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'Nickel and Dimed' Describes the Working Poor, Even a Decade Later

By June 29, 2012

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Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Affordable Care Act, which puts us one step closer to those "civilized nations [that] compensate for the inadequacy of wages by providing relatively generous public services such as health insurance, free or subsidized child care, subsidized housing, and effective public transportation."

Though that's my opinion of what the Supreme Court ruling means, the words describing the actions of a "civilized" nation are not mine. They belong to journalist and author Barbara Ehrenreich who caused quite a stir when her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America was published in May 2001. (The book was reprinted by Picador in August 2011 in a special 10th anniversary edition for reasons that will become clear as you read on.)

Nickel and Dimed is about the plight of the low-wage earner in America -- a topic that has become even more relevant due to the Great Recession and the enormous number of underemployed, underpaid workers in the U.S., both those who lost their jobs mid-career and those who are just graduating from college. (I'd heard about this book for years but never got around to reading it until this month.)

Ehrenreich posed as a low-skilled recently-divorced housewife attempting to enter the workforce and took the highest paying low wage job she could find in three communities -- Key West, FL, Portland, ME, and Minneapolis, MN -- to see if she could earn enough to live on. In all three locations, she barely made above minimum wage and had to work two jobs just to be able to afford rent, food, and basic necessities.

She did this in the boom economy of 1998 and 1999. And as bad as her experiences were, if she attempted the same thing today the situation would undoubtedly be far worse. As she admitted a year ago, "It would have been impossible to repeat my Nickel and Dimed 'experiment,' had I had been so inclined, because I would probably never have found a job."

As we all know, that's because many others have stepped into her shoes in the decade since the book was published due to the downturn in the economy. For those workers, Ehrenreich's book validates their experiences and reveals the darker side of companies like Walmart that rely on cheap labor and provide few benefits -- companies that don't pay a living wage.

Make no mistake -- the Affordable Care Act benefits women tremendously. Especially women who are nickel-and-dimed by the challenges of low-wage jobs that barely keep them above the poverty level. Because in Ehrenreich's book, that's the segment of the population that bears the brunt of the burden.

I know this message is timely because just yesterday a meme showed up in a Facebook link, quoting from Ehrenreich's book. (The photo of the Walmart associate "Barb" is actually an actress portraying Ehrenreich in a play based on the book.) She looks stressed, worn out and vulnerable -- emotions that were a very real part of Ehrenreich's life even though she knew her situation was just temporary.

She revisited Nickel and Dimed -- and what the book means in light of the economic downturn -- in an article reprinted at the Huffington Post last year. And she examines how the depredations endured by the newest group of low-income earners equals that of her previous interview subjects.

If you feel inclined to rant about the Supreme Court's upholding of the Affordable Care Act, I would invite you to read Ehrenreich's book and her Huffington Post commentary. If you can still maintain that people who turn to the government are shiftless, lazy, and don't want to work -- even after reading the story of Kristen and Joe Parente who believed the same thing until terrible circumstances turned their lives upside down -- then I hope you never have to walk a mile in their shoes and encounter someone with your mindset at the end of that journey. Because the truth is that there but for the grace of God go any of us.

Related article: Book Review of Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America"


July 4, 2012 at 9:36 pm
(1) Anne Caroline Drake says:

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a movement started to minimize and eliminate medical benefits for US workers. My medical coverage costs 1/6 of my income and doesn’t inclue eye care or dental.

This decision was made by people making generous salaries who get full coverage without having to pay a dime.

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