Nickel and Dimed


Author: Ehrenreich, Barbara

Title: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America

Genre: Nonfiction (Current affairs, investigative reporting)

Publication Date: 2001

Number of Pages: 244 (paperback edition)

Geographical Setting: Key West, FL; Portland, Maine; Minneapolis

Time Period: 1998-2000

Series: N/A

Plot Summary: Shortly after telling a magazine editor that someone should go undercover as one of the working poor to expose what it’s like trying to live on the prevailing “unskilled labor” wage of $6 to $7 an hour job, Ehrenreich, then in her late 50s, winds up doing just that. Between 1998 and 2000, she works as a waitress—and for one day a hotel housekeeper—in Key West; as a nursing home aid and a maid in Portland Maine; and as a Wal-Mart “associate” in Minneapolis. Like many of the working poor, she sometimes attempts to work two jobs at once in order to make her rent, and she experiences what she aptly calls a sort of “repetitive injury of the spirit” as she endures callous supervisors, exhaustion, miserly tippers, drug and personality tests, clueless management and the monotony of corporate culture. And she witnesses worse: co-workers living in vans, going without health insurance, working while injured and more. Interspersed with Ehrenreich’s experiences as a wage slave and her compassionate depiction of the those whose work is deemed beneath a living wage—the nameless “benefactor”[s], to everyone else”—are statistics inserted as footnotes. Occasionally leavened by Ehrenreich’s wry humor, this is an insightful, candid, compelling and closely observed portrait of working class America that should be required reading for anyone who has stiffed a waitress or believes that hard work is always rewarded.

Subject Headings: Minimum wage; Unskilled labor; Poverty; Investigative reporting; Working poor; Working class.

Appeal: closely observed; compelling; insightful; compassionate; wryly humorous; telling detail; richly drawn portraits; sympathetic narrator; candid; thoughtful; ruminative; detailed; accurate; recognizable; realistic; thought-provoking; issue-oriented; investigative; moving; persuasive; accessible; engaging; muck-raking.

Relevant Fiction: Boyle, T. C. The Tortilla Curtain. (The working poor—here illegal immigrants—contrasted with yuppies. Unskilled labor, poverty, economic struggle, issue-oriented, compassionate, compelling) O’Nan, Stewart. Last Night at the Lobster. (Detailed portrait of a restaurant on its last day of operation. Restaurant workers, working class issues, economic struggle, detailed, realistic.) Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. (Expose of working conditions and workers’ lives at the beginning of the 20th century. Poverty, working poor, detailed, realistic, issue-oriented, compassionate, closely observed, muck-raking.)

Relevant Nonfiction: Hamper, Ben. Rivethead. (Memoir of assembly line life at General Motors. Working class issues, exploitative management, wryly humorous, sympathetic narrator, unfulfilling work). Shipler, David K. The Working Poor: Invisible in America. (Another portrait of those struggling to keep afloat, but more reportorial and statistic-laden than Ehrenreich’s “immersion” journalism. Sympathetic author, low wages, obstacles to financial stability, worker exploitation.) Conover, Ted. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. (Author goes undercover as a corrections officer/security guard at the infamous, maximum security prison. Immersion journalism, expose, firsthand account, high-stress jobs, insightful.)

Name: Laura

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