Nickel & Dimed Summary and Review

by Barbara Ehrenreich
Looking to learn more about Nickel & Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich? Read this summary first: How much do you make at work? Normally, this question is not asked in polite conversation. Talking about wages is usually a taboo topic. However, in this book summary, we’ll cover what happened when one journalist shed her credentials and dove head-first into a life of poverty to understand first-hand what it’s like to barely earn enough to live. What she discovered was that these people aren’t just people without homes, gathering water bottles to make ends meet, or demonized “free-loaders” that some politicians look down upon. Those in poverty are still our fellow citizens, people that work hard every day to provide us with what we need to make our lives what they are. By reading this book summary, you’ll learn:
  • just how hard it is to actually get a cleaning job
  • the demeaning working conditions that many workers tolerate
  • how the poor are actually more giving than the wealthy

Key Idea #1: Poverty is a huge problem in America, and the author wanted to examine this further.

While walking through any US city, you’re likely to come across homeless people or people in poverty. This is often a strong reminder that poverty is still a grave problem nationwide. In 2001, at the time of this book’s release, the United States Census Bureau reported that 12.1 percent of Americans lived in poverty. This meant that this group of people were unable to afford the basic requirements for living comfortably, like rent, healthy food, and health insurance. This number is quite significant and highlights just how many people’s wages are dangerously low. Back then, minimum wage was around six and seven dollars an hour –despite research from the National Coalition for the Homeless that decided a worker needed to make at least $8.89 per hour to afford the rent for just a studio apartment. It seems that many have the odds against them when working hard to earn even a living wage. According to research from the Preamble Center for Public Policy, only one person out of 97 using welfare would even meet the requirements for a job above minimum wage. The rest simply are without the educational background or entrance to continuing education that is required. All of these numbers only give a general idea of the problem at hand, which led the author to wanting to get a better idea of what it was really like for these millions of people living this way. With her experience in investigative journalism, the author chose to enter the life of a minimum-wage worker for a couple of years (1998 to 2000). To do this, she left off her education and background experience from job applications and aimed to get the highest paying job she could. She wanted to see for herself if it was even possible to pay rent and survive by making no more than seven dollars an hour.

Key Idea #2: Workers making minimum wage face housing challenges and demeaning job pursuits.

Looking for a new job and a place to live is difficult for most everyone, no matter your circumstances. However, as she embarked on this experiment, the author learned just how challenging these tasks could truly become. She began her journey in Key West, Florida. Thinking that she’d earn seven dollars an hour, she could afford a monthly rent at $500. Right away, this ruled out everything but mobile homes, and even then, she found slim offerings. One place she saw didn’t even have air-conditioning or ventilation, which would be unbearable in the hot and humid climate of Florida. However, this didn’t even matter; that place cost $675 per month – well over her limit. Though it took some searching, the author found a tiny apartment for $500 after expanding her search to nearby towns around the city. Her new home was 45 minutes away, which provided a substantial daily commute. It also meant that she would need to keep her car and fill up with the tank with gas about once a week, something a person in real poverty was unlikely to have access to. When it came to searching for work, she hardly did any better. As she searched for a job, the author found that there was a lot of indignity that came with a minimum-wage job. For example, when she applied to the supermarket store Winn-Dixie, she had to take a 20-minute multiple-choice questionnaire that was frankly insulting to anyone’s intelligence. She was asked questions about whether childcare would prevent her from getting to work on time, and if she would tell her supervisors if she saw a coworker stealing. The answers were obvious, which made the test more about knowing how to lie than anything else. But even more disconcerting that this was that she had to take a drug test that meant she had to not only give a urine sample, but she had to do it in front of a health worker to prove it came from her.  This was too much – and she decided to keep looking, hoping that there was something else out there more honorable.

Key Idea #3: Minimum wage work also has a high turnover due to physical demands of the job.

It’s no surprise that the easiest jobs to get are the jobs that no one else wants to do; however, the author was still stunned by the high turnover rate for the minimum-wage jobs she was applying for. She was mostly responding to ads featured in her local newspaper in the “employment” section, where she came across twenty or so hotels needing cleaning staff. When she didn’t hear back from these ads, she realized that the jobs weren’t even vacant yet – the hotels were lining up replacement staff for when their employees inevitably couldn’t take it anymore and quit. After searching a while, the author landed a waitressing job at a diner, and finally, she got to see first-hand just how hard people work for meager pay. Her hours were 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. and paid $2.43 an hour, and with tips it raised to about six dollars an hour. Even with the low pay, the job was demanding, and the author was not well equipped for the struggle that lay ahead. With a background as a writer, she was trained as a structured, logical worker, which made her ill-equipped for the fast-paced, multitasking environment of a diner. The multiple customer demands for refills, condiments, to-go orders and extra sides made her overwhelmed and disordered. She also had to learn to use a touch screen computer for ringing in orders, which provided another challenge. Every personal request – such as more gravy or ketchup on the side – was nerve-racking to get just perfect for the cooks and customer’s satisfaction. It was also irritating to receive constant unwelcome nicknames from customers, like “baby,” “sweetie” and “blondie,” which all seemed like they were just a part of the job. It made her exhausted all the time with no break, since downtime meant cleaning up, getting refills, or filling up condiment containers.

Key Idea #4: A job in food service introduces you to interesting people, but the management can be difficult.

