Sociation Today®
The Official Journal
The North Carolina
Sociological Association: A
Refereed Web-Based Publication
ISSN 1542-6300
Editorial Board:
George H. Conklin,
 North Carolina
 Central University
Richard Dixon,
Chien Ju Huang,
 North Carolina
Ken Land,
 Duke University
Miles Simpson,
 North Carolina
Central University
Ron Wimberley,
 N.C. State University
Robert Wortham,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Volume 1, Number 2
Fall 2003

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America by Barbara Ehrenreich.  New York: Henry Holt. 230 pp.  ISBN 0805063897. 

Reviewed by

M. Graham Spann
Lees-McRae College.

    Barbara Ehrenreich’s (2001) Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America is a vivid account of the strategies used by millions of American workers to get by on minimum and near minimum wage jobs.  Her research shows that a strong “work ethic” is often not enough to provide necessities like shelter, food, and transportation.  For people who work in restaurants, hotels, retail stores, and other service jobs the pay is simply not enough to work your way up the ladder of success.  If we multiply minimum wage ($5.15 per hour) times the typical forty hour work week we come up with a before tax earning of about $824 a month or less than $10,000 a year.  Ehrenreich indicates that it takes “on average nationwide, an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one bedroom apartment . . .” (p. 3).  For people with few skills to trade for higher paying jobs, the choice for survival is working two or more minimum wage jobs.  Most of these jobs offer little room for advancement or promotion. 

    The purpose of Ehrenreich’s book is simply to determine if she “could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day” (p. 6).  Working different jobs in restaurants, a hotel, a nursing home, a cleaning service, and at a major retailer Ehrenreich finds the truth – it is nearly impossible to match income and expense on wage income.  The cost of housing, food, and transportation are simply out of proportion with what businesses pay most wage workers.  While not a shocking finding by any means, it is a finding that exposes the inherent unfairness of American style capitalism.  Ehrenreich believes that if you work hard you should be able to put a decent roof over your head, put healthy food on the table, and get to and from work with reasonable ease. 

    Beyond issues of income Nickel and Dimed focuses our attention on the problems of everyday living that the working poor must overcome.  Problems like personal health, safety, friendships, and personal dignity.  Working 10 or more hours a day takes an inevitable toll on one’s health, be it at a restaurant or at a cleaning service.  Coming home to an apartment or hotel room that is affordable often means it is not safe.  Competing with other people for even the most meager job affects the quality and depth of friendships.  Lack of freedom, endless personality and drug tests, and superiors who are often downright mean negatively impacts ones sense of personal dignity.  These problems are all too real when you read Ehrenreich’s book.

    Overcoming problems at work leads me to think more about issues of personal dignity.  We know that people get messages about who they are and how they are doing from other people.  What other source of information could there possibly be?  According to Ehrenreich, wage earners frequently get negative messages from others about the importance of their job.  It is all too common to translate such downbeat messages into low self worth.  Wage jobs tend to stifle creativity, which may lead to increased boredom on the job and even lower self worth. 

    Given that our surroundings heavily influence how we feel about ourselves, it is important for employers to be mindful of how they treat employees, especially women.  Ehrenreich indicates that women disproportionately occupy wage jobs.  When you look carefully at the history of sexism and gender discrimination in this country it is not a far stretch to see the connection between gender and unfair pay.  Equally important is for consumers to know that the person behind the counter is, in fact, a real person with hopes and fears just like everybody else.  Treating wage earners with respect might actually cause them to feel good about themselves and consequently empowered to ask management for better working conditions and pay.

    There is little I can offer in the way of criticism of the book because Ehrenreich’s accounts of how low income workers get by matches the research of countless other investigators. 

    I submit that it is not as if America’s middle class, the so called “mainstream” does not face hurdles they must overcome in their everyday lives.  The difference is that mainstream folk who work hard and overcome problems with their personal health, safety, friendships, and personal dignity earn an income proportionate to housing, food, and transportation costs.  If you think America is fair it the way it rewards citizens for their work, think again.  A simple suggestion for change is to raise the minimum wage.  Such a move would be a step in the direction of rewarding hard work with a fair wage.  Ehrenreich shows that many barriers get in the way of success and that individuals are less able to change these barriers (like minimum wage), but once removed or diluted the barriers can actually have a significant effect on individuals.   

Return to Sociation Today, Number 1, Volume 2    

© 2002 North Carolina Sociological Association