54 pages 1 hour read

Barbara Ehrenreich

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

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2001

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Summary and Study Guide


Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America is a 2001 nonfiction book written by Barbara Ehrenreich. This book is considered a classic of investigative journalism and was ranked #13 in The Guardian’s list of the 100 best books of the 21st century. Ehrenreich takes a series of low-paying, entry-level jobs in three cities (Key West, Florida; Portland, Maine; Minneapolis, Minnesota) to answer the question of whether one can survive on these wages and meet their expenses, including rent, food, and other necessities. In each city, she documents the variety of challenges she faces, from surprise expenses to barely habitable motels to tyrannical managers, as well as the generosity and perseverance she observes in her fellow coworkers. Ehrenreich concludes that minimum wage does not provide enough to survive, and that the cheap labor of low-wage workers ultimately benefits the middle-class and wealthy Americans. This study guide refers to the 2001 Metropolitan edition.


The primary question Ehrenreich is attempting to answer in Nickel and Dimed is whether she can survive on the wages of the lowest-paying jobs in America. The rules of the experiment are that she cannot rely on any skills she acquired from her education to get jobs; she has to take the highest-paying job offered to her; and she has to live in the cheapest accommodations available that are safe and private. She also decides to give herself a few luxuries: she will always have a car and will end the experiment if she is at risk of becoming houseless.

Ehrenreich starts in her home city of Key West, Florida. She finds a cheap efficiency and takes a job as a waitress at a restaurant named Hearthside. She meets Gail, a light-footed 50-year-old waitress who trains her, and other coworkers such as Lionel and Joan who she likes and gets along with. However, she finds that the managers are mean-spirited and hypercritical, and that the pay is far too low, so she seeks out a job at Jerry’s, a more popular restaurant where she hopes that her tips will increase. She ends up quitting the job at Hearthside and taking a job as a waitress at Jerry’s. She tries to get a second job as a hotel housekeeper to make ends meet, but she does not have the energy: she quits both jobs after one day of attempting to do double shifts. She feels a deep sense of failure for giving up.

Next, she moves to Portland, Maine in late summer when the tourists are already leaving; she believes she has a chance of securing affordable housing. It is hard for her to find a place that is acceptable, and she settles on a cottage with a kitchen that is embarrassingly close to the restroom. After a few days, she secures two jobs: during the weekends she works as a dietary aide at a nursing home for $7 an hour, and Monday to Friday she works as a house cleaner with The Maids, a corporate cleaning service that sends teams of cleaners to different homes every day. Ehrenreich enjoys serving the elderly people in the Alzheimer’s ward because it reminds her of her father who died from Alzheimer’s, but she finds that cleaning up after them is difficult and wonders about the safety of allowing people without any credentials to care for medically vulnerable people in nursing homes. At The Maids, she is shocked by the disgusting cleaning methods in which the company trains them, as well as the awful treatment of the cleaners—all of whom are women—by the white, middle-class franchise owner and boss, Ted. They are not allowed to drink water or eat inside of the homes, and they are encouraged to work through physical pain and injuries. Ehrenreich observes the irony that they work for so little money cleaning luxurious homes of wealthy and upper-middle-class people. She witnesses a woman named Holly attempt to clean a home with a sprained ankle. Ehrenreich ends up quitting both jobs after receiving a small wage increase.

The final location Ehrenreich ventures to is Minneapolis, Minnesota. She expected that in Minneapolis she would have a relatively easier time securing housing and a job, but is disappointed when she discovers that the housing market is the one of the most scarce in the country and that the wages are just as low as everywhere else. After staying in a friend’s apartment for a few days, she only manages to find a motel that is barely habitable, with her first room overflowing with sewage and the second having only a thin curtain on the window and no air conditioning or fan. She notices the negative effect that the many indignities of the hiring process have on her, including drug tests and personality tests. Ehrenreich gets a job at Wal-Mart as a clerk, where she works in the “soft lines” department, putting away women’s clothing after it has been tried on and keeping the clothing organized. She begins to mention to her fellow coworkers that they should demand wage increases, and fortuitously, a local hotel and restaurant workers union forms and goes on strike. This makes headlines and local news. She hopes that her Wal-Mart coworkers will be inspired and demand higher pay and better benefits.

After the experiment, Ehrenreich concludes that the wages she received were half of what one would need to survive. She determined that in fact, society’s greatest contributors are its low-wage workers, who go without basic necessities and sacrifice their lives for the benefit of middle-class and wealthy Americans who profit off of their labor.