Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

From EconWiki
Jump to: navigation, search

Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich was first published in 2001 by Henry Holt.[1] The book describes Ehrenreich's attempt to live and work in several low income jobs in several different states in 1998.


Ehrenreich joins the millions of Americans that are working for poverty level wages and experiences what it is like to survive and live on $6 to $7 dollar an hour job. Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, she takes on the cheapest, affordable lodgings she can find readily available and accepts any work she can find. Throughout her journey, she holds multiple job positions that are not only pay the bare minimal, but also are subject to exhausting mental and physical efforts.[2]

Ehrenreich's study of poverty is not to just show whether someone can survive or not under these conditions, but it was to opens ones eyes to the circumstances of low wage workers in poverty. Her study led her to believe more and more that there are major problems with the way our government is being run. There are major discrepancies in regards to who is in poverty and the amount of aid in which they should be receiving. “As the “working poor,” as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that others homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, everyone else (Ehrenreich 221).” As Ehrenreich feels as though the low wage lifestyle is very impractical and unfair. The laws of economy and the system in which it is currently constructed often neglects those of low wages as, it does not put into account the fact that many of those who do receive low income are often geographically restricted. Ehrenreich was not faced with that problem as she had transportation but she stated the complications in which it would of presented. The lack of resources to receive information available to get aid also plays a role. Today we are still faced with the same problems as most recently in “September of 2011 the Colonial Bureau reported that 46.2 million Americans were living below the poverty line the lowest we have seen since the late 90’s (Neurohr).” As people working low wage jobs are still struggling to make ends meet 10-15 years later. Many Americans seem to forget to realize how big of a problem poverty is as we tend to over look just how large of an impact it has here. In “2009 the U.S Bureau of Labor reported that 10.4 million individuals were among the “working poor”. The working poor are persons who spent at least 27 weeks in the labor force (that is, working or looking for work) but whose incomes still fell below the official poverty level (Gibbons)”. That is an increase of over 1 million from the year before as poverty is a continuing problem right here in America. In order for that to change a lot needs to happen between now and then. Starting by expanding the expansion in the income tax credit, which would work as an earnings supplement for low-income working families, the EITC raises incomes and helps families build assets. Even so much as to guarantee child care assistance to low-income families and promote early education, as there have been proposals to guarantee child health care to those with a income of less then 40,000 a year. As that would raise employment among low-income parents and help nearly 3 million escape poverty. These may not be the cure-alls to save the working poor, but it would certainly be steps in the right direction.[3]

After Ehrenreich's investigation was finished. She comes to conclusion that even for a worker holding two jobs, wages are too low, housing costs too high for minimally decent survival. "In the rhetorical buildup to welfare reform, it was uniformly assumed that a job was the ticket out of poverty and that the only thing holding back welfare recipients was their reluctance to get out and get one." But if a living wage for one adult and two children is, according to the Economic Policy Institute, $30,000 a year, a total calculated to include no luxuries unless health insurance and licensed child care are considered luxuries, this amount will never be provided by the private sector to entry-level workers."Most civilized nations," Ehrenreich writes, "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." She feels as though the fact that in America we are sending the poor out to make it on their own on little more than a quarter of a salary is not manageable and shameful. [4]

Although I relate with this view on welfare reform as I come from a un-priviledged background. However, as I have researched more and more on the intricacies of the welfare system here in America I realize there are some questionable practices taking place in regards to it. Survival via government funding is indeed a debilitating lifestyle, however I ponder what would the woman from which this article was derived from would have to say to the notion that food stamps, government welfare checks are being spent irrelevantly and that fraudulent action in regards to welfare funding is at an all-time high. Life is hard for the impoverished but it also hard for those living middle-class lifestyles experiencing the same hard times something must be done to off-set this problem of unequal government funding.

References- "My Time at Walmart: Why We Need Serious Welfare Reform." The Bangor Daily News. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <>.

Work is not always the answer to minimize poverty. There are people who work full-time jobs and/or multiple jobs who are still barely getting by. A welfare reform may not be the answer to end poverty or bring people out of it for that matter. The implications that can arise from creating a batch of new jobs can have negative impacts on the economy in the long run. The excerpt from Ehrenrecih’s book gives readers an insight on those who are in poverty and trying to get by in life. Work is not always the answer and with that slow economy that we live in today, it will take a while for many to get back on their feet. Low-wage jobs seem to keep people back instead of helping them out in the long run.


  • “Impassioned, fascinating, profoundly significant, and wildly entertaining . . . I kept grabbing family members and phoning friends to read passages aloud.” — Francine Prose, O: The Oprah Magazine [5]
  • "Valuable and illuminating . . . We have Barbara Ehrenreich to thank for bringing us the news of America's working poor so clearly and directly, and conveying with it a deep moral outrage . . . She is our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism." --Dorothy Gallagher, The New York Times Book Review [6]


  3. "Making Ends Meet." New York Times Company, May 2001. Web. 16 Apr. 2012.
  4. Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting by in America. New York: Metropolitan, 2001.
Personal tools