The author says that her time working as a waitress wasn’t all terrible. There are some advantages to working in the service industry. A part of the job that she found appealing was meeting interesting customers, and the ability to make their day just a little bit better. One of these customers was Benny, a sewer repairman who ate at the diner between shifts of his demanding job to unwind and get a moment’s rest. These were the people who supplied the author’s job with meaning, being able to see how her job could bring some light into their day. Additionally, there was also the company of her coworkers, whom she liked as well. One other waitress, Gail, was described as having a heart of gold. She was always ready to help out the author if she screwed up an order, and she once spent her tip money to buy a plate of biscuits and gravy for a broke mechanic. The author saw this generosity as even more impressive once she really knew how difficult it was to survive on a waitress’s income. However, just as she saw how generous the employees could be, she also saw how management could be unnecessarily cruel. The managers made a comfortable living wage from $1,500 and $3,000 per month, yet they were still concerned with cutting costs and putting unnecessary stress on the employees. While managers were able to lounge as much as they wanted, they always made sure the staff was up on their feet. If you were seen catching your breath for a moment, you’d be punished with the horrendous tasks. The author was once caught looking over at a newspaper, and the manager disciplined her by making her clean the floors using an old, broken vacuum cleaner, one that could only be used by kneeling on the floor in backbreaking labor. These sort of management strategies just meant that everyone knew how to look like theywerebusy, even when they weren’t.

Key Idea #5: Being poor meant dealing with rough home circumstances and hidden costs.

Having any full-time job can be very tiring, but it is always made a bit easier with a comfortable home to return to at the end of the day. However, as the author got to know her coworkers better, she began to learn how little wellbeing they had outside of work. For instance, her coworker Gail shared a room in a bargain motel that served as a kind of flophouse, with little rooms and a shared bathroom. Her male roommate was always trying to get with her, but Gail didn’t keep him out because she needed him to help pay for the room’s $500 rent. Claude, the restaurant’s Haitian cook, also didn’t have much of his own space at home. He shared a small apartment that only had two rooms for him, his girlfriend, and two other roommates. These livings circumstances made the author aware of the hidden costs that those with less income have to deal with. One of these issues is that a nicer apartment can mean paying a two-month deposit up front, which can be a lot of money for an employee making minimum wage. This means people are stuck renting by-the-week or month-to-month, which in the end might be more costly, as these sort of places usually don’t have kitchens. That means expensive meals on the go and little chance to prepare healthy meals at home. This also adds to the idea that poor health goes along with being poor and being able to acquire healthy food becomes one of the biggest issues that minimum-wage workers face. Additionally, one of the author’s coworkers had a boyfriend who was a roofer, which is a high-risk but low-paying job, and doesn’t come with insurance. This boyfriend had injured his hand and couldn’t afford the required antibiotics, and he missed so much work while he was recovering that he was fired. These situations are just a few of the many ways that life on minimum wage is a risky way to live.

Key Idea #6: Minimum wage work is both physically and emotionally exhausting and demands hard skills.

Laws do exist that protect workers, like weekly limits that employers can make you work. However, this limitation also means many workers need to find two jobs to make ends meet. For example, the author needed to add another job to her waitressing one after only one month when she realized one job wouldn’t cut it. So, she added in one of the hotel cleaning jobs. It paid $6.10 per hour and her job was to come in at 9:00 a.m. and work until she finished cleaning all of her assigned rooms. Since she had to be at the diner by at 2:00 p.m., she was always struggling to finish in time. On her first day with both jobs, she saw just how hard this juggle would be. After only getting through 19 of the rooms, she had to leave and rush to the diner, now to spend the next eight hours juggling multiple customers all night. When she arrived, she had four tables already all at the same time, and one of them was a group of ten British tourists, ordering two drinks each and customizing all of their orders. It was no surprise her already exhausted mind mixed up their orders and got things wrong. By the end of that long day, she decided she couldn’t do it anymore, so she took off her apron and quit the waitressing business. After some time, the author returned to her experiment, this time working in Maine. Here, she found she was returning to the exact same experiences that only reinforced what she learned about trying to live on minimum wage. First, it was obvious that these workers were not uneducated, and the jobs were not simple – in fact, she found them very demanding. And the emotional struggle of continually living on the brink of bankruptcy only increases to the high levels of stress and exhaustion. Even when food and a place to say are somewhat secure, it only takes one unexpected cost like a hospital bill to send someone’s life into stress and uncertainty.

Key Idea #7: More people are affected by poverty than we think, and the government should step in.

Thinking of those living in poverty, some of us think of homeless shelters of people living in their cars; however, it’s a much broader demographic than that. Many have heard that the United States has a “stable” poverty level, but this isn’t entirely the full story. That sort of thinking is based on an outdated model that looks at how much money a family needs only by multiplying their monthly food cost by three. This is not an accurate representation. Even if food prices remain stable, rent prices can change. Remember how the author could barely afford a small mobile home to rent in Key West? To really look at poverty accurately, we need to for food, rent, healthcare, childcare, and telephone service. Considering all of this, the US Economic Policy Institute actually saw that the minimum living wage for a family needs to be $30,000 per year, or $14 an hour. Looking at it this way, this would mean that 60 percent of Americans are living this way. This is the actual truth about poverty in the United States. It’s not just an issue for a small sect of the unemployed population – it affects a majority of the working population as well. This issue won’t go away until employers and the government take some action. Public programs like public housing and rental subsidies are always receiving budget cuts, despite the rise in the cost of living, making this matter even worse as time goes on. Additionally, employers aren’t increasing their wages or hourly rates enough to match the cost of living and a rise in rent. Actually, wages have barely increased since the 1970s. In 2001, the poorest 10 percent of workers earned less than workers did in 1973. It’s obvious with this that wages need to increase with the cost of living, or else more and more people will fall below the poverty line. This means that employers and government programs need to take notice and change this trend so the working class in America can afford to live a healthy life.

In Review: Nickel & Dimed Book Summary

A key takeaway from this book: Low wages make it incredibly difficult for the working class to live a civilized life. In order to afford the essentials of everyday life, the poorest employees working on minimum wage need a $2 increase in their hourly rate to match the cost of living. Only then will we see any change in this problem.