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"I have been discovering a great truth about low-wage work and probably a lot about medium-wage work, too - that nothing happens, or rather the same thing always happens, which amounts, day after day, to nothing." - Barbara Ehrenreich
"I grew up hearing over and over ... 'Work hard and you'll get ahead' ... No one ever said that you could work hard - harder than you ever thought possible - and still find yourself sinking ever down into poverty and debt." - Barbara Ehrenreich
If you're a middle or upper-income reader, then NICKEL AND DIMED is a vicarious journey to the other side of the wage earning tracks. Author Barbara Ehrenreich describes her 2-year self-immersion in several minimum-wage jobs for the purpose of writing this book. She mostly concentrates on three: waiting tables in Florida at a restaurant belonging to a nationally popular chain, e.g. Denny's, cleaning homes in Maine with The Maids, and sorting clothes in Minnesota on the sales floor of that favorite media whipping boy, Wal-Mart.
Indeed, a good portion of Barbara's narrative, rightly or wrongly, sounds like a Wal-Mart bash.
NICKEL AND DIMED is a lucid, eye-opening, and sympathetic account of the plight facing those millions that earn $7-$9/hour, or less, and still find themselves crushed by inflation and shrinkage of the nation-wide availability of affordable housing. According to Ehrenreich, it's the latter, and not the cost of food, and which is ironically driven by an increase in prosperity for the middle and upper classes, that's driving the working poor to greater levels of desperation. In the last paragraph of the book, the author predicts social revolution.
A criticism of Barbara's approach might be that it was an artificial construct inasmuch as she always had the safety net of her middle-class "real life" to fall back on when in extremis - that she never had to truly experience the outer edges of deprivation and resigned hopelessness. However, the alternative to her book would be one actually written by a minimum-wage earner - and which of those has the time and access to a publisher. No, I give Ehrenreich due kudos for her research and its result.
After reading NICKEL AND DIMED, I'll not view the clothing department of my favorite consumer superstore in the same way ever again, I'll be tempted to tip my restaurant server 20% instead of the minimum 15%, and I'll be more generous to our independent housecleaner at Christmas. Being an hourly employee myself, albeit a well-compensated one, I'm also reminded of the sobering truth:
"... when you start selling your time by the hour ... what you're actually selling is your life."
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on 28 July 2008
I found this book totally fascinating. It's basically the first hand experience of a middle class journalist who goes undercover to see if she can survive living on the minimum wage in America. The shocking truth is that she really struggles to. The author tries many things from working in Walmart to working as a cleaner. She is treated as number rather than a human being and the working conditions are disgraceful. To think this is American life and not life in some third worl country. What a brave woman the author was to go through such an experience. I take my hat off to her. Her book is insightful, informative and gripping. The world she lives in is one where the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. Reading this book demonstrates that even if you work hard, there is precious little chance of rising from the poverty trap. The American dream it ain't!
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VINE VOICEon 18 September 2013
Good book. Held my interest and attention throughout. The "American Way" , i.e. Corporate America, is again shown in its true light with all its ugly devotion to the dollar. Why do the low earners put up with this? It seems one reason keeps popping to the surface as the main contender. The American poor accept this incredibly divided society because they feel that someday they will make it to the "rich" side. Of course the chance of this happening is akin to their winning the lottery. Poor and brainwashed. A book which should be read by all naive souls who consider America to be the "land of Opportunity" and also by all naive souls who think that the business classes have even the remotest concern for the welfare of their staff or of their customers. Nope - the dollar is the only objective; the only objective - got it ??
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on 16 January 2003
This is a well researched and hugely readable look at low wage America. Ehrenreich is not the first or only writer to have swapped lifestyles to sample drudgery for a while - think George Orwell and Polly Toynbee - but it is relevant and absorbing none the less.
It's perfectly possible to come to this book disagreeing with the author's political assumptions and still be made to think about your own. The loosely regulated US economy has given America lower unemployment and much greater prosperity than sclerotic Europe. But you still need writers like Ehrenreich to remind you of the human cost of this - the people that fall by the wayside. After reading this book you will never not tip a waitress in an American diner, no matter how bad the service .
Ehrenreich describes setting herself up as a waitress in Florida, a cleaner in Maine, and shop assistant in Minneapolis. The artificiality of this is a problem. Most people - even in the US - don't just switch cities like this every few months. But the sheer difficulty of getting a home/job/healthcare in a new place is illuminating.
A bigger flaw - and one for which the author has received plenty of flack - is the whole presumption of a highly educated writer presuming to be able to ingest the experience of a wholly different existence in a few months. This is less of a problem than it seems as Ehrenreich is perceptive enough to overcome this. But her continual whining that she - with her PhD, that no-one is allowed to know about! - has to take part in mind-numbing corporate induction exercises - grates a little after a while. You wonder whether she was really cut out for this investigative lark.
In some ways the book loses a little of its bite after the initial, gruelling, chapter on waitressing. Ehrenreich's cleaning and shop-working jobs are better paid and, to her surprise, she even finds she gets quite good at them, to the extent that her bosses keep trying to promote her. This obviously weakens her argument about the misery of these places. But the overall effect is still quite powerful.
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VINE VOICEon 17 February 2003
When Barbara Ehrenreich was suggesting that someone should research living on low wages by taking poorly paid jobs and attempting to get by on their earnings, she was thinking of it as a possibility for a young postgraduate. She was surprised when the person she was talking to her suggested she do it.
For a few months, she gave it a go, and wrote a book comparing her experiences in her home town, Key West in Florida, Portland in Maine, and big city Minneapolis.
Even with a cushion of her real life to return to occasionally, and the awareness that she can often cheat and allow herself a luxury her coworkers in restaurants, shops and a maid service can't, and that she has a sleeping space to herself, she finds she can barely do it, and gives it up with a sigh of relief.
I share many of her views on the need for unions, but appreciated that she found it hard to see how her colleagues could find the energy for considering such solutions, and her frustration that they put company needs first.
There are many limitations to this kind of exercise, which Ehrenreich was all too aware of.
I often found this sad, but was also surprised by the humour and lightness of touch.
Altogether a thought-provoking read though few answers to the problems outlined are offered.
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This journalist, presenting herself as a woefully unskilled home-maker returning to the job market, spent three months, each month in a different city, trying to earn enough to live.

