Twenty years on, Nickel and Dimed still reveals our blindness—and its author’s as well
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Barbara Ehrenreich’s classic account of what life is like for low-wage earners: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. Reading it permanently changed my thinking and behavior.
Doing old-school investigative journalism, Ehrenreich went undercover at the bottom rungs of the economy. She served the Super Scramble Special in a diner, cleaned homes with improbable displays of decorative copper pans, and hung discarded Bobbie Brooks dresses back on their racks at Wal-Mart.
Ehrenreich’s self-imposed task was to see if she could make enough money to cover the costs of her correspondingly entry-level options for food and housing. Spoiler alert: The answer was always no. “To paraphrase Keynes: in the long run, we’ll all be broke,” she concludes. As in that vintage sketch by Lucille Ball, the conveyor belt of incoming bills will eventually make the situation impossible. One of Ehrenreich’s cruelest findings was that things are often more expensive for the poor. Low-wage earners are forced to pay more to live in a motel because they can’t afford the deposit needed for even the seediest of one-room apartments.
My wife and I are professionals in our mid-fifties. We have consolidated our financial position to the point where our bank recently announced that it is upgrading our status. “Premier Partners” get an array of perks—even transaction fees for using out-of-network ATM machines are waived. The low-wage earners who can ill afford these charges are the ones who have to pay them, while I have now reached a level of affluence at which they magically go away.
Like Joni Mitchell and love, Ehrenreich has seen America’s class divide from both sides now. At her best, this generates both insight and empathy. Although the book is filled with exact prices ($1.29 for Shout Gel to get stains out of her work clothes), Ehrenreich is never quite unflinching enough to reveal the price of cigarettes (around $3 a pack at a time when such workers were getting paid $6 an hour). Still, she is right to chide “the antismoking crusaders” who can’t see the ubiquitous smoking culture as an expression of “defiant self-nurturance”: “Work is what you do for others; smoking is what you do for yourself.”
At her worst, Ehrenreich’s disdain for Christians creates a confirmation bias comparable to that of a blatant racist. When it comes to diner customers behaving badly, she asserts that although “frat boys” are a problem, “the worst” are the “Visible Christians” (people who wear Jesus T-shirts and the like).
Ehrenreich later admits that the class divide is partially because “the affluent young” (a.k.a. frat boys) don’t take low-wage jobs, but rather spend their summers doing internships. Christians from the professional classes, for their part, also generally find Jesus merch tacky. The “Visible Christians” are the low-wage earners—Ehrenreich’s co-workers sometimes tell her that Jesus saved them. Are we really meant to believe that Christian servers during their time off are especially inclined to treat servers like dirt?
Worse, Ehrenreich includes a scene where she attends a tent revival meeting because she thinks it will be “perfect entertainment.” She is particularly hoping to be amused by people speaking in tongues. She condemns the service for focusing on “the crucified Christ” when it ought to have offered “a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage” which, assuming it had to bring Jesus into it, would have presented him as a “wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist.”
There is a moving passage in which Ehrenreich offers a litany of all the ways her co-workers’ bodies are broken: “Lori and Pauline are excused from vacuuming on account of their backs . . . Helen has a bum foot . . . Marge’s arthritis makes scrubbing a torture.” Yet somehow she cannot sympathize enough to count listening to a meditation on how Christ’s body too was broken as an act of defiant self-nurturance.
Only once does Ehrenreich interview a woman who in real life had to move to a new city, take a low-wage job, and find a way to pay the bills. This heroic soul freely gives away the secret: “Always find a church.” Stranger though this destitute mother was, these Visible Christians gave her groceries and rides, helped her figure out the school and benefits systems, and generally got her back on her feet. The Salvation Army is also a help, though Ehrenreich never acknowledges that it is faith-based. Instead, because she heard a sermon that was a message of spiritual empowerment rather than a trade union speech, Ehrenreich insists right to the end that religion doesn’t care “about the plight of the poor.”
There are other ways in which an air of unreality sometimes wafts through this account. Still thinking like an over-educated elite, Ehrenreich’s vision for society is that it should be comprised of a bunch of self-sufficient, free-floating, autonomous individuals. Bizarrely, whenever her co-workers have a partner who is also a wage earner or a relative who is willing to share housing or a ride, Ehrenreich can’t help but talk as if these people are somehow cheating and therefore should not count in any discussion of getting by.
My father dropped out of high school and never progressed beyond an unskilled job without benefits. As far as I can recall, our family never once stayed in a hotel. Thus, I somehow never learned that you are supposed to leave a tip for the person who cleans your room.
When I travel now I always carry cash for that purpose. I started doing so the very first trip I made after reading Nickel and Dimed. My memory was that Ehrenreich told me to do this but re-reading the book, I find that isn’t so. She only spends one day cleaning hotel rooms and doesn’t mention tipping at all in that context.
I had, however, learned from Ehrenreich’s powerful book that even a few extra dollars can sometimes make a real difference for low-wage earners. Leaving a generous tip for the person who cleans my room was an application that I must have somehow intuited.
Despite the sometimes irritating limitations of Ehrenreich’s empathy and perspective, her basic point was right on the money: “Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.”
Twenty years on, something is still very wrong.
Timothy Larsen teaches at Wheaton College and is the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Christmas (2020).