Nickel And Dimed Theme Essays

The subtitle of Nickel and Dimed is On (Not) Getting By in America.  It is important to note how Ehrenreich chose to put "not" in parentheses, and that choice on her part is directly related to her primary theme which is that it is virtually impossible to provide basic needs for one's self by working one minimum wage job.  While the reality is that most minimum wage workers are forced into working more than one job to make ends meet, Ehnrenreich's philosophy is that if the government sets a "minimum" wage, shouldn't that wage at least be enough for someone to provide his or her basic necessities?

For the author, her most significant moral dilemma seems to be when she works for a housekeeping company as a maid.  She finds herself pondering what makes it okay or moral in America--the land of opportunity--for one person to have so much that he or she pays another person (who is supposed to be equal) to scrub one's toilet.  She also struggles when one of her coworkers (from "Scrubbing in Maine") is malnourished and obviously weak yet refuses to get help.  Ehrenreich believes that it is not her coworker's choice to keep plodding painfully through life but that she has an obligation to do something about her coworker's plight.  She stresses this idea through other examples in the book.

One thing to be careful of when reading Ehrenreich's book is that she has an agenda when she sets out on her "experiment"; so you have to weigh her objectivity cautiously.  An interesting counterargument to Ehrenreich's book and themes is Adam Shepherd's Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream.  He, too, has an agenda--to prove Ehrenreich wrong; so it is good to read both and then to decide which you think is a more realistic portrayal of life in minimum-wage America.

Book Summary

Reveals low-wage America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity--a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate stratagems for survival.

Millions of Americans work full-time, year-round, for poverty-level wages. In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that any job equals a better life. But how can anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6-$7 an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich moved from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, taking the cheapest lodgings available and accepting work as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing home aide, and Wal-Mart salesperson. She soon discovered that even the "lowliest" occupations require exhausting mental and physical efforts.  And one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors.

Nickel and Dimed reveals low-wage America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity--a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate stratagems for survival. Instantly acclaimed for its insight, humor, and passion, this book is changing the way America perceives its working poor.

Introduction: Getting Ready

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About this Guide

No matter which tax bracket you're in, you have a stake in the issues raised by Barbara Ehrenreich. A book that has changed assumptions about American prosperity and hardship, Nickel and Dimed makes an especially compelling selection for reading groups. The questions that follow are designed to enhance your personal understanding or group discussion of this provocative, heartfelt -- and funny -- account of life in the low-wage trenches.

About the Book

The New York Times bestseller, and one of the most talked about books of the year, Nickel and Dimed has already become a classic of undercover reportage.

Millions of Americans work for poverty-level wages, and one day Barbara Ehrenreich ...

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