Barbara found that the basic jobs of fast food preparation and waitressing, clothing store assistant, cleaner, care home worker and so on were tiring, heavy and poorly paid. As someone who needed to find accommodation she spent wages on motel rooms which did not have a kettle or fridge, or any means of cooking. So she had to buy cooked food and she set a teabag in ice cubes overnight to make iced tea for morning.

Overall Barbara found that it took two jobs minimum to live indoors. A third job was required if you wanted to buy reduced price clothes on the Wal-Mart sales rack. Many co-workers were in such straits as living in a car, unable to take a day off to go to a dental checkup because they would lose pay, having to take a job with a meal and uniform provided. These were mature people with no hope of improvement. There was also almost nothing to do for free or cheap on a Sunday, except go to a church or church-run social event in one town.

This book is well written and very readable, occasionally hilarious but often saddening. We should all read it and ask why we value workers so poorly, or allow big stores and chains to value their skills so poorly.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 19 February 2013
Both England and America have a phenomena know as the working poor, these are people that work one or more jobs yet still cannot make ends meet.

This book was written by a journalist investigating what's it like to be a low pay worker in America.

The author took various low paying jobs and tried to survive on the wages and had a very tough time.
Jobs such as cleaning turn out to be very demanding physically leaving the workers with permanent damage to their bodys. The cleaning company charged $25 per person hour but only pays the worker $6.65 per hour.

The high cost of housing and low pay means workers cannot just give up their current job and look for another as they will not be able to pay their rent while looking for a job.

Other low pay workers cannot afford health care to fix heath problems, the health problems then cause them to lose their jobs and get even poorer.

Poor public transport in many parts of America means if you cannot afford a car you choice of jobs is limited to your local area only making the choice of work for the poor worse.

It comes obvious that been poor in America actually traps people when vital needs such as health care and transportation are only for people that can afford it. No wonder social mobility in America is so bad and the poor have decreased in wealth in the last 30 years while the rich have gotten even richer.
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on 15 February 2008
Giving up a comfortable life to research on the job, her only income her wages, sampling motel living with kitchen facilities comprising the local 7-11 microwave. Barbara Ehrenreich turns her hand to Fast Food, Maid Service and WalMart. Revealing the true horror that is the existence of the low wage worker: No health insurance /No union/No dignity.
Another great expose of those wicked multinational corporations and their exploitation of the masses in general, both workers and customers.
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on 25 March 2014
Even through is about a decade old, the experiences Im sure are no different if repeated today in the USA or UK to a similar degree.
It opens your mind to something you could always see, always knew was there, but somehow failed to grasp, accept and appreciate.
It resonates in the UK with the Zero hour contract that puts all power into the hands of the employer and appears in most cases to be used to keep the workforce subservient (Im sure in limited cases zero hour contracts are great).

Highly recommended read.
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on 8 December 2012
This book is full of interesting observations about the underbelly of working America that perhaps we in Britain do not even imagine exists. Novelists like Alison Lurie and Richard Ford have dropped me some literate hints, George Orwell covered similar ground in 'Down and Out in London and Paris' and anyone who has ever worked in catering or been a poor student will go 'uh huh' at some point but 'Nickel and Dimed,' which cost me just one U K penny to buy, really tears the lid off the can marked 'opportunities in the land of opportunity.' China has its problems, privatised higher education for millions with no jobs to go to anyone? Europe seems to have over fattened itself, non-sustainably in some areas and as for everywhere else, well just don't expect America to be any better, unless you have plenty of money of course. I urge you to buy and read this book but for goodness sake don't show it to anyone who works at Wal-Mart, okay?
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