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Nickel and Dimed

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Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
Carmen Arvelo
Northwestern State University
SOWK 3350

Barbara Pierce PHD, LMSW, ACSW
March 04, 2013 Abstract
The author Barbara Ehrenreich sets out on her quest to decide for herself if the working women in America are able to survive on low paying jobs. Accomplishing this will mean living on only what she makes to pay the rent, groceries and gas. The author makes up her mind to seek employment in three different cities around America, Key West, Florida, Maine and Minnesota. Her reasons for choosing each these cities varies and she realizes very quickly that making ends meet in any of these cities will not be easy to do if not impossible on a low salary. The author meets numerous people, including Holly a maid in Maine that she befriends. Ehrenreich’s view of low wage workers helps her understand their situation around the country as she comes to the realization that one cannot afford nutritious food, a protected living enviroment and provide for health insurance all on low earnings. My paper will discuss the repercussions of low wages on the working poor as well as how they are viewed by society.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
The book Nickel and Dimed begins with the author, Barbara Ehrenreich (2011), contemplating how she will take on the task of living with limited money and assets as she has a Ph.D. in Biology, but her focus became social change. Ehrenreich must ground rules for her research and decides that she must have transportation, a place to live and food to eat as these are things that she will need to get by. "Transportation is also a major barrier to financial self-sufficiency for many working poor families. Many of the working poor do not get to work with the ease that most working non-poor enjoy" (Lambert, 1998).
The second leg of Ehnrenreich’s journey begins in Maine as the author felt that the odds of securing a better paying job would pay off since the state is predominately Caucasian. However, she gains employment with a residential nursing home working with Alzheimer patients on the weekends making minimum wage. At one point, she is the only care giver for an entire floor of patients. Ehrenreich applies as a maid to supplement her income at the nursing home. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2009) found that overall, the working-poor rate for women living alone or with unrelated individuals was 12.0 percent, compared with 11.4 percent for their male counterparts.
Ehrenreich stay briefly in a cheap motel but realizes that she is unable to stay there because her safety might be compromised. She decides on renting a cabin which is almost double the cost she was paying at the motel, but her safety is at the forefront and she is not willing to compromise. “While most residents of low-income neighborhoods are law-abiding, rates of violent crime tend to be higher in areas of concentrated poverty and are the result of the interplay between family and neighborhood poverty” (Rolland, 2006). Upon her arrival at the maid position, she realizes that her pay in comparison to what the company charges the clients is minuscule for all of the work expected of her. Ehrenreich endures long hours cleaning on her hands and knees, some days without anything to eat or drink. (Ehrenreich, B. 2011).
Ehrenreich subsequently contracts a rash on her body and is unable to stand the itching and breaks one of her rules and obtains a prescription from her hometown in Florida. She is let down again when the manager Ted does not show any concern for her rash and tells her to keep working. This ultimately results in a financial setback as Ehrenreich must pay for her prescription. Just like the working poor, she must choose what she is willing to sacrifice so that she continues to receive a paycheck.
Ehrenreich must seek help from community agencies for food as she also must pay higher rent due to the tourist season. Ehrenreich discovers that indeed there is help for the poor, but only during working hours when it is difficult to off work to get there. Ehrenreich learns firsthand what it means to be poor in America when she ventures out to the grocery store where she was looked down upon because of her dirty work clothes. According to Mather (2010), even though the employment rates of single mothers are high, more than one-fourth (27 percent) of single mothers do not have health insurance. Among those who are insured, two-fifths are covered by public insurance programs.
Ehrenreich is usually always paired with Holly; a lead maid that she notices is ailing and refuses to go to the doctor because she cannot afford to miss a day off work because it will mean no pay for her. Ehrenreich attempts to help Holly, but is unable to convince her to see a doctor as Holly’s husband insists she work when she is ill. (Ehrenreich, B. 2011). Holly lives in a home with another able person, but this does not lessen the financial burden on her. This becomes particularly evident when Holly hurts her ankle at work and cannot walk on it. Holly continues to work on her feet despite Ehrenreich pleading that she goes home. Holly agrees to call Ted and ends up apologizing for her injury in fear that he will fire her. Holly most likely apologizes because she fears that Ted will consider her useless if she cannot work due to her injury. The Health and Human Services (2001) state that the federal poverty guideline for a family of three is $14,630 and $17,650 for a two-parent, two-child family. A single mother with two children who works full-time, year-round at the minimum wage ($5.15 per hour) earns $10,712 per year--about 73% of the federal poverty level. Ehrenreich finds Ted's treatment of Holley enraging and confronts him about his mistreatment of his employees.
Holly’s home environment seems to be just as doomed as her job as even her husband insists that she go to work even though she is sick. Holly keeps working despite being pregnant, which Ehrenreich ultimately discovers. Ehrenreich tries to inform the women that there are better opportunities out in the community, but the women have their own reasons for staying at the dead end maid job. Reality is that not everyone possesses the ability to read and is unable to obtain better employment, and they choose remain at a job where they are required to do more, but are paid less. This is extremely evident in “What is Poverty” (Parker 1971), “You have asked for help, and after all it has a cost. You are again told to wait. You are told why, but you don't really hear because of the red cloud of shame and the rising cloud of despair.”
Holly’s economic situation could be helped by improving her relationship with her husband as marriage has benefits the husband, the wife as well as the children. Children are likely to do better in a two parent home, where parents can provide two incomes, shared responsibly and it can offer the children support of both their parents in the home. Even though, Holly has yet to give birth in the story, but she could improve her health with services that provide for expectant mothers. A social worker could provide Holly and her husband with services such as marriage enrichment programs, respite care for them when their child is born as well as marital counseling to help resolve marital their issues.
Holly and her husband could benefit from the guidance of a social worker to link them up with educational programs to improve on their skills that are needed to seek better employment. Social workers also have the ability to pool their resources with other professionals in the community to map out what other programs the family might benefit from. As per Lewis, M. A., & Widerquest, K. (2002), the ideal of fair and equality of opportunity requires that a just society provide some degree of education and training to everyone, independent of their ability to pay for it.
Holly’s character does not directly fit with the McIntyre article as she is not a single mother; however she is poor, taking care of her husband and an older relative that lives with them all on low paying job. (Ehrenreich, B. 2011). She is not taking care of herself due to her financial situation, and this is similar to the article because Holly allows herself to become extremely thin and ill because she is afraid admitting she is pregnant in fear of losing the little income she does have. According to McIntyre (2003), mothers would “do without—that’s what mothers do” as a coping strategy. This quote from a participant at a returning-results meeting was similar to another participant’s remark at another meeting: “Overall, we don’t look after ourselves. We need to take the focus off of us and put it on the kids. We need to focus on the kids.”
The community Holly lives in is most likely a lower income area as she is unable to afford a better place to live in. Holly and the other maids cannot even afford to buy or bring their lunch to work. This says a lot about how their living conditions must be as the little money they earn is to cover their daily necessities at home to provide for their families. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program offers monetary support for families that meet the low income requirement until they are able to get back on their feet. TANF was set up to decrease the amount of families that are living in poverty by giving them additional resources to bring up their standard of living. (Parisi 2003).
Poverty is something that must be experienced as only these individuals can testify to the heartbreak and devastation that goes along with it. The fight for women to achieve the same pay as men must continue as well as the right to health care, safer working environments and care for dependent children and paid leave time for child birth. If the status of social growth is considered by the place women have in society, we would see that women are viewed as second class citizens that are carrying the burden of the current crisis of our capitalist society.
The working poor of society should not take the blame for the disaster of capitalism, and they also should not have to endure the consequences of it. More of the wage-earning families would go hungry in America if women were not able to. Women should not be made to fight the uphill battle of our capitalist system solely as this fight must be made by the total work force together. As a society, we must all change our views of women in general in order to give them equal opportunity in the work force and an equal place in society. References
Ehrenreich, B. (2008). Nickel and dimed : on (not) getting by in America . New York: Henry Holt & Co.
Goodman Parker, J. (1971). what is poverty? America’s other children: Public Schools Outside of the Suburbs. Retrieved from
Health and Human Services. (2001). The 2001 health and Human Services poverty guidelines
[On-line]. Available at:
Lambert, T. (1998). The poor and transportation: A comment on M. Kim's "The Working Poor: Lousy Jobs or Lousy Workers?" Journal of Economic Issues, 32(4), 1140-1142.
Lewis, M. A., & Widerquest, K. (2002). Perfect competition and the supply-and-demand model. In Economics for social workers (p. 45). Retrieved from
Mather, M. (2010). U.S. Children in Single-Mother Families. Retrieved from
McIntyre, L., Officer, S., Robinson, L. M.(2003). Feeling poor: The felt experience of low-income lone mothers, Affilia, 18, 3, 316-331.
Parisi (2003). TANF participation rates: Do community conditions matter? Rural Sociology, 68, 4, 491-512.
Rolland, S. (2006). Disparities in the District: Poverty Is Major Cause of Social Problems in the District of Columbia. Retrieved from

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