Posted by: Kate | February 6, 2012

Book Review: Nickel and Dimed

In her 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed, On (Not) Getting By in America, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich goes undercover as a low-wage worker in the United States. Her journey takes her from a family chain restaurant, to a maid service, a seniors’ facility and Wal-Mart. Her attempts to live on the money she earns are as scary as they are humourous, and easily point out the almost insurmountable difficulties facing people who work those types of low-wage jobs. Whether it be trying to find somewhere to live when you can’t save up a deposit, trying to eat well when you live somewhere without a fridge and stove, working jobs where you are constantly put down and made to feel a lesser person, or struggling to cope with health issues, being a low-wage worker is a hard life.

What I liked the most about Ehrenreich’s experience is the honesty of it. She puts herself into these difficult situations, but she is always aware that she comes from a place of healthcare, good living and stability, which she can choose to return to at anytime. Yet she does immerse herself in the challenge, and that willingness to be in someone else’s shoes lends her story authenticity.

She is respectful of the people she works with, realizing that these jobs are some of the most demanding you can do, both physically and mentally. They tax your very being.

What I find most intriguing is that this was written in a time of prosperity. This was before the economy tanked, before 9/11, before the world had changed so drastically. Her hope, at the end of the book, that workers would revolt and strike, now seems oddly simplistic in a time when jobs are hard to come by. And how do we, those of us who don’t work these minimum wage jobs, how do we cope? Ehrenreich talks about how the “rabbit hole close(s) so suddenly and completely behind me” when she returns to her middle class life. And so she addresses what she thinks we owe these people:

“But guilt doesn’t go anywhere near far enough; the appropriate emotion is shame – shame at our own dependency, in this case, on the underpaid labour of others. When someone works for less than she can live on – when, for example, she goes hungry so you can eat more cheaply and conveniently – then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health and her life.”

In this day and age, where we are all grateful to be working, we tend to turn a blind eye to the reality that a low wage, in this society of wants, is not a living wage. We are living on the backs of our neighbours, and at some point, those backs are likely to break.


  1. i read this book a few years ago and i too was very impressed by both ehrendreich’s writing and the work/research that went into the book.

    the quote you pulled sums everything up very well.
    it really brings home how ill our society currently is. the corporations just keep getting richer while piling more and more onto the backs of the underpaid workforce.
    something has to give, and given where the power currently lies, it worries me that it won’t be the corporations doing any of the giving…

  2. I read this book last year and it really hit home with everything going on lately in America (political and economic crisis’). I really like your review of it, thank you for reminding me of the book and the hold it had on me.

  3. I often wondered how one ‘makes it’ working for low-wages. I, once, was part of this work-force, in my early paid-work days & found it quite difficult to make ends meet. It seems these workers work harder (I know I did!) than the “people on top”. Something’s gotta give, though not sure what exactly what.

    Perhaps we all need to acknowledge each other’s hard work, thus creating a ripple effect of kindness. When I’m at Wal-Mart or other retail store, I try to not be a burden or talk too much, with the workers, they’ve got enough on their minds, I’m sure. This book seems like a book everyone should read.

    Thx Kate!
    btw – I finally picked up my copy of “Clara & Mr. Tiffany” at the library!!

  4. Finally a book you are reviewing that I’ve actually read! I read this quite awhile ago and I do remember being very impressed with the presentation of the book…and her determination to try and be as honest and realistic as possible. Your point of it being written at a time of prosperity is an interesting one…

    So much food for thought in both this post and in Ehrenreich’s writing.

  5. […] the way there have been book reviews, garden projects, photos, crafting, and family. (Posts found through random post hopping.) There […]

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