The author of the book Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich, embarks on a project to not only examine the lives (particularly, their earnings) of the working class, but to experience it first-hand. She is a highly educated writer with a Ph.D. in biology and other impressive credentials. The point of this project was to find out whether minimum wage – perceived as “living wage” – adds to a livable income level.
Ehrenreich grew up in the suburbs and only worked a minimum wage job at age 18, so this experience was mostly new to her. Barbara Ehrenreich gets work as a waitress, nursing aid, cleaning lady, retail, etc. When applying for these jobs, she never admits to her education background because she didn’t want to appear overqualified. She attempted to fully embody the lives of the working class by planning not to use her earnings from her “real life” because she considered this cheating. She only used her own money from her past life for paying a deposit on rent to start off (which turned out to be a huge advantage over long-term low wage workers). She moved into a new home in which she figured was efficient enough for her future earnings working minimum wage. There were many mishaps along the way, and Barbara consequently found that working in these jobs were overwhelming. Moreover, she could not rely on one job’s paychecks to be sufficient enough for the bills (especially rent) so she had to work two jobs. Because these jobs (especially cleaning) demanded long periods of challenging physical work, she had to endure not only extreme physical pain, but also mental anguish. The author states that corporate entities have no regard for their workers. Some of her coworkers were homeless, and nearly all of them could not afford health insurance. The manager of one company (ironically once a minimum wage worker himself) would encourage the workers to get through the rough hours of working by sustaining the pain and injuries that came with the job. Barbara argues that the working class has to “leave their civil liberties at the door” when about to work for a corporation. As a worker, the companies scrutinize you by limiting your privacy; furthermore, the impacts of these actions eventually “keep you down” because self-respect is lost. She said the companies made her feel a way in which she hadn’t felt since junior high. Additionally, you’re hassled to work even harder when at your breaking point.
This book challenges the misconceptions of the working class. Laziness is deemed the culprit of their unfortunate circumstances. There’s this notion that simply obtaining a job would get these folks out of their financial crisis and lamentable living conditions. The reality is that it’s fairly hard to get a job, and sometimes you just have to take what’s available. People ask, “Why don’t these people find a better job?” and Barbara’s answer to that is that “the poorer humans are, the more constrained their mobility is.” This is true, and there are a number of deterrents that people don’t take into account, like the distance between work and home and the availability of transportation. Sometimes a person can’t find a job within a convenient distance of their home, so walking is hardly the answer. Barbara’s observation that the working class is constantly looked down upon is a fair conclusion that she derived not only from her experiences, but by wealthy acquaintances. Unlike poor people, the wealthy usually don’t know how it feels to be so inflicted by desperation that they have to succumb to cleaning houses and toilets for a company. The book further indicates that the working class is heavily oppressed. As Barbara points out many times throughout the book, the working class are never praised for the hard work that they do and are often ignored. An important question is raised: Why isn’t the working class given more credit for what they do when the work that their job demands is far more strenuous than the jobs of the elite? They usually get the brunt of the setbacks that companies come across. It’s probably fair to assume that these same people that insult the working class wouldn’t turn down government help if they were plagued with the reality of your job not providing enough money for food and bills.
The author did more than research for this project—she experienced it first-hand. She never claims to finally found out how it feels to be a long-term low wage worker; her only intention was to see how much it took to get by as a low wage worker. It’s important to acknowledge that her situation was a best-case scenario, and her situation verified that “living wage” is really not a liveable wage if you don’t want to be homeless. The execution of the book forces you to feel the extent of the desperation that low-wage workers possess. Barbara Ehrenreich leaves you with the impression that a lot of corporations have little regard for its workers; furthermore, they are nothing but replaceable peasants, and society’s attitudes towards the working class are not much different from the corporate tyrants.