Nickel and Dimed

1 January 2017

Nickel and Dimed Looking at the state of low wage workers in America today, many are struggling to make ends meet and provide basic needs to themselves and their families. Is this a new situation or just a necessary part of the overall American economic structure? In her book, “Nickel and Dimed” (2001), Barbara Ehrenreich steps out of her comfortable, middle class existence to find out how the people working in the lowest rung of America’s economy are getting by.

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Using her sarcasm, dry wit, and no-nonsense storytelling style, makes her main claim that in the economy of today, low wage workers are not anywhere near making it, let alone moving up the socio-economic ladder. This claim is hotly debated in every possible theater, from the political campaign trail, in the press, and at the local community college campus. Ehrenreich also states that there are several accompanying causes that are also at play, that high housing costs, access to basic health care, and the lack of a basic “living wage” contribute to a “hidden-cost” economy, and that they are working against people in low wage jobs.

There are numerous arguments that have been presented that both support and refute Ehrenreich’s claims, mainly examining the validity of her examples, support information, and her execution of the experiment. Discussion of these different points of view and analysis will provoke further healthy debate on the state of the working poor and the possible solutions that we need to explore as an educated society.

In the introduction of the book Ehrenreich details the formation of this experiment in great detail, from the lunch discussion with a colleague that led to the original formation of the idea, all the way to the specific conditions for the experiment. While she wanted to experience life as a member of the working poor, she did not want to put herself in any real danger or hardship. In fact, in the beginning, she had serious discussions with her family that the whole thing could be done from her study, by just “simulating” all of the conditions, without actually heading out to do it for real.

She also emphasizes that she is not trying to portray herself as the average example, but as the best case scenario, complete with her own monetary safety net. At the outset of experiment she seemed to show a good amount of optimism that, if she applied herself and worked hard, that she would have no problem succeeding at her goal of making it on low wage jobs, because of her education and her excellent work ethics.

Unfortunately, as she purposefully hid her qualifications to every probable employer and throughout every interview process, her optimism was quickly eroded as she faced the realities of finding low wage work and the high costs of housing and health care. There are many opinions on the subject of the working poor in America. This is due to the multitude of factors that affect any socio-economic group or situation. Also, there are a multitude of different solutions that are proposed from various experts, some that support Ehrenreich’s view and some that do not.

Larry Schweikhart refutes Ehrenreich directly in his analysis of her book by pointing out several large flaws in the execution of the experiment and the basic assumptions of low wage workers. First, she approached the low wage job as if it was the last stop on the economic chain for everyone that had them, and that there seemed to never be any example of advancement up the economic ladder. (Schweikart) He supports his argument by pointing out that all of her examples seemed to be of the same mold, with similar living situations and marital status, not looking or striving to advance up the chain or move on to a job where this was possible. Schweikart)

He also claims that most low paying jobs are meant to be merely a means to an end, in that people use them to learn basic job skills, not as a long term career. (Schweikart) Weighing both of these arguments, one could conclude two things, that Ehrenreich’s experiment was well intentioned and does contain some good examples and support for her claims, however, she missed some important portions of information that would have made her experiment much more complete.

An example of this would have been to include a married couple in the experiment. This could have shown the socio-economic and personal dynamics that moving up the economic ladder in America generally takes a team of two, and this greatly increases the chances of accumulating wealth. The high cost of housing and transportation were evident in Ehrenreich’s first foray into the life of the working poor, was located closest to where she actually lived in Key West, Florida.

She starts work as a waitress at a small place, which she calls “Hearthside”. It is a low rent, dirty, run-down family-style restaurant that really gives her exactly what she is needs for her research. She conducts a quick survey that provides the basic living arrangements and demographic data of the people that she works with, which broadens out her experiment to include not just her experiences, but, the others as well. (Ehrenreich 25-26) The people that work at the Hearthside are colorful and definitely fall into the category of working poor.

Their situations support her claim of the “hidden cost economy. ” These are parts of the economy that are not evident or even considered by many people who have not experienced living in this section of society. These costs and relationships factor in degrading the living situations of people that have low paying jobs experience on a regular basis like poor personal relationships, living in cars, exorbitant security deposits, high health care costs, and food and transportation costs.

Since most of the working poor do not receive health insurance, the availability and cost of even the most basic health and dental care is out of reach. An example of the health care problem became evident in 2009 when the Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps opened a free clinic at the Los Angeles Forum, and provided free medical and dental care to over 10,000 patients, demonstrating the incredible need that exists for the poor.

Some of the patients had gone years without getting some serious conditions treated, living in constant pain or just covering the symptoms. Adams) With so much evidence of the high cost of health care, focusing on common sense solutions and community involvement seem to be the best course of action for most people looking to improve the lives of the people around them. In the section, “Scrubbing in Maine” we find her working for the Maids, a cleaning service, and she is in a customer’s house. She is escorted into the master bathroom and shown by the owner how the marble is “bleeding” onto the brass fixtures. The owner, a part-time personal trainer, asks her to scrub the grouting “extra hard”.

She makes the observation that the more affluent in society tend to not be aware of all the work required by poor people, working for wages that are well below the “minimum”, to bring the luxury items they have all around them on a daily basis, and that the do not appreciate any of these people that are in large part responsible for making the luxury items affordable. She advocates for a “living wage” which will allow for all the low wage workers to afford the necessities of life.

This idea of requiring a minimum salary to corporations for the entry level workers is contrary to the capitalistic economic tenet o produce a product as cheap as possible, which ultimately leads to paying the entry level worker the lowest possible salary that the free market requires. This is one aspect of our society that is also hotly debated. Living wage solutions are not usually supported by libertarians and republicans who believe less government intrusion and regulation results in better economic outcomes for everyone. Some believe that increasing the entry level wages too far will result in high unemployment in the unskilled labor force, mostly high school-aged children.

In addition, if the living wage costs more than the job is worth, the market would drive those jobs away to places where it is cheaper to perform. (Barnes) Many studies and experts are still debating and researching this issue, but the solution is not cut and dried. In any just society, how we take care of the poorest people in that society is a reflection on our overall moral character, so there should be improvements to low wage worker wages and working conditions. The continuing debate will be where these improvements come from, the employer or the government.

Throughout her experiment, Ehrenreich stayed true to her original edict, however, over time her attitudes and perceptions were changed by her own experiences. Her claim that low wage workers are not successfully earning enough money to have their basic needs met is not in question, its seems that the majority of research and opinions hold her book in high esteem. Overall, Ehrenreich had a unique idea and reached a wide audience bringing attention to a serious problem. This is the best aspect of her book.Hopefully, through her text, Ehrenreich brought about at least some positive change in the lives of working poor by exposing their plight.

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