggling against what she calls "the hopelessness of being a wage slave. " My husband and companion of seventeen years was a $4.50-an-hour warehouse worker when I fell in with him, escaping eventually and with huge relief to become an organizer for the Teamsters. My father had been a copper miner; uncles and grandfathers worked in the mines or for the Union Pacific. So to me, sitting at a desk all day was not only a privilege but a duty: something I owed to all those people in my life, living and dead, whod had so much more to say than anyone ever got to hear.

Adding to my misgivings, certain family members kept reminding me unhelpfully that I could do this project, after a fashion, without ever leaving my study. I could just pay myself a typical entry-level wage for eight hours a day, charge myself for room and board plus some plausible expenses like gas, and total up the numbers after a month. With the prevailing wages running at $6-$7 an hour in my town and rents at $400 a month or more, the numbers might, it seemed to me, just barely work out all right. But if the question was whether a single mother leaving welfare could survive without government assistance in the form of food stamps, Medicaid, and housing and child care subsidies, the answer was well known before I ever left the comforts of home. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, in 1998—the year I started this project—it took, on average nationwide, an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one-bedroom apartment, and the Preamble Center for Public Policy was estimating that the odds against a typical welfare recipients landing a job at such a "living wage" were about 97 to 1. Why should I bother to confirm these unpleasant facts? As the time when I could no longer avoid the assignment approached, I began to feel a little like the elderly man I once knew who used a calculator to balance his checkbook and then went back and checked the results by redoing each sum by hand.

In the end, the only way to overcome my hesitation was by thinking of myself as a scientist, which is, in fact, what I was educated to be. I have a Ph.D. in biology, and I didnt get it by sitting at a desk and fiddling with numbers. In that line of business, you can think all you want, but sooner or later you have to get to the bench and plunge into the everyday chaos of nature, where surprises lurk in the most mundane measurements. Maybe when I got into the project, I would discover some hidden economies in the world of the low-wage worker. After all, if almost 30 percent of the workforce toils for $8 an hour or less, as the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute reported in 1998, they may have found some tricks as yet unknown to me. Maybe I would even be able to detect in myself the bracing psychological effects of getting out of the house, as promised by the wonks who brought us welfare reform. Or, on the other hand, maybe there would be unexpected costs—physical, financial, emotional—to throw off all my calculations. The only way to find out was to get out there and get my hands dirty.

In the spirit of science, I first decided on certain rules and parameters. Rule one, obviously enough, was that I could not, in my search for jobs, fall back on any skills derived from my education or usual work—not that there were a lot of want ads for essayists anyway. Two, I had to take the highest-paying job that was offered me and do my best to hold it; no Marxist rants or sneaking off to read novels in the ladies room. Three, I had to take the cheapest accommodations I could find, at least the cheapest that offered an acceptable level of safety and privacy, though my standards in this regard were hazy and, as it turned out, prone to deterioration over time.

I tried to stick to these rules, but in the course of the project, all of them were bent or broken at some time. In Key West, for example, where I began this project in the late spring of 1998, I once promoted myself to an interviewer for a waitressing job by telling her I could greet European tourists with the appropriate Bonjour or Guten Tag, but this was the only case in which I drew on any remnant of my actual education. In Minneapolis, my final destination, where I lived in the early summer of 2000, I broke another rule by failing to take the best-paying job that was offered, and you will have to judge my reasons for doing so yourself. And finally, toward the very end, I did break down and rant—stealthily, though, and never within hearing of management.

There was also the problem of how to present myself to potential employers and, in particular, how to explain my dismal lack of relevant job experience. The truth, or at least a drastically stripped-down version thereof, seemed easiest: I described myself to interviewers as a divorced homemaker reentering the workforce after many years, which is true as far as it goes. Sometimes, though not always, I would throw in a few housecleaning jobs, citing as references former housemates and a friend in Key West whom I have at least helped with after-dinner cleanups now and then. Job application forms also want to know about education, and here I figured the Ph.D. would be no help at all, might even lead employers to suspect that I was an alcoholic washout or worse. So I confined myself to three years of college, listing my real-life alma mater. No one ever questioned my background, as it turned out, and only one employer out of several dozen bothered to check my references. When, on one occasion, an exceptionally chatty interviewer asked about hobbies, I said "writing" and she seemed to find nothing strange about this, although the job she was offering could have been performed perfectly well by an illiterate.

Finally, I set some reassuring limits to whatever tribulations I might have to endure. First, I would always have a car. In Key West I drove my own; in other cities I used Rent-A-Wrecks, which I paid for with a credit card rather than my earnings. Yes, I could have walked more or limited myself to jobs accessible by public transportation. I just figured that a story about waiting for buses would not be very interesting to read. Second, I ruled out homelessness as an option. The idea was to spend a month in each setting and see whether I could find a job and earn, in that time, the money to pay a second months rent. If I was paying rent by the week and ran out of money I would simply declare the project at an end; no shelters or sleeping in cars for me. Furthermore, I had no intention of going hungry. If things ever got to the point where the next meal was in question, I promised myself as the time to begin the "experiment" approached, I would dig out my ATM card and cheat.

So this is not a story of some death-defying "undercover" adventure. Almost anyone could do what I did—look for jobs, work those jobs, try to make ends meet. In fact, millions of Americans do it every day, and with a lot less fanfare and dithering.

I AM, OF COURSE, VERY DIFFERENT FROM THE PEOPLE WHO NORMALLY fill Americas least attractive jobs, and in ways that both helped and limited me. Most obviously, I was only visiting a world that others inhabit full-time, often for most of their lives. With all the real-life assets Ive built up in middle age—bank account, IRA, health insurance, multiroom home—waiting indulgently in the background, there was no way I was going to "experience poverty" or find out how it "really feels" to be a long-term low-wage worker. My aim here was much more straightforward and objective—just to see whether I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day. Besides, Ive had enough unchosen encounters with poverty in my lifetime to know its not a place you would want to visit for touristic purposes; it just smells too much like fear.

Unlike many low-wage workers, I have the further advantages of being white and a native English speaker. I dont think this affected my chances of getting a job, given the willingness of employers to hire almost anyone in the tight labor market of 1998 to 2000, but it almost certainly affected the kinds of jobs I was offered. In Key West, I originally sought what I assumed would be a relatively easy job in hotel housekeeping and found myself steered instead into waitressing, no doubt because of my ethnicity and my English skills. As it happened, waitressing didnt provide much of a financial advantage over housekeeping, at least not in the low-tip off-season when I worked in Key West. But the experience did help determine my choice of other localities in which to live and work. I ruled out places like New York and L.A., for example, where the working class consists mainly of people of color and a white woman with unaccented English seeking entry-level jobs might only look desperate or weird.

I had other advantages—the car, for example—that set me off from many, though hardly all, of my coworkers. Ideally, at least if I were seeking to replicate the experience of a woman entering the workforce from welfare, I would have had a couple of children in tow, but mine are grown and no one was willing to lend me theirs for a monthlong vacation in penury. In addition to being mobile and unencumbered, I am probably in a lot better health than most members of the long-term low-wage workforce. I had everything going for me.

If there were other, subtler things different about me, no one ever pointed them out. Certainly I made no effort to play a role or fit into some imaginative stereotype of low-wage working women. I wore my usual clothes, wherever ordinary clothes were permitted, and my usual hairstyle and makeup. In conversations with coworkers, I talked about my real children, marital status, and relationships; there was no reason to invent a whole new life. I did modify my vocabulary, however, in one respect: at least when I was new at a job and worried about seeming brash or disrespectful, I censored the profanities that are—thanks largely to the Teamster influence—part of my normal speech. Other than that, I joked and teased, offered opinions, speculations, and, incidentally, a great deal of health related advice, exactly as I would do in any other setting.

Several times since completing this project I have been asked by acquaintances whether the people I worked with couldnt, uh, tell—the supposition being that an educated person is ineradicably different, and in a superior direction, from your workaday drones. I wish I could say that some supervisor or coworker told me even once that I was special in some enviable way—more intelligent, for example, or clearly better educated than most. But this never happened, I suspect because the only thing that really made me "special" was my inexperience. To state the proposition in reverse, low-wage workers are no more homogeneous in personality or ability than people who write for a living, and no less likely to be funny or bright. Anyone in the educated classes who thinks otherwise ought to broaden their circle of friends.

There was always, of course, the difference that only I knew—that I wasnt working for the money, I was doing research for an article and later a book. I went home every day not to anything resembling a normal domestic life but to a laptop on which I spent an hour or two recording the days events—very diligently, I should add, since note taking was seldom an option during the day. This deception, symbolized by the laptop that provided a link to my past and future, bothered me, at least in the case of people I cared about and wanted to know better. (I should mention here that names and identifying details have been altered to preserve the privacy of the people I worked with and encountered in other settings during the course of my research. In most cases, I have also changed the names of the places I worked and their exact locations to further ensure the anonymity of people I met.)

In each setting, toward the end of my stay and after much anxious forethought, I "came out" to a few chosen coworkers. The result was always stunningly anticlimactic, my favorite response being, "Does this mean youre not going to be back on the evening shift next week? " Ive wondered a lot about why there wasnt more astonishment or even indignation, and part of the answer probably lies in peoples notion of "writing. " Years ago, when I married my second husband, he proudly told his uncle, who was a valet parker at the time, that I was a writer. The uncles response: "Who isnt? " Everyone literate "writes, " and some of the low-wage workers I have known or met through this project write journals and poems—even, in one case, a lengthy science fiction novel.

But as I realized very late in this project, it may also be that I was exaggerating the extent of the "deception" to myself. Theres no way, for example, to pretend to be a waitress: the food either gets to the table or not. People knew me as a waitress, a cleaning person, a nursing home aide, or a retail clerk not because I acted like one but because thats what I was, at least for the time I was with them. In every job, in every place I lived, the work absorbed all my energy and much of my intellect. I wasnt kidding around. Even though I suspected from the start that the mathematics of wages and rents were working against me, I made a mighty effort to succeed.

I make no claims for the relevance of my experiences to anyone elses, because there is nothing typical about my story. Just bear in mind, when I stumble, that this is in fact the best case scenario: a person with every advantage that ethnicity and education, health and motivation can confer attempting, in a time of exuberant prosperity, to survive in the economys lower depths.

Excerpted from Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.
 
Copyright © 2001. by Barbara Ehrenreich.
 
Published in 2008 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780805088380
Subtitle:
On (Not) Getting By in America
Author:
Ehrenreich, Barbara
Author:
Piven, Frances Fox
Publisher:
Holt Paperbacks
Subject:
SOC045000
Subject:
Poverty
Subject:
Economic Conditions
Subject:
Labor & Industrial Relations - General
Subject:
United states
Subject:
Poverty -- United States.
Subject:
Working poor - United States
Subject:
Poverty - United States
Subject:
Political Science : Economic Conditions
Subject:
Political Science : Labor & Industrial Relations - General
Subject:
Social Science : Poverty
Subject:
Politics - General
Subject:
Political Economy
Subject:
Labor
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Publication Date:
20080624
Binding:
Electronic book text in proprietary or open standard format
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
256
Dimensions:
8.04 x 5.25 x 0.715 in

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Related Subjects


History and Social Science » American Studies » 80s to Present
History and Social Science » American Studies » Poverty
History and Social Science » Economics » General
History and Social Science » Politics » Labor
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History and Social Science » Sociology » Poverty

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America Used Trade Paper
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Product details 256 pages Henry Holt & Company - English 9780805088380 Reviews:
"Review" by , "I was absolutely knocked out by Barbara Ehrenreich's remarkable odyssey as a waitress, hotel maid, cleaning woman, nursing home aide and sales clerk. She has accomplished what no contemporary writer has even attempted — to be that 'nobody' who barely subsists on her essential labors. It is a stiff punch in the nose to those righteous apostles of 'welfare reform.' Not only is it must reading but it's mesmeric. You can't put the damn thing down. Bravo."
"Review" by , "With this book Barbara Ehrenreich takes her place among such giants of investigative journalism as George Orwell and Jack London. Ehrenreich's courage, empathy, and the immediacy with which she describes her experience bring us face to face with the fate of millions of American workers today."
"Review" by , "A brilliant on-the-job report from the dark side of the boom. No one since H.L. Mencken has assailed the smug rhetoric of prosperity with such scalpel-like precision and ferocious wit."
"Review" by , "I commend Barbara Ehrenreich for conducting such an important experiment. Millions of Americans suffer daily trying to make ends meet. Ehrenreich's book forces people to acknowledge the average worker's struggle and promises to be extremely influential."
"Review" by , "Jarring, full of riveting grit...This book is already unforgettable."
"Review" by , "Nickel and Dimed is an 'old-fashioned, 'in-your-face expose...this important volume will force anyone who reads it to acknowledge the often desperate plight of Ehrenreich's subjects."
"Review" by , "Ehrenreich is a wonderful writer. Her descriptions of people and places stay with you. If nothing else, this book illuminates the invisible army that scrubs floors, waits tables and straightens the racks at discount stores. That alone makes Ehrenreich's odyssey worthwhile."
"Review" by , "There is much to be learned from Nickel and Dimed. It opens a window into the daily lives of the invisible workforce that fuels the service economy, and endows the men and women who populate it with the honor that is often lacking on the job.... What emerges is an insider's view of the worst jobs (other than agricultural labor) the 'new economy' has to offer." Washington Post Book World
"Review" by , "A valuable and illuminating book . . . We have Barbara Ehrenreich to thank for bringing us the news of America's working poor so clearly and directly, and conveying with it a deep moral outrage...She is our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism." New York Times Book Review
"Review" by , "This book is thoroughly enjoyable, written with an affable, up-your-nose brio throughout. Ehrenreich is a superb and relaxed stylist, and she has a tremendous sense of rueful humor, especially when it comes to the evils of middle-management, absentee ownership and all the little self-consecrating bourgeois touches gracing the homes she sterilizes, inch-by-square-inch, as a maid in Maine."
"Review" by , "Nickel and Dimed is a superb and frightening look into the lives of hard-working Americans...policymakers should be forced to read the last ten pages of Ehrenreich's book in which she concludes that affordable rent, food and health care should be among the chief measurements of a healthy economy, not simply high productivity and employment."
"Synopsis" by , The bestselling, landmark work of undercover reportage, now updated

Acclaimed as an instant classic upon publication, Nickel and Dimed has sold more than 1.5 million copies and become a staple of classroom reading. Chosen for “one book” initiatives across the country, it has fueled nationwide campaigns for a living wage. Funny, poignant, and passionate, this revelatory first-hand account of life in low-wage America — the story of Barbara Ehrenreich's attempts to eke out a living while working as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing-home aide, and Wal-Mart associate — has become an essential part of the nation's political discourse.

Now, in a new afterword, Ehrenreich shows that the plight of the underpaid has in no way eased: with fewer jobs available, deteriorating work conditions, and no pay increase in sight, Nickel and Dimed is more relevant than ever.

"Synopsis" by , The bestselling, landmark work of undercover reportage is now updated with a new Afterword in which Ehrenreich shows that the plight of the underpaid has in no way been eased.
"Synopsis" by ,

The bestselling, landmark work of undercover reportage, now updated

Acclaimed as an instant classic upon publication, Nickel and Dimed has sold more than 1.5 million copies and become a staple of classroom reading. Chosen for “one book” initiatives across the country, it has fueled nationwide campaigns for a living wage. Funny, poignant, and passionate, this revelatory firsthand account of life in low-wage America—the story of Barbara Ehrenreichs attempts to eke out a living while working as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing-home aide, and Wal-Mart associate—has become an essential part of the nations political discourse.

Now, in a new afterword, Ehrenreich shows that the plight of the underpaid has in no way eased: with fewer jobs available, deteriorating work conditions, and no pay increase in sight, Nickel and Dimed is more relevant than ever.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of fourteen books, including Dancing in the Streets and The New York Times bestsellers Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. A frequent contributor to Harpers and The Nation, she has also been a columnist at The New York Times and Time magazine.  In 2010, Nickel and Dimed was named one of the decade's top ten works of journalism by the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.

Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize

Millions of Americans work full-time, year-round, for poverty-level wages. Inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that a job—any job—can be the ticket to a better life, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 an hour?

To find out, Ehrenreich left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered. Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, she worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. She lived in trailer parks and crumbling residential motels. Very quickly, she discovered that no job is truly "unskilled," that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors.

Nickel and Dimed reveals low-rent America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity—a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate strategems for survival. Read it for the clarity of Ehrenreich's perspective and for a rare view of how "prosperity" looks from the bottom.

"A valuable and illuminating book . . . We have Barbara Ehrenreich to thank for bringing us the news of America's working poor so clearly and directly, and conveying with it a deep moral outrage . . . She is our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism."—Dorothy Gallagher, The New York Times Book Review
"A valuable and illuminating book . . . We have Barbara Ehrenreich to thank for bringing us the news of America's working poor so clearly and directly, and conveying with it a deep moral outrage . . . She is our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism."—Dorothy Gallagher, The New York Times Book Review

"Nickel and Dimed is a superb and frightening look into the lives of hard-working Americans . . . policymakers should be forced to read the last ten pages of Ehrenreich's book in which she concludes that affordable rent, food and health care should be among the chief measurements of a healthy economy, not simply high productivity and employment."—Tamara Straus, San Francisco Chronicle

"This book is thoroughly enjoyable, written with an affable, up-your-nose brio throughout. Ehrenreich is a superb and relaxed stylist, and she has a tremendous sense of rueful humor, especially when it comes to the evils of middle-management, absentee ownership and all the little self-consecrating bourgeois touches gracing the homes she sterilizes, inch-by-square-inch, as a maid in Maine."—Stephen Metcalf, Los Angeles Times

"With grace and wit, Ehrenreich discovers the irony of being 'nickel and dimed' during unprecedented prosperity . . . Living wages, she elegantly shows, might erase the shame that comes from our dependence 'on the underpaid labor of others."—Eileen Boris, The Boston Globe

"A captivating account . . . Just promise that you will read this explosive little book cover to cover and pass it on to all your friends and relatives."—Diana Henriques, The New York Times

"There is much to be learned from Nickel and Dimed. It opens a window into the daily lives of the invisible workforce that fuels the service economy, and endows the men and women who populate it with the honor that is often lacking on the job . . . In the grand tradition of the muckraking journalist, [Ehrenreich] goes undercover for nearly a year . . . What emerges is an insider's view of the worst jobs (other than agricultural labor) the 'new economy' has to offer."—Katherine Newman, The Washington Post Book World

"Ehrenreich is a wonderful writer. Her descriptions of people and places stay with you. If nothing else, this book illuminates the invisible army that scrubs floors, waits tables and straightens the racks at discount stores. That alone makes Ehrenreich's odyssey worthwhile."—Sandy Block, USA Today

"Nickel and Dimed is an 'old-fashioned,' in-your-face exposé . . . this important volume will force anyone who reads it to acknowledge the often desperate plight of Ehrenreich's subjects."—Anne Colamosca, Business Week

"Jarring, full of riveting grit . . . This book is already unforgettable."—Susannah Meadows, Newsweek

"I commend Barbara Ehrenreich for conducting such an important experiment. Millions of Americans suffer daily trying to make ends meet. Ehrenreich's book forces people to acknowledge the average worker's struggle and promises to be extremely influential."—Lynn Woolsey, U.S. Congress, Representing California's Sixth District

"A brilliant on-the-job report from the dark side of the boom. No one since H.L. Mencken has assailed the smug rhetoric of prosperity with such scalpel-like precision and ferocious wit."—Mike Davis, author of Ecology of Fear

"With this book Barbara Ehrenreich takes her place among such giants of investigative journalism as George Orwell and Jack London. Ehrenreich's courage, empathy, and the immediacy with which she describes her experience bring us face to face with the fate of millions of American workers today."—Frances Fox Piven, author of Regulating the Poor

"I was absolutely knocked out by Barbara Ehrenreich's remarkable odyssey as a waitress, hotel maid, cleaning woman, nursing home aide and sales clerk. She has accomplished what no contemporary writer has even attempted—to be that 'nobody' who barely subsists on her essential labors. It is a stiff punch in the nose to those righteous apostles of 'welfare reform.' Not only is it must reading but it's mesmeric. You can't put the damn thing down. Bravo!"—Studs Terkel, author of Working

"One of the great American social critics, Barbara Ehrenreich has written an unforgettable memoir of what it was like to work in some of America's least attractive jobs. Nickel and Dimed is a passionate meditation on the blindness of those with money and power. It is one of those rare books that will provoke both outrage and self-reflection. No one who reads this book will be able to resist its power to make them see the world in a new way."—Mitchell Duneier, author of Sidewalk

"Drunk on dot-coms and day trading, America has gone blind to the down side of its great prosperity. In Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich does more than open her own eyes wide to the hidden human costs of the boom. She immerses herself in the practicalities of being poor, a subject rendered exotic by decades of media neglect. Once inside, Ehrenreich expertly peals away the layers of self-denial, self-interest and self-protection that separate the rich from poor, the served from the servers, the housed from the homeless. This is a brave and frank book that is ultimately a challenge to create a less divided society."—Naomi Klein, author of No Logo

"A tough, engaging, revealing look at life as a low-wage worker . . . Sobering."—Shelley Donald Coolidge, Christian Science Monitor

"Barbara Ehrenreich is the Thorstein Veblen of the 21st century. And this book is one of her very best—breathtaking in its scope, insight, humor, and passion."—Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of The Time Bind

"Between spring 1998 and summer 2000, Barbara Ehrenreich entered the world of service work. She folded clothes at Wal-Mart, waitressed, washed dishes in a nursing home, and scrubbed floors 'the old fashioned way—on her hands and knees' for The Maids. Her account of those experiences is unforgettable—heart-wrenching, infuriating, funny, smart, and empowering. Few readers will be untouched by the shameful realities which underlie America's boom economy. Nickel and Dimed is vintage Ehrenreich and will surely take its place among the classics of underground reportage."—Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American

"Barbara Ehrenreich's new book is absolutely riveting. I was drawn into the narrative so quickly that it took me 50 pages to remember to get angry at the vicious economic cruelties she was unveiling. But that is the power of the book—it is terrific story-telling, filled with fury and delicious humor and, repeatedly, these stunning moments of the purest empathy with those who toil beside her. With utter honesty about her own unique and (ultimately) privileged position and, at the same time, not a hint of condescension, she enters a grimy and humiliating world we all try to ignore and somehow, by the sheer force of her prose, makes us eager to go with her. It's a beautiful work of personal nerve and ethical audacity that takes the reader by surprise and then disarms us by its tenderness. I am grateful to Barbara Ehrenreich for writing this."—Jonathan Kozol, author of Ordinary Resurrections

"Piercing social criticism backed by first-rate reporting . . . Ehrenreich captures not only the tribulations of finding and performing low-wage work, but the humiliations as well."—Eric Wieffering, Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Salient . . . A compelling and timely book whose insights transcend the obvious."—Julia Klein, The American Prospect

"Engaging . . . Hopefully, Nickel and Dimed will expand public awareness of the real-world survival struggles that many faced even before the current economic downturn."—Steve Early, The Nation

 
"Compulsively readable . . . Ehrenreich proves, devastatingly, that jobs are not enough; that the minimum wage is an offensive joke; and that making a salary is not the same thing as making a living, as making a real life."—Alex Ohlin, The Texas Observer

"Impassioned, fascinating, profoundly significant, and wildly entertaining . . . I kept grabbing family members and phoning friends to read passages aloud . . . Nickel and Dimed is not only important but transformative in its insistence that we take a long hard look at the society we live in."—Francine Prose, O: The Oprah Magazine

"This is social critic Ehrenreich's twelfth book, an on-the-job study of how a single mother (or anyone else) leaving welfare could survive without government assistance in the form of food stamps, Medicaid, and housing and child-care subsidies. To find the answers, Ehrenreich left her home in Key West and traveled from Florida to Maine and then to Minnesota, working in low-paying jobs. Ehrenreich, who holds a Ph.D. in biology, resolved not to fall back on any skills derived from her education or usual work and to take the cheapest accommodations in motels and trailer parks as long as there was 'an acceptable level of safety and privacy.' The 'working poor,' Ehrenreich concludes, 'are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high.'"—George Cohen, Booklist

"In contrast to recent books by Michael Lewis and Dinesh D'Souza that explore the lives and psyches of the New Economy's millionares, Ehrenreich turns her gimlet eye on the view from the workforce's bottom rung. Determined to find out how anyone could make ends meet on $7 an hour, she left behind her middle class life as a journalist except for $1000 in start-up funds, a car and her laptop computer to try to sustain herself as a low-skilled worker for a month at a time. In 1999 and 2000, Ehrenreich worked as a waitress in Key West, Fla., as a cleaning woman and a nursing home aide in Portland, Maine, and in a Wal-Mart in Minneapolis, Minn. During the application process, she faced routine drug tests and spurious 'personality tests'; once on the job, she endured constant surveillance and numbing harangues over infractions like serving a second roll and butter. Beset by transportation costs and high rents, she learned the tricks of the trade from her co-workers, some of whom sleep in their cars, and many of whom work when they're vexed by arthritis, back pain or worse, yet still manage small gestures of kindness. Despite the advantages of her race, education, good health and lack of children, Ehrenreich's income barely covered her month's expenses in only one instance, when she worked seven days a week at two jobs (one of which provided free meals) during the off-season in a vacation town. Delivering a fast read that's both sobering and sassy, she gives readers pause about those caught in the economy's undertow, even in good times." —Publishers Weekly